The Social Condition: The Third Intellectual Project

Construction Sign | Wikimedia Commons

Sociologists face three distinct intellectual projects in their work. They are well aware of two of them, but the third remains in the shadows. The two standard projects are the study of the social construction, and the study of social effects. The third, the study of the predictable existential dilemmas we face, is the one Jeff Goldfarb and I are working to develop in our work, what we call “the social condition.”

As every undergraduate student learns after her first introduction to sociology, our world is socially constructed. People constantly give meaning, together, to a world that may not have an intrinsic meaning to it. In its deepest form, the one that Berger and Luckmann saw so well over 45 years ago, social construction is an existential drama. It is not only that, as undergraduates quickly learn to recite, identities are constructed by a social world (gender and race being the favorite examples). This is, of course, true and important. It is, rather, that our entire existence, as so far as it is meaningful, must be socially constructed and re-constructed. Like a shoddy plane over the void of meaninglessness, we construct a meaningful world—a world in which human existence, institutions and identities make sense. We may not do it actively the whole time, as, after all, we are born already into a social world that precedes us, and so into a world of meaning. And yet, meaning is always in danger of collapse. In liminal situations—when planes hit the twin towers, when children are slaughtered in their school, or simply when a loved one dies—we suddenly see how rickety our world is.

The second sociological project is that of “social effects,” the intellectual project that has come to define most sociological work. Here, sociologists note that we encounter social categories and processes as a reality that is beyond us. And this world that we encounter is far from equal. Sociologists thus study how social categories predictably affect the way different people encounter their worlds, and their chances to thrive within them. . . .

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