Society of Fear by Heinz Bunde

The phenomenology of fear illustrates the kind of society in which we live.

Heinz Bunde

Sociologists have long been interested in the relationship between the self and society. This topic aims at asking the question of how the self interacts with society, how it is shaped by larger societal forces. I just finished reading the book Society of Fear by Heinz Bunde, a sociologist at  Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung  that examines the question of the self and society in the current era. This book is a collection of essays that are loosely connected by the theme of fear, and anxiety. At the heart of all the essays are why and how different types of fears affect us individuals and collective well beings in our current era? These questions bring out the fundamental fascination about the self and society that has fascinated sociologists for more than a century. Furthermore, this book also highlights various philosophical questions from existentialism and phenomenology about freedom and constraints. After reading the book, I recognized that there is an underlying connection between the book I read last week: At the Existential Cafe, and this book. The authors in these two books are fascinated with the question: how do societal forces shape individual lives?

Following are a few passages that I really enjoy:

Anxiety in a shrinking world:

When population growth declines, the countryside becomes a suburb, and the conquest of the world reaches its limits, then interpersonal relations becomes tighter and more inescapable, and the self must try to adapt to others and come to terms with them in a “shrunken and agitated” world. Then individuals are no longer rewarded for their obsession with proving themselves, but instead for their ability to adopt the perspectives of others, respond resiliently and flexibly to changing situations, and find compromises through teamwork. The psychological gyroscope that maintains internal equilibrium is replaced by a social radar that registers the signals sent by others. The self becomes a self of others – and then faces the problem of forming an image of itself from the thousands of images reflected back at it.

Bunde argues that the self in our time is not referenced to any higher being. Now we have relational self: that is it is defined in relations to others.

On love, and partnership in modern society, Bunde raises a similar question to those that Sartre asked more than half a century ago:

It seems that the self cannot get by without attachment. But attachment is frightening because the freedom of the self becomes dependent on the freedom of the other. The formula of this paradoxical situation is freedom through entanglement.

Sartre was motivated to interrogate the extent and limits of individual freedom, given certain social constraint. Bunde uses the case of partnership to argue that freedom in love and freedom to choose one’s partner is paradoxical. One is not entirely free if one chooses to have a partner because then one’s freedom is dependent upon the other person’s freedom. One’s freedom to choose another is dependent upon the other person’s freedom to choose. Thus it is an entangled situation.

Bunde spells out his social theory here:

Anxiety [is] perhaps the only a priori principle in modern society about which all members of society are in agreement. It is the principle that applies absolutely when all other principles have been qualified.

We are all united in the sense that we are anxious. Modernity brings with it deep psychological fear that we do not know where it comes from. It is so pervasive, and it defines who we are in relations to others:

Through concepts of fear, the members of a society come to an understanding about the conditions of their co-existence: who moves forward and who is left behind; where things break and where chasms open up; what is inevitably lost and what might yet survive. It is through concepts of fear that society takes its own pulse.

As human beings, we are constantly looking for meanings of our social lives, and it is stressful:

Anxiety springs from the knowledge that everything is open but nothing is meaningless. Our entire lives seem to be on the line at every single moment. We can take detours, take breaks or shift our focus, but these actions must make sense and contribute to the fulfillment of our life’s purpose. The fear of simply drifting through life is hard to bear. The stress of anxiety is the stress of the search for meaning, and this cannot be alleviated by any state or society.

He then goes on examining different social types such as social climber, statesman.

On no account does the social climber want to appear narrow-minded, provincial, or stressed. But cosmopolitanism, ease, and self-confidence are not so easy to learn. This is the source of the deep-seated alarm we feel when we see how casually and tastefully someone can decorate a home, how affectionately and purposefully they can raise their children, and how they can be so mindful and disciplined toward themselves…While the old-style social climber fights against a crowd of others whom he believes want to see him brought low, the new social climber quarrels with himself because, for him, the journey is the destination.

In the age and time when social mobility is such a rare thing to find, social climbers, those who actually move up from his social position, are more anxious than ever because the process of moving up itself has now come to define who he is.

On politics and emotions:

Politics without passion, without emotional energy, without the dynamics of psyches encountering and repelling one another, and without fear and desire is no politics at all.

He reiterates the message: in our modern time, we would expect that our society to behave rationally, yet we see over and over again primordial instincts such as fear, and anger to be the main driver of our collective endeavors.

On women’s empowerment, and men’s masculinity:

The more secure the new woman was within herself… the greater her understanding for men and their fears. And men also had to realize that they would often construct a “false self” as part of their defense against emotions, fears, and desires for dependence.

Women seem to gain more power all over the world, while men are going through various kinds of masculinity crisis. It seems necessary now more than before that we need to learn how to reconcile the new image of men in relations to the new woman. Who could the new man be when we know for sure that the new woman is more empowered, more sure about herself, knows more about the world? This question circles back to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which she argues that a generic woman is defined as the other of the default typical human: a man.  Since Beauvoir’s writing, a generic woman has become more heterogenous. She comes in different size and shape. She is now able to exercise her agency a lot more. Yet the default image of a man has not changed so much. Why is it the case? If the two are relational – one cannot exist without the other – then why don’t an average man change? Isn’t it be natural to ask that the first sex should also evolve accordingly because at the end of the day we are social and relational beings?

This book gives much food for thought. It is typical of German academia when the author presents constructed theory, and exploration. Yet as an empiricist, I cannot help but ask how can one construct a case study of society of fear? How can this book turn into a research agenda? How can we examine the degree of anxiety in our age?

Soziopod: Sociology Podcast from Germany

In the past, I have reviewed two sociology podcasts from the United States and the United Kingdom, namely The Annex Sociology, and Thinking Allowed (Than 2017). Still an avid listener of both channels, I am constantly learning about new ideas and the development in my field on the two sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the previous blog post reveals that my consumption of sociological knowledge is very Anglo-American centric. That is, outside of what is available in the English language, I almost never tried to read sociological knowledge written in another language. While in Berlin, I discussed this issue with a good friend, Herrmann Königs, a sociologist in training at Humboldt University in Berlin. He suggested that I should listen to a sociology podcast in German. It’s called Soziopod. I took a listen, and was pleasantly surprised by its content, the quality of the debates, and the number of episodes available. This blog post summarizes my overall evaluation of the podcast.

Soziopod

One can find more information about the podcast here. According to Wikipedia, it is dedicated to sociological and philosophical topics, and started in 2011. The podcast is unfortunately in German, which means that it is non-accessible to many. Unlike the two podcasts mentioned above, which focus mainly on sociology and other related social sciences, this podcast brings philosophy to the center of all social debates. This element in itself is very refreshing.

The podcast is hosted by Dr. Nils Köbel and Patrick Breitenbach. Dr. Köbel is a trained sociologist of children, youth, and religion, and Patrick Breitenbach is an expert in digital media. They make a good pair of hosts because both of them are invested in various topics. Since one of them is a media expert, he could translate abstract concepts into layman’s language. Many a times, the podcast avoids sociological jargon, which only insiders could understand.  The purpose of the podcast is to make sociological knowledge accessible to everyone. Dr. Köbel stated that they try present the topics in a manner of general understanding to “bring Sociology to the streets, where it belongs.”

A typical episode lasts around one hour. It is structured around a topic such as social inequality, migration, power, right-wing extremism, religion, or the Frankfurt School of social theory. That means, it’s a wealth of knowledge for anybody who is interested in social debates in Germany. Every once in a while, they also air a special episode where the hosts discuss an issue with a body of audience, and interact with them. Sometimes they invite experts to comment on certain topics. That means listeners could directly raise a question to the hosts/moderators, and sometimes debate with the two hosts as well. Since its inception in 2011, the program has produced more than 70 episodes, a few public forums for an audience to interact with the hosts, and they have published one book. This is quite impressive!

After the topic is being introduced, the hosts would define an important concept or concepts. Then they introduce the different social theorists who have written about the topic, and elaborate more on how these theorists are in conversation with one another. More importantly the discussions are situated in the context of contemporary Germany, which makes abstract scholarly debates relatable to daily life experience.

The discussions have a lot of pedagogical values. During the course of one hour, one can learn many important social theory concepts, and could look for appropriate examples to make sense a particular concept.  Each episode contains lots of knowledge about social theory.  The hosts often highlight theoretical concepts which have been invented by German theorists such as Jürgen Harbamas,  Thomas Luhmann,  or Theodor Adorno. I found these discussions fascinating because I have never really read these authors closely, nor used any of their works before. What is even more intriguing is that the hosts would relate sociological concepts to philosophical concepts. In other words, they acknowledge the foundation of sociology: philosophy. When unearthing the genealogy of a particular term, one could trace it back to some philosopher who wrote about similar topics. This is a contrast to my current sociological training in the United States, which as a field has developed into something that has been moved quite far from philosophy, or social theory.

Even though the podcast is a great pedagogical channel, as an American trained student of sociology, I cannot help but point out some of its shortcomings. First, its main topics would be categorized under the umbrellas of social theory or political sociology in American sociology terms. According to the recent sections that are listed on the American Sociological Association’s website, social theory and political sociology are two among its 52 official sections. In other words, the podcast covers a very small fraction of all possible sociological topics that one can study.

Given the nature of its leaning toward social theory, and philosophy,  most discussions stay on the abstract level. The discussions are centered around a topic, relevant sociological concepts, and different possible directions that could be taken to deal with the topic. What is barely discussed is empirical evidence to test whether the theory actually works on the grounds. The general structure of one episode is organized as follows:

  1. Definition of a concept
  2. How to operationalize the concept?
  3. Can one use the concept in a particular context in relation to the given topic?
  4. Who else has talked about the concept and this phenomenon since ancient philosophy?
  5. What else can we learn about the phenomenon?
  6. Is there any unresolved contradiction?

The hosts barely cite new research conducted in contemporary Germany. They often talk about big thinkers, who came up with concepts that could be applied universally. There are almost no discussions about methodology and data, which in my opinion are the strength of sociology. We are a pluralistic bunch of scientists who employ a variety of methods, theories, and data to study the social world. The podcast’s main focuses are concepts, and argumentation. As a student of immigration, work, and the urban, I find the podcast lacking because those fields are by definition not the main focus of the podcast. Because of its emphasis on theory, the podcast is also not paying enough attention to the lived experience of a particular group, which quintessentially showcases how a person inhabits their living environment, and reveals their social world.

When I brought up my observation about the lack of empirical research discussions in the podcast, my friend, Herrmann Königs, commented that this illustrates what is valued and emphasized in sociological research and pedagogy in Germany. In his words: “German sociology emphasizes intellectual history of a concept, and whether the concept could be applied universally.” We then went on to debate the question: Is it necessary to learn about the historical context, through which the concept arose in order to understand a contemporary social phenomenon? We couldn’t come up with a consensus whether it is productive to learn about intellectual history of a concept, or whether it is more productive to learn how to apply it in a contemporary situation. However, our discussion highlights the differences in our training on the two sides of the Atlantic. American sociological training tends to emphasize the empirical; the German, the theoretical.

Due to their training, my German counterparts impress me with their expertise in close reading of original texts, and the logic of their argumentation. However, I find their main interests on formal institutions such as the church, the school, and the state to be limiting. Sociologists can also study sub-cultures such as that of the urban squatters, Punk Rock culture, the Fusion (the equivalent of the Burning Man), the proliferation of Yoga, and the immigrants. All of those marginal groups might one day become mainstream, and by studying these subgroups, sociologists could reveal social transformations.

One could criticize that I am too American-centric, and that I cannot impose an agenda set by my profession on one side of the Atlantic to the other. I agree that I am an American trained sociologist, but I also think that as a profession, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have much to learn from each other. German sociology provides rigorous theoretical training that I wish American graduate programs could provide. I would like to see students from day one to engage more with theoretical texts, and learn how to do it properly rather than seeing people like myself scared of social theory, and opt to do empirical research from day one. Thus, many a times sociology papers read a-theoretical to me. However, American pragmatism is much to be praised. With this pragmatic orientation in mind, we are looking for mechanism of why something is the case, and using our sociological imagination to reveal it. The two papers that I have read lately that showcase how a mechanism-focused researcher could be done are “When two bodies are (not) a problem” by Lauren Rivera (2017), and “All that is Solid” by David Peterson (2015). They exemplify some of the best contemporary sociological research that American academia has to offer.

Another aspect that I find not satisfactory is that the main (if not only) geographical focus of the podcast is Germany. It doesn’t give any air time other German speaking countries such as Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein. If the social concepts are so universally applicable, why are they not applied in other cultural, sociopolitical contexts? According to Jaeeum Kim(2017), the field of sociology is openly anti-area studies. In other words, American sociologists tend to study American society; Germans study German one. Despite all odds, many sociologists travel across nation-state boundaries to study a particular social phenomenon. A few great books that I have read in the past two years include Jaeeun Kim (2016)’s Contested Embrace, where the author examined immigration from the Korean Peninsula, and their diasporic politics in the 20th century. Another example is Kimberly Hoang (2015)’s Dealing in Desire, which is an excellent ethnography that looks at the co-production of gender and capital in the sex market place in the context of globalizing Vietnam. Two growing subfields of sociological research are China Studies and Asian Studies. The 21st century has been dubbed as the Asian Century. It would be a mistake to not pay any attention to this important geographical area. In other words, only paying attention to social phenomena that occur within the geographical boundary of the German nation is a disadvantage for German sociologists in the context of increasing interdependence and interconnections of different areas of the world.

In conclusion, Sociopod has provided me with a substantial vocabulary to talk with my sociology colleagues on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re comfortable with social theory, political sociology, or pedagogy, you should give it a try. It is packed with bite-size discussions of theoretical knowledge. Its ability to reach a popular audience is aspiring. Bringing sociology to the street is such an inspiring goal, and it ought to be supported. In the context of the increasing emphasis of public sociology, I wish that all academics could use some of the hosts’ techniques to mainstream sociological knowledge to the wider audience. Sociology indeed belongs to the street, and that the knowledge of the profession should not be contained within the walls of the academe.