Social Theory: Its Uses and Pleasures
Social theory is a basic survival skill. This may surprise those who believe it to be a special activity of experts of a certain kind. True, there are professional social theorists, usually academics. But this fact does not exclude my belief that social theory is something done necessarily, and often well, by people with no particular professional credential. When it is done well, by whomever, it can be a source of uncommon pleasure.
When one of my sons was in elementary school, he came home one day with questions that led to some good social theory. After he spent his first two school years in an informal, somewhat countercultural school, we moved. He was then enrolled in a more traditional public school. Thus began a more lively and sociologically interesting line of dinner table talk. He observed, for example, that when his class marched from its classroom to the lunchroom, the boys were told to form one line, the girls another. The march itself was under a code of silence. Having grown accustomed to schools with few rules of any sort, my son found this strange. At dinner, he reported this exotic practice with the ironic question, "What was this for? Do they think we are going to attack the girls?"
Later, sometime in junior high school, he began to figure this out. After several years of close observation, he determined that schools impose arbitrary social rules, like walking silently in sex-segregated lines, because they are institutions concerned as much with civil discipline and authority as with learning. He used his own words, but he had developed a social theory congruent to his earlier questions. This he enjoyed because he felt the power of being able to say something persuasive about the world of people with whom he lived.
Most people--whatever their social class, age, gender, race, or sexual orientation--develop a good enough repertoire of social theories of this sort. Usually, one suspects, these theories come into some focus in childhood and early adolescence, often in reply to innocent questions about daily social practices. When such theories are stated, very often in ordinary language, innocence is already lost. The world as it is comes into being.
In There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz tells the story of two boys trying to survive in one of Chicago's most dangerous public housing projects. Lafeyette, then age ten, said: "If I grow up, I want to be a bus driver." The "if" suggests one of the reasons Kotlowitz took the book's title from an observation by Lafeyette's mother: "But you know, there are no children here. They've seen too much to be children." This, too, is a social theory. The boy and his mother both put into plain words the