glaeser book forum 2: understanding the sociology of understanding
This Fall’s book forum is about Andreas Glaeser’s Political Epistemics, a historical ethnography of East German socialism. This week’s installment will focus on the theoretical purpose of the book, which is to articulate and defend “the sociology of understanding.”
What is this “sociology of understanding?” Well, it draws on a number of ideas that should be familiar to cultural sociologists. First, it’s fairly Schutz/Berger and Luckmann in nature. There is a “lifeworld” built upon a common stock of knowledge. “We all know that this is true.” Second, it’s also interactional. In Glaeser’s model, people develop their understanding of the world through affirmation/negation from other people or institutions.
So far, I think the picture is well rooted in cultural sociology. What Glaeser adds is an argument about the institutionalization of the self. Rather than assume that people have fairly independent interests and beliefs about the world, he argues that selves are built from of affirmation and negation from the social environment. Now, Glaeser isn’t making a Foucault style argument about how we lose ourselves in a network of signifiers. Quite the contrary, he’s arguing about the rootedness of one’s understanding of the world. Historical events affirm one’s understanding of the world, while others disrupt that notion of self.
How does this sociology of understanding (SoU) help us to do political sociology, such as analyzing the dissolution of communism? Well, if you believe SoU, the locus of attention should be on understanding how people construct their world in both abstract terms and in daily life. Abstract theories, like Marxism-Leninism, provide a basic vocabulary for people to assess their world and produce collective action. At the same time SoU theory suggests that these understandings can only sustain a type of self when reinforced by exogenous events and institutional life. A lot of daily political life is a response to the juxtaposition of these worldviews and observation, with actors often scrambling to make sense of events that would be unsurprising to others.
The SoU theory has interesting implications. For example, SoU theory implies that Western arguments about freedom would me moot points. The ideals of individual liberty only resonates in nations with specific institutional arrangements. Instead, people in socialist nations would criticize the system from within. And there is much truth to this observation. Dissidents and reforms rarely waved their copy of Road to Serfdom in the air. Rather, they often relied on arguments articulated by dissident socialist intellectuals. Thus, the collapse of communism, in this view, is less about external pressures and more about the management or mismanagement of contradictions.
The result of SoU theory is that one should understand how historical events, ideologies, organizational behavior, and personal biography intertwine to create the political system. Social changes happens when these factors shift, not so much when outsiders, like Reagan or Kennedy, stand by a wall and proclaim freedom. Next week, we’ll see the sociology of understanding in action, when I discuss the world of the Stasi and Berlin peace activists.