Social Things and Middle-class Morality

October 14, 2002

Charles Pailthorp

(These are rough notes I had in front of me when I lectured.)

I.         Practical sociology:  explains "...the precise rules and procedures involved in performing even the most elementary social acts."

Write out the do's, don'ts and maybe's for one or more of the following situations:

A.      One Sunday you notice a young descendent of Samuel Terry outside your church.  (The window is open during the sermon.)  He is "chafing his yard to provoke lust."

B.      You accidentally walk in on your married sister and her husband, discovering they sleep in the same bed with their six year old son.  He is there in bed with them.  They are having sex.

C.      You accidentally walk in on your unmarried sister and her boyfriend.  They are in bed together (alone) and having sex.

D.     Your neighbor watches your comings and goings closely.  One evening, while you are at home with an intimate friend, she walks into your kitchen uninvited, unannounced, and accuses you of "fornication."

E.      You're by yourself in a supermarket, in the checkout line, and you realize you've forgotten something on your shopping list.

F.        You have an appointment for a job interview, and you've missed your ride and cannot be there on time.

G.      Your roommate can't find ten dollars she says she left on her dresser and accuses you of taking it.

What is Lemert up to in Social Things?

  1. "...we all live amid social things, which are, in turn, weirdly inside us as we bump about." [xi]
  2. "Individuals are who they are…[in part] because of what the wider social world gives or takes away." [xi-xii]
  3. "...sociological competence…is what explains the remarkable fact that people are able, with very little instruction, to figure out how to practice thier lives with others." [xiii]

Just as we acquire the competence to speak our native language, we acquire the competence to engage one another in social interactions that "make sense."  Perhaps this analogy can be extended.  We distinguish between sense and nonsense in what we hear and say; similarly, we encounter "sense" and "nonsense" in our social lives.  [Example of social "nonsense" while in another culture; not the same as social "deviance"]  We speak to one another with variations in tone, originality, eloquence…; similarly, our social interactions can have a tone, be original or clichéd, be more or less eloquent or awkward etc.

Our social competence is not discursive knowledge; rather it is knowing how to do certain things.  It is "social" in at least two ways: (1) the actions that express it occur between people, individually or in groups; (2) it is a competence to do things rightly or wrongly, and these norms have currency only within a group or a community.  Our social being is a function of who we interact with, according to which set of norms.

We are born to a particular language competence.  We cannot choose our own first language.  Similarly, we are born to a particular social competence.  We cannot choose our first social identity.  We are born to a particular culture of social things; and this culture is as much within us as it is around us.  Our native language is not learned by being taught the rules, with which we agree and learn to comply; it becomes our language, one in which we express ourselves spontaneously in compliance with rules we needed think about (and which we often cannot articulate).  Our native social competence is similarly experienced, most often, as spontaneous action, in compliance with rules we need not, maybe even cannot, thing about (without special training).

Our first sense of language is that we speak the language that all people speak.  We learn over time that our language isn't like everyone else's.  Small differences are easy to notice.  Big differences – such as that between English and Japanese for instance – are difficult to notice.  In fact it may require a good deal of special training to discover what they are.  Those features of our social world that are present everywhere are particularly difficult to notice.  " is usually difficult to understand the larger social forces that affect us.  The more powerful social things are, the less equipped we are to comprehend them without some extra work." [12]

Calling on C. Wright Mills, Lemert says that the sociological imagination does the work of "creating an imaginative reconstruction of the larger structural [social] forces that surround us." [12] And "Most of us…have need of a more vividly active sociological imagination…"   What for?  Roughly, this will enable us to see more clearly what kind of social beings we have become, perhaps give us some choice about what kind we will be in the future, and help relieve us of the burdens of misleading, disempowering myths.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is Lemert's example of these possibilities.

III.  "False Consciousness"

This is a "theoretical construct" offered in the context of attempting to explain something that is puzzling.  What is puzzling, and why is it?

A woman in an abusive relationship refuses to leave or returns repeatedly, despite the abuse she suffers.  She blames herself for her suffering.

Workers suffer grave economic injustices (long, arduous days at low wages, dangerous work, little security) and do not rebel against their circumstances.  They think of themselves as powerless, as deserving no better that they are getting.

[This construct can be used to explain other things as well.  A middle class person believes that everyone is middle class or that there are no class differences in American society.  A president of the US "thinks he hit a triple, when he was born on third base."]

What's puzzling about these examples?  People remain passive even though they have good reason to seek actively ways of improving their situation – a failure of self-interest.  There is a presumption that, all things being equal, people will act in their own self-interest.  Is that always true?  Is it true that acting in one's self-interest is "hard wired" into human nature?  By the mid-17th c., English political thought is dominated by this presumption.

The puzzle isn't that a woman remains in an abusive relationship or that workers don't rebel; rather, the puzzle is that the woman blames herself, and the workers believe they deserve no better.

Two facets of false consciousness, at least: (1) the belief that as a free, autonomous, agent, your situation in life is a direct indication of your personal worth; (2) the belief that you are powerless to change significantly "who you are."  Overall, people get what they deserve.  The flip side of those who see their failures as their just reward are those who see their successes in the same light.  Power and privilege become "self-justifying."  Social hierarchy only reflects the consequence that while all are born to equal opportunity, some are better than others at taking advantage of opportunity in a free and open competitive social environment.  Bush thinks he hit a triple…

"False consciousness is a powerful idea that helps account for the astonishing fact that many people who suffer deprivation and abuse are taught, or otherwise seduced, to think falsely about their situation, even to conclude that their troubles result from their own failures to be a better worker or, even, a better person." [22]

IV.  "True Consciousness"

Lemert considers how Gilman and others awaken from false consciousness.  First, there is "...taking stock of the practical realities of the practical realities of the local situation in which they live." [22]  Secondly, one exercises "...the ability to understand the power of larger social things…"  Some are able to move from the practical realities of everyday life to the (imaginative) construction of how larger social things (forces) affect and shape those realities and how we experience them.

Lemert calls this development "practical sociology," and says, "Practical sociology is useful because it is "the basis for a person's confidence in her place, rights and possibilities in the world." [25]

V.  "Socialization" and the shift from a morality taught by Paternal Authority to a morality taught through Maternal Nurturing

The social world Lemert talks about – a world in which the actors or agents see themselves as free, in the last analysis, to choose their lot in life ["Helping children invent their lives"] – is a particular historical development.

Imagine a social world understood by those who live it as essentially hierarchical: one's place is determined at birth, and a change of place simply doesn't exist within the "grammar" of the "social language" spoken by those born to that world.  One could not tell a Horatio Alger story in such a world. (The following table is only a sketch. I hope to refine it later. I'm thinking about the specific transition Ryan discusses in chapters 4 and 5 of Cradle of the Middle Class. Socialization, as Stephanie points out, has changed in recent decades.)


Paternal Authority

Maternal Nurturing



non-negotiable obligations

negotiable, contractual social relations

bound agency

free agency





private and public life integrated

private and public life distinct



deviance a matter of behavior

deviance a consequence of inner fault

corporal punishment

rehabilitation and reform

order proceeds from top to bottom: social ills a consequence of a failure of authority

order develops from bottom up: social ills a consequence of flawed individuals


VI. Restoring social order

The historical shift from social order as obedience to hierarchical authority to social order as inner conformity to social contracts is represented in a dramatic and rapid shift in prison reform.  As we saw in Intimate Matters, sexual deviance during the colonial period drew public punishment (even execution)that if survived was followed by reinstatement to one's social place.  There is no question of "reform."  The "tectonic shift" in moral outlook carried with it a movement for prison reform.  [Foucault, Discipline and Punish; Pierson, Toqueville in America, p. 96]

VII. Socialization, Bourgeois Democracy, and False Consciousness

The child growing up in the context of a colonial, household economy would not be "socialized" as we understand and have experienced this process (no wonder they got it on with livestock and masturbated in pubic).  To be well-raised was to live in conformity with the obligations and responsibilities to which one was born: these differed with the social station one occupied – son or daughter, eldest or younger, wife or husband, freeman or slave, master or servant, landholder or renter...

The Enlightenment ideology that all are born equal, with equal rights and opportunities certainly was not accompanied by a revolution in the hierarchical nature of social organization: hierarchies based on commerce and capital were replacing those based on land, but hierarchy remained.  Now social inequality needed a new rationalization: the rationalization that Marx identified as "false consciousness."

As Stephanie has pointed out, this ideology carried extreme ideological consequences, extremely ugly ones that persist today: that some are not "born equal" because they are not fully human.  Slavery, when carried out within the context of bourgeois democratic ideals, gives rise to racism.  Slavery has no necessary connection to racism.  "Racism" has no meaning in the context of a colonial, hierarchical social and moral order. 

The "empowering" corrective, awakening, that Lemert advocates in that we learn to imagine, beginning with the immediate social realities in which we thrive or suffer, the larger social forces we find around us and "under our skins."

VIII.  Are we not, then, truly Free?

Once we acknowledge our own socialization and multitude ways in which our social and economic context shapes our individual lives, how must we reassess our own responsibility for the lives we come to lead?  Can we be both "individually free" and "collectively bound"?  Is our seeming freedom to "invent our own lives" in illusion?  Are we "empowered" or "enweakened" by the lessons Lemert would have us learn?  This isn't a useful question.  Can you improve it?  In seminar, you might work closely with chapter three, "Practicing the Discipline of Social Things."