Debating "the Social": Towards a Critique of Sociological Nostalgia
Although sociology can be commonsensically and parsimoniously defined as the study of society, the problems of defining such terms as ‘society’, ‘the social’, and ‘the social system’ remain an ongoing irritant of sociological theory. In addition to these traditional conceptual problems, there is currently a strong sense that ‘society’ as an empirical reality and ‘society’ as a concept are in crisis. Given the contemporary view of ‘the end of the social’ there is also manifestly a potent and nostalgic interest in the past as a time of comforting solidarity and meaningfulness. To clarify this debate, we start by making a distinction between three approaches to society, namely structure, solidarity and creation. Nostalgia hinges around the certainties that followed from reliable social structures, and from the comfort of community. We illustrate these forms of nostalgia through an examination of the social philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre. Recognizing that his criticisms of the loss of virtue represent a powerful indictment of modernity, we argue that past societies were also fractured by moral discord. More importantly, MacIntyre rules out the possibility of moral re-invention by excluding the rise of human rights as a moral framework. In conclusion, the forms of social creativity may not enjoy the ‘sticky’ solidarity of the past, but they do testify Georg Simmel’s idea of the social ( Vergesellschaftung ).
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