My Sociological Imagination

Mark A. Foster, Ph.D.

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Preface [from 2/2/1999)

The science of sociology focuses on the study of human society, culture, groups, and, most of all (in my view), social structure. Like political science, economics, cultural anthropology, and some specializations within history, cultural geography, and linguistics, sociology is a social science. Most sociologists utilize the deductive-inductive, or scientific, method in their researches.

An emerging field of clinical sociology, also known as sociological practice, is an application of sociological theory and research design outside of the academy. Clinical sociologists sometimes maintain their own consulting businesses.

The Structural Dialectics Paradigm™: A Summary of My Theoretical Framework

With regard to my own theoretical orientation (perspective for explaining sociological data), I am ecclectic and have been most influenced by Emile Durkheim's and Peter Blau's approaches to structuralism, Karl Marx's scientific socialism (essentially, his term for sociology), Pitirim A. Sorokin's integralism, Georg Hegel's dialecticism, Erving Goffman's frame analysis (post-dramaturgy), Charles Horton Cooley's social psychology, and Arthur Koestler's and Ken Wilber's approaches to holonism.

However, I also make use of Harold Garfinkel's ethnomethodology, George Herbert Mead's social behaviorism, and many others. Primarily, I am a macrosociologist. That is to say, overall, I am more interested in large-scale, than in small-group, research and theory. This section of the page will summarize my basic theoretical perspective.

I term this metaphysical, transmodernist (meaning that it contains elements of modernism and postmodernism; that it accepts modernism while moving beyond it) framework to the philosophy of science, the structural dialectics paradigm. Dialectics refers to unity in diversity, which is my primary focus of analysis in examining social structure. Lacking unity, individual diversity is anarchy.

American society, in which a sociological imagination is conspicuously absent, scapegoats individuals for social problems; promotes a cult of the personality; glorifies fame and so-called celebrity; misapplies the star label to well-known, high-profile (unfortunately) performers, journalists, sports figures, and other media personalities; transforms supposedly counter-individualist behavior, such as low self-esteem and codependency, into diseases; hosts a huge cosmetics, and cosmetic surgery, industry; and advocates psychotherapy as the panacea for all that ails us.

All the above is, in my view, ultimately superstition and magic. When people attribute truth and meaning to people and things which just a little bit of critical thought would expose as highly problematic, they are really engaging in magical thinking.

My own view is that, in order to understand the individual, one must begin with the synergetic concept of social structure (on both the macro and micro levels). In a psychologistic society, such as exists in the United States, conceptualizing social structure as a force which dominates, and acts over and above, any individual influences, is virtually alien.

All societies and groups consist of both structure and people. Except in fictitious or propositional works, one without the other is inconceivable. A car, for instance, is built with both a blueprint and auto parts. Lacking the blueprint (the structure), the parts have no meaning.

Social structures, or frameworks, include the various social institutions (religion, the economy, education, the arts, etc.), in addition to gender, race, social class, sporting arenas, particular classrooms, and so on.

Manichean-like dualist conceptions of good and evil or of right and wrong - moralizing, in other words - have dominanted much of modern Western thinking. I propose a more structurally relativist model. Viewing social action in relation to frameworks of values and norms will allow degrees of approximation to a given structure and avoid the fallacy of bifurcation.

Furthermore, situations which might otherwise be perceived as mentally or emotionally problematic might instead be viewed as instructive. Indeed, our collective angst is, I believe, a product of excessive psychologism.

As social beings, learning takes place as we come into dialectical tension with our structural surroundings. But to become engaged in this type of trans-individual perception, one needs to develop a sociological imagination and avoid conceptualizing one's experiences in purely personal categories.

Knowledge, and what a culture defines as truth, are grounded in the contingencies of dynamic structures. And truth itself, or at least what may be referred to as such, emerges out of the particularities of social interaction. The Platonic worlds of forms and of outward appearances are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable.

To return to our main subject, there are both micro- and macro-structures. Each acts as a social force to delimit the range of socially acceptable statuses and behaviors (i.e., averages). Individual exceptions, such as those which may be attributable to neurological pathology, are not significant for sociological purposes.

These structures are both enabling and constraining. Society and the people who, along with social structures, constitute it, adapt, over long periods of time or during periods of significant large-scale crisis, through creative, dialectical interaction with these structures.

Structures cannot be legitimately viewed outside of history. The structure of race is the product of colonialism and slavery - both of which continue to the present day. Structures typically change only in response to the flow of history and its critical, often violent, events.

Slavery can be seen in the enslavement of African Americans to poverty, unemployment, and ghettoization. African Americans make up only 12% of the population. However, approximately 50% of the nation's prison inmates are people of color. And 24% of young African American males are under some form of correctional supervision.

Colonialism is most visible in the reservation system which, although of some benefit to First Nations peoples, is largely controlled by a European American power base in Washington.

The terms "structural" and "structuralism" are used with a variety of meanings in sociology. This fact is particularly confusing to those who come from some other disciplines, such as cultural anthropology, philosophy, and (especially) linguistics, for whom structuralism almost exclusively refers to the now largely unsubstantiated ahistorical, synchronic views of Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers (such as Claude Levi-Strauss). To Saussure, meaning was found through word juxtaposition. For instance, I know that red is red because it is not blue.

As I see it, there are two dimensions of social structure. The first might be referred to as intersubjective structure. The second could be called objective structure. I am not, however using "intersubjective" in a psychologistic sense. I am referring to a shared mentality, a collective consciousness, or a psychosocial cognitive matrix. Each objective structure represents a particular type of social organization. Unlike intersubjective structures, objective structures are material and concrete.

For instance, I witness socioeconomic and demographic variation between social strata (objective structures), and, from it, I infer the existence of stratifying intersubjective structures. However, I am unable to directly observe (with my senses) those frameworks of inequality.

Yet, through attitudinal surveys and intensive interviews the researcher can probe into these underlying, psychosocial frameworks. So, when a set of commonalities in status/role perspectives are found in a population regarding a particular social fact, we term it an intersubjective structure.

Both levels of structure feed into one another through the dialectical process of reflection. We reflect what actually exists (objective structures) in the context of our a priori mental frameworks (intersubjective structures). The social fact of life in a world of objective racial inequality is internalized - reinforcing the (collective) intersubjective structures which are formed during childhood. In turn, the collectively shared intersubjective structures are projected onto experience and perpetuate objective structures of inequality (race, gender, class, age, etc.).

Non-material culture (ideologies, values, knowledge, and language) and material culture (artifacts) are both products of intersubjective and objective structure. In other words, what we both believe and possess are derived from our statuses. As a result, both aspects of culture are, according to the existing system of social stratification or differentiation, structured on the basis of power and resource allocation.

I will begin with a discussion of intersubjective structures. Following that, I will continue with a description of objective structures.

Any intersubjective structure, such as race, class, or gender, consists of a particular pattern of statuses (positions) and roles (arrangements of norms, or sets of behavioral guidelines, which instruct people on how to relate to other statuses). These intersubjective structures are perpetuated intergenerationally through socialization, and they are reinforced by living in a world in which they are seen objectively or materially in forms of (frequently stratified) social organization or objective structure.

Intersubjective structures are, as I conceive of them, frameworks of collective consciousness, i.e., matrices of knowledge internalized by populations and groups of statuses (positions) and roles (the behaviors expected from people occupying particular statuses when interacting with others possessing the same or different social statuses) and how they are organized (linked in affinity) in various social contexts.

Unlike Erving Goffman (who adopted Gregory Bateson's term), I do not regard frames as distinct from social structures. Roles (sets of norms), statuses, values, and language, as I see them, have their primary existence on the cognitive and affective levels and not on the physical plane of action and attribution.

The types of intersubjective structures (frames) prevalent in particular societies are expressions of the dominant structural mentality or collective consciousness (conscience). I refer to these mentalities/modes of consciousness as conflictive (sensory, diverse, attributional, or existing in the world of outward appearances) and integrative (synthesizing, unifying, reflective, hermeneutic, or existing in the world of ideal forms). Together, these mentalities are stages in the dialectical (rational) process of accomplishing synthesis out of observable conflict.

The conflictive mentality is diversity without unity. However, in the integrative mentality, social reality (diversity) is framed in a dialectical metaphysic of unity in diversity (focusing on the unifying factors in human populations). Communication patterns are restructured from a polarizing frame of contentiousness (making absolute assumptions of right and wrong) to one based on cooperative problem-solving.

The dominant structural mentality is typically demonstrated by those in positions of power. Structures often frame the world into permutations of oppressor and oppressed statuses. In addition, it is frequently to the advantage of power elites to promote chaos and conflict among the disenfranchised in order to maintain their social control. (I am not referring to any particular individuals but only to the structures in which they play roles.)

As to free will: Although, admittedly, humans have a degree of it, its extent is nowhere near to the level which many Americans believe to be the case. Our destinies are, in my view, essentially conditioned by the structures internalized within us. Thus, free will is relative - relative to social structure - not absolute. It operates within certain parameters.

The abolition of control, by government and by the capitalists, as advocated by Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists, is somewhat beside the point. Rather than eliminating coercive power (a dubious objective at best), the goal must be the establishment of a more humane system of normative coercion based on a consultative dialectic of unity in diversity.

Collective consciousness and its constituent structures are products of history. They change with the procession of history and as humans, acting within the context of their structures, respond to significant challenges and crises.

Now, continuing with objective structure, we here move from the intersubjective aspect of structure to concrete patterns of resource allocation and culture. Objective social structure consists of variations in wealth, property, and other resources. It is also geographic or spatial (human ecological, in other words). In addition, it includes the concrete acts people engage in (derived from their statuses and roles) and the manners in which people label the objects in their environment (also framed by their statuses and roles). Objective structure is mutually dependent with the intersubjective structures of prestige and power.

Objective structure consists of observable social differentiation and stratification, on the one hand, and cultural artifacts (the distribution of those artifacts, observable behavior, and the labels attached to people and things in our environment), on the other. As such, it is amenable to empirical investigation, while intersubjective structure itself, in my view, is not. The latter can only be studied by reference to its objective correspondant. Intersubjective structure and objective structure are interdependent and exist in dialectical tension with one another.

Thus, cultures (total ways of life) and subcultures may be regarded as the ephemeral correlates of collective consciousness and the idealized, or formal, social structures which those mentalities incorporate. They are, to take anthropologist Arthur Koestler's term (recently borrowed by Ken Wilber), holons - holons within holons. In a holarchy (again, Koestler's term), each holon, or structure of complexity, appears as a self-sufficient whole, until it is viewed in the context of the next highest holon.

Structure is a creation of history. We are the witnesses, in a succession of moments, to the culmination of all the influences preceding it. How can we encourage the establishment of social movements which will respond progressively to history's onward flow?

It appears to me that, at the present historical moment, the collective consciousness or structural mentality needs to be transformed from one so heavily dominated by social conflict to one which resolves relative contradictions within the context of unity in diversity, i.e., through a progressive internalization of the unific principle.

Ultimately, social structural change is realized in a dialectic between communities, with their existing structures, and history. It is the result of how society, in the context of existing structures, collectively responds to the challenges of history. It is not the property of individuals and their biographies.

Research and Pedagogy

My approach, I suppose, is toward sort of a macrobiotic approach to religious scholarship! Seriously, I try my best to walk a line between a yin-like universalism and yang-like particularism.

As to my instructional background, since 1980, when I first began teaching at Mississippi State University, I have taught a total of sixteen separate courses, including the introductory sociology, marriage and family, social problems, American society, sociology of religion, social theory, methods, sociology of the family, social gerontology, criminology and criminal justice, the sociology of the community, social psychology, cultural anthropology, general anthropology, and human evolution and prehistory (physical anthropology).

I am on the faculty of Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City), where I currently teach two courses: Introduction to Sociology and Social Problems. I am now offering classes both in the classroom and, in what was originally a pilot project, via distance learning (through computer-mediated communications). I have also taught an honors section of Marriage and Family.

The text which I selected for the Social Problems course (Andersen and Collins, Race, Class, and Gender) is actually a reader, and most of the articles are written from a neo-Marxist perspective. In other words, they deal predominantly with issues of oppression based on race, class, and gender.

I partially chose the text for Introduction to Sociology (Kendall, Sociology in Our Times) because of the large web site which is specifically devoted to that book.

Professional Background

I am former chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia and the former acting chair of the Sociology Department at Caldwell College.

In 1995, I served as president of the Kansas Sociological Society. I planned and conducted that year's annual meeting at Johnson County Community College.

My primary specialization is the sociology of religion. However, I also have areas in social theory, historical sociology, clinical sociology (or sociological practice), and the sociology of the family.

Contact Information

My office, at Johnson County Community College, is OCB 261-R (located in the OCB 261 complex). My office hours for the current semester are posted next to my door and are also in my syllabi.

Please feel free to contact me via email (see below) or over the phone (913-469-8500, extension 3376). Voice mail picks up when I am unavailable.

Copyright © 1996-1998 by Mark A. Foster.
All rights reserved.

Degrees and Areas of Study

Ph.D., Mississippi State University, 1984

Major: Sociology (Religion, Theory, and Family)

Minor: History (Historiography, Historical Method, Science and Technology, and Nineteenth-Century Europe)

Dissertation: American Pentecostal Convergence and Divergence: A Hermeneutic and Survey Analysis

M.A., C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, 1981

Major: Sociology (Religion, Social Disorganization, Human Ecology, and Political Sociology)

Thesis: Increasing Complexity as a Process in Social Evolution: A Case Study of the Bahá'í Faith

A.B.J., University of Georgia, 1978

Major: Magazine Journalism

Minors: Sociology and English

A.A., Nassau Community College of New York, 1976

Concentration: English

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