Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Sociology of Freedom

Draft text, excerpted from a chapter on what "anarchist-sociology" means...

Reconceptualizing the Discipline: Toward a More Anarchistic Sociology
Since anarchism seems more sociological than vice-versa, I now aim to anarchize the sociological tradition. Thus, I seek out things that indicate an anarchist appreciation of society, an interest in anarchistic elements of society, or anarchistic practice in the field of Sociology itself. Since anarchism is rooted in values and practice, I seek to re-center sociology upon key anarchist values and foci, particularly freedom, anti-authoritarianism, direct action, mutual aid, and decentralization. The following discussion describes general characteristics in society, how the discipline of sociology could incorporate these values, and specific examples of such values in action that could serve as research subjects.

The Sociology of Freedom
“Freedom” is an overused word, often meant to refer to things that have little to do with what anarchists would consider to be real freedom, e.g. the “freedom to buy something”, “freedom to vote for the candidate of one’s choosing”, “freedom to use as much gasoline as one can afford”, and so on. Instead, real freedom is key. A sociology of freedom is not merely concerned with “freedom to choose” which toothpaste brand to purchase, to believe in one god or another (or not), choose politicians in a voting booth, choose to watch TV, or to drink beer. Pierre Bourdieu (1990) argued this pointedly: “It is through the illusion of freedom from social determinants… that social determinations win the freedom to exercise their full power… [P]aradoxically, sociology frees us from the illusion of freedom, or, more exactly from the misplaced belief in illusory freedoms” (p. 15).

As such, the typical meaning and usage of “freedom” is highly circumscribed. Freedom is not merely a market-based or state-derived phenomenon. Its meaning is also broader in utility. As Sullivan et al. (1980) write:

“The freedom we are talking about is not simply a freedom from. It is also a freedom to or freedom for... Freedom is a direction, a process of becoming more the person we are, more the person we have been inhibited from becoming because of imposed identities and the interests of external forms of authority, the state, law, custom, religion, bureaucracy, forms of control…” (pp. 347-348, emphasis in the original)

There is a long list of things that people could gain freedom from, including: the state, boredom, fossil-fuel dependence, abusive relationships, apathy, exploitive work, dirty/unhealthy environment, paternalism, prejudice, aggression, and so forth. Instead, the quest for freedom as an individual and collective effort could involve people finding freedom for themselves as individuals (e.g. control over immediate decision in one’s life: “I want to learn this skill”, “I want to move to this location”), or one can work with others to create a broader, communal form of freedom (e.g. a community is able to formulate and execute its own long-term plans… “we can plan this event”, “we can build this community center”). Thus, the freedom one has is not merely rooted in one’s individual mobility, but the structural mobility of an entire community.

Freedom is also not a zero-sum game, but rather a continuum. As Ehrlich (1971) notes, “I am at once free and unfree, and my lack of freedom precludes me from fully comprehending the state I am in” (p. 204). Universals—especially those focused upon something so crucial as freedom—are dangerous and inaccurate. Therefore, it is important for anarchist-sociologists to be honest and specific about the ways in which people are free and unfree. As a continuum, there is a perpetual quest to enlarge the spheres of freedom, as some say “to expand the floor of the cage”. Eventually, the “cage” will be so cavernous that it will, in effect, disappear. According to this view, freedom is a trajectory of society struggled over during all epochs, a social impulse in which people in groups see the potential for expanding these cage floors.

Restraints on freedom do exist, but some of these help to enable the freedom of others. Completely unbridled freedom can lead to chaos. Should everyone have the “freedom” to wander around and randomly assault others? Of course not. Anarchists seek an egalitarian social order thru freedom-maximization; but, eventually, individual freedoms cannot be increased any more without harming others and restricting their freedoms. Thus, some “restrictions” must stop someone from intruding upon someone else’s freedom.

Generally, freedom is acquired through struggle. People must be able to gain their own freedom, since a “freedom” delivered to others can easily be retracted. Self-acquired freedom creates confidence, independence, experience, and interest, while freedom handed-over fosters dependence, ignorance, a lack of self-efficacy, and taken-for-grantedness. This is why vanguards and welfare states are bad—not because of most of their practitioners’ intentions, but due to the detrimental consequences of such approaches. Mills (1959) went further by noting the false dualism between the individualized freedom of a marketplace and the freedom of representative democracy: “Freedom is not merely the chance to do as one pleases, neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them—and then, the opportunity to choose” (p. 174). Thus, freedom is empowering.

A sociology of freedom would be concerned with studying examples of freedom in society, such as those areas that empower people to do what they wish—as long as they do not tread upon others. For example, freedom may be found in many varieties of social movements, particularly those concerned with expanding human freedom. Within such movements, freedom is likely an impulse practiced internally. Also, an anarchist-sociologist ought to seek out the ways in which political rights operate in society, especially as “rights” that are universally-recognized through social norms and mores, and are not dependent upon or derived from state approval or enforcement. Finally, how do people maintain their independence and gain self-determination from hierarchical power? These are important questions that a sociology of freedom could seek to answer.

In practice, the sociology of freedom would have to allow anyone to participate in it—scholarship, research, and theory-building ought to not be the privilege of the highly-educated. As such, this form of sociology should be used to find ways towards greater freedom in society. The Sociology discipline could eradicate copyright, and the hoarding of valuable data and information within the Ivory Tower. Knowledge should not be sequestered away within the academy, but liberated and accessible to all people, in all societies, regardless of social position, history, or geography. Finally, the elimination of tuition is another clear step towards freedom for students.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. In Other Words: Essays Toward a Reflexive Sociology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Ehrlich, Howard J. 1971. “Notes from a Radical Social Scientist: February 1970”. Pp. 194-211 in Radical Sociology, edited by J.D. Colfax & J.L. Roach. New York: Basic Books.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, Dennis, Larry Tifft, Georgia Gray, John Laub, and Michael Buckman. 1980. “Let the Water Be Wet, Let the Rocks Be Hard: Anarchism as a Sociology of Quality of Life”. Humanity and Society, 4 (4), December: 344-362.