In the previous post in this series I discussed some of the ways in which social structures impact on our emotional lives. Here I will discuss another way in which our internal lives are affected by seemingly impersonal structures. Our thoughts, like our feelings, we tend to think of as individual and personal to us, we might assume that they originate inside us. The sociological theories I will present here all claim, in different ways, that the way in which we think is somehow conditioned by the social context in which we find ourselves.

Social class and consciousness

Karl Marx is sometimes referred to as a “materialist” thinker because he believes that it is the material relations of production or the ways in which we make it possible for us to live (eg. produce food, build houses) that determine how we think. He claimed that:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”

Marx – Preface to Contribution to Critique of Political Economy 

The aspect of the social existence which he considered to be most significant was the division of labour. Our relationship to the means of production (how we make a living) is the determining factor in what social class we belong to. Social class, for Marx, is an objective fact (see my post on social structures) because each of the classes have “objective interests” or situations which are beneficial for them.

What we consider to be the normal or best ways of organising society will be different depending on what are our class interests. For instance, the UK government is currently trying to pass new laws which will mean that the minimum threshold for the amount of votes needed to call a strike will be much higher than it currently is.

We can see how this might not be in the interests of wealthy business owners who need to maintain productivity to keep a constant flow of profit. This might, however, not be in the interests of workers for whom strike action is useful in order to maintain a position of power when entering into pay negotiations with the employers.

These Marx would consider to be the objective class interests of these two groups. However, the views of one group (usually the more powerful “ruling class”) tend to be attributed the status of a general truth rather than a partial one. The more powerful group will use whatever means they can to convince the opposing class that certain ideas are in their interests. So the proposed new laws are presented by the UK government as “New legislation to make strike laws fair for working people”.

The key difference between the ruling class and working class in terms of how they think is that the more powerful group has become aware of its own interests (they have “class consciousness”) whereas the workers have not. The workers often confuse the interests of the ruling class with their own.

Through Marx’s insights we can see that our position within the social structures can encourage us to think in particular ways.

In the next two sections I will discuss how some other sociologists also think that social structures make us think in particular ways about the world. I will focus on the work of Norbert Elias and Georg Simmel who both thought that aspects of modern life make us feel more like individuals.

Complex societies promote individualization

Norbert Elias did a form of historical analysis which he called “process sociology” because he analysed the long term development of societies. One of his insights was that over the course of many hundreds of years people have developed a much more pronounced sense of individuality.

In older societies people tended to place much more emphasis on their group identity whereas today we concentrate on the things which make us different from other people. This is reflected in the great diversity of identities open to people and the many ways in which people differentiate themselves through hairstyles or clothes.

The reason for this individualization, Elias claimed, is that that modern societies are so complex that we can’t comprehend the level of interconnection we have with other people so instead we just concentrate on ourselves. Modern societies are characterised by “high levels of interdependence” because we are dependent on a great many people to make our clothes, grow our food and provide us with other services. It has been estimated that there are 325 people involved in the production of a single iPad.

This is too much for us to think about on a daily basis so we simply shut it out. Although we are dependent on these other people we are so socially (and usually spatially) separated from them that have no personal or emotional connection to them. In much less complex societies people were more likely to have a quite close relationship with the majority of people who they depended on.

Our relationships with these people in the modern world therefore become rational and detached. This situation tricks us into thinking that we are independent, self-reliant and individual. While in reality we are dependent on many different people (many more than in pre-industrial societies) we feel like we are independent because we can earn money to buy goods and services.

One of the biggest influence on Elias’ thought was Georg Simmel who proposed some quite similar points but had a much narrower focus. Simmel claimed that life in big cities makes us feel like individuals because of the fast pace and complexity of the experience of urban life.

The psychology of city life

When we walk through a modern city we pass many hundreds (or even thousands) of people, there are cars, buses, trams and trains as well as advertisements and shops to catch our attention. If we were to genuinely pay attention to all of this we would be overwhelmed. So, in order to cope with this we turn inwardly and block out most of this mental stimulation.

When they are in cities most people simply concentrate on where they are going and what they are doing and block out everything else (today they will often use headphones to help them do this). They disengage from the things and people around them and approach the world in a rational and disinterested way. Also, many of the interactions we have with other people in a city are not based on personal relations but financial transactions. It is this situation which Simmel tried to capture in his essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life

This is what produces the seemingly paradoxical situation in which people can feel lonely and isolated even when surrounded by millions of people. City life makes us more reserved and disconnected from other people. We develop what Simmel called the blasé attitude perhaps best characterised by the shrug of indifference or “meh”.

However, he didn’t think this was entirely negative situation. Rather, this psychological impact of the city helps us to develop our internal lives. While we are blocking out the external world when walking through the city or travelling on the train we develop ideas. This is why, Simmel thinks, we tend to get more cultural creativity in cities. This internal development is much more difficult if we are constantly making chit chat with acquaintances.

I do wonder, however, if the potential for this individual development is being eroded by the constant stimulation enabled by smartphones.

This is the final post in this series but I will another reflecting on teaching this module.