The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise
reviewed by Carl L. Bankston III - January 13, 2016
Title: The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise
Author(s): Allan G. Johnson
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439911878, Pages: 186, Year: 2014
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On reading the first few pages of Allan G. Johnson's book, The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise, I was immediately struck by the fact that we have radically different views on what the discipline of sociology should be. My view is rooted in ideas derived from Max Weber. I see sociology as a social science; its purpose is to understand the social world through generating empirically falsifiable hypotheses regarding causation on one hand, and through non-judgmentally attempting to understand the motivations of social actors on the other. I see words such as injustice and oppression as expressions of partisan political judgmentthey lie at the center of Johnson's approach. I am especially skeptical of the word privilege because I see it as putting a moralistic gloss on a tautology. Why do some categories of people statistically have more advantageous outcomes than others? Because they have privilege. How do we know they have privilege? Because statistically and anecdotally they have more advantageous outcomes. While I respect those who dedicate themselves to struggling against what they see as unjust privilege or oppression, I do not see this as social science.
By the time I reached the end of his book, where Johnson describes sociology as a worldview and a way of life, I found myself thinking is this an academic discipline or a secular cult? To be fair, there may well be more sociologists today who see the discipline as he does than I do. When I was studying sociology at the undergraduate level in the early 1970s, Webers pronouncement that the lecture hall is no place for the prophet or demagogue was still the dominant view, although challenged. Today prophecy and demagoguery often constitute the daily classroom fare.
While I do not agree with what Johnson does, I have to admit that in many respects, he does it well. Despite his fondness for the ill-defined shibboleth of normative sociology, he is a skillful writer. He sets up his argument by describing the workings of a society as a dynamic relationship between social systems and individuals. In this relationship, individuals make social systems happen and the systems, in turn, shape individuals through socialization and paths of least resistance. I agree with this broad schematization, although I tend to describe the paths of least resistance in terms of rational choice. Johnson follows this general description of the two levels of social life with discussions of the key concepts of sociology.
A chapter on culture gives clear accounts of how it constructs reality, shapes beliefs, entails values, relies on norms, instills attitudes, and gives significance to material objects, although the chapter is ideologically driven. Johnson brings a continually critical tone on aspects of American culture he dislikes, while reflecting little on the cultural biases of his own academic milieu that arguably lie behind his tastes. He follows the culture chapter with one on social structures. He explains the ideas of statuses and roles, and gives clear examples to illustrate what these mean.
Following the social structure-individual schema he sets forth in the introduction, Johnson examines how the personal lives of individuals are connected to the surrounding social structures in which they participate. He presents structure as relations among social statuses in a way that makes sense and points out that one needs to think about a society in terms of how everything is related to everything else. One important piece missing from his description is how sets of relations may vary in how well they serve the interests of the individuals within them. For example, some social networks work better than others at enabling people to succeed in school or the occupational marketplace. Some types of families can be empirically shown to work more effectively than others in socializing their children. I suspect that Johnson ignores the social capital side of social structures because it does not completely fit his preference for explaining all variations in outcomes as consequences of unjust privileges and oppression.
Although Johnson refers to power as a part of social structure, especially in describing structure as distribution, he never deals with the implications of using power to change structures. For example, in discussing how particular social structures are interrelated, he points out the case of public schools and argues, reasonably enough, that urban schools are often impoverished because middle class families move to the suburbs and take their resources with them. He recommends a systemic solutionredrawing school district boundaries along county or regional lines so that all classes and neighborhoods would see that they share the same problems. I live in a state that draws its districts mainly along the lines of counties. When middle class families here found that their own children would need to pay the academic and social costs of equalization, they either left low-income counties for more prosperous ones, or abandoned the public system altogether. Who is going to exercise the power to force relatively advantaged people to redistribute the benefits for their own children? How much power does it take to redraw social structures and when does using that power become a cure worse than the illness? These are questions that sociologists and their students should at least raise, even if they arrive at different answers.
I thought that Johnson made some good observations in his chapter on population and human ecology. Sociologists need to pay more attention to the fact that human society exists in particular places and among specific numbers of people. These geographic and demographic facts affect how we live. Moreover, what takes place in one nation or region is part of what happens in other places.
The Forest and the Trees would probably be a useful introductory book for those who are sympathetic to the type of normatively oriented sociology Allan G. Johnson expounds (I am tempted to say preaches). Readers of this review will not be surprised that I would not use this book in an introductory level class to explain sociology to beginning students. I can imagine using it in a more advanced course on the sociology of sociology to illustrate a side of the contentious and debatable character of the discipline, perhaps as a contrast to something like the late Irving Louis Horowitzs The Decomposition of Sociology (1993).
Horowitz, I. L. (1993). The decomposition of sociology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.