Top Menu

Sociology’s Edge – unbound by borders

Alan Scott, TASA member and Applied Sociology Thematic Group Continuing Education Officer

In NSW we are one election down and another one to go, sometime soon.  For the rest of you, you have just one.  All this talk and argument has reminded me of the originator of “democracy”.   Plato, the Greek philosopher used the name in his analysis of governments.  Democracy was the fourth in his list, and he describes it as Democracy “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike.”  He later goes on to say that democracy easily degenerates into dictatorship and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery.

It was announced on the ABC news that Thailand had been to the polls and in one region with a population of something like 30,000, it was recorded as having over 60,000 votes cast and the inference of the votes were for one party.  Plato also made the observation that “A good decision is based on knowledge, not on numbers”. That “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws that stop them doing what they want.”  And just one more quote, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

My reaction to all the commentaries and speeches of the past few weeks has been one of boredom and annoyance. However, I don’t want to make this contact email another political analysis.  For Sociologists, we have to consider not just the dominant theories of the left and right and those in between, our focus needs to be people.  I was going to use the word community here, but the opening sentence in one dictionary of Sociology, under the term community, tells me that “The term community is one of the most elusive and vague words in sociology and is by now largely without specific meaning.”  So, if we can no longer speak of ‘community’, how do we deal with the focus of our work that is to examine and explain how the various collections of people interact? Nineteenth century sociologists were able to distinguish between those living in an urban context and those in a rural one.  Ferdinand Tȍnnies, a prominent German 19th century Sociologist, saw the world as being divided between people who lived in the Gemeinschaft, which is rural villages, and the people who lived in the Gesellschaft, which are urban areas.  The point he makes is that people in one type of community, though entirely human, understand, do things, and see things, differently to those in the other community type.  Although he has gone out of fashion with most Sociologists, I have always seen much value in his analysis of human interaction.

One of the things which has shown up in this last election has been that things are perceived differently by people living outside of major urban areas.  In rural NSW the view of what is needed and what should be prioritised is different to how the politicians and public service gremlins in Sydney have seen things. However, at election time they suddenly suspect that Tȍnnies may be right and they charge round the rural areas handing out money left and right to persuade people that they should vote for them.

I encourage you to have a read of Tȍnnies, but read the Charles Loomis translation, rather than the Jose Harris version.

To finish, one last quote from Plato: Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty.