Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sayer’s “Why Things Matter to People”

On October 23, 2012, I published this post on the Black, White & Gray blog hosted by Patheos.

“Recently, while reading Andrew Sayer’s book “Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life,” I was captivated by the question of which of these two sentences sounds like a more accurate description of reality:

1)   Thousands of people died in the Nazi concentration camps.

2)   Thousands of people were systematically exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.

Most people probably pick #2. Just saying people died in Nazi concentration camps could imply they died a natural death, but saying people were systematically exterminated more accurately represents the Nazi goal of “purifying” the human race…

Sayer’s book is a thorough and persuasive argument that social scientists should not be afraid to use reasoned judgment about the social events they describe. In fact, not evaluating in some fashion the events social scientists describe would lead to statements like #1, statements that just don’t accurately describe reality…”

Click here to read the full post.

My Re-Encounter with Martin Seligman: Launching a Psychology-Sociology Dialogue on Human Flourishing

On October 16, 2012, I published this post on the Black, White & Gray blog hosted by Patheos.

“When, as a 7th grader, I wrote a speech based on Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness, little did I imagine that several decades later I would be sitting at Professor Seligman’s kitchen table discussing what positive psychology can learn from sociology, and vice-versa.

However, just as Martin Seligman’s career in psychology took an about turn when he stopped studying pessimism and turned to studying optimism, so my interest in how social conditions oppress people has now morphed into my growing interest in what social conditions lead to human flourishing.

Martin Seligman

In this TED video lecture below, Seligman describes briefly his 30 years of work on depression and learned helplessness. Modern psychology, he argues, made tremendous strides in diagnosing and treating a number of mental illnesses. But, he finally realized, curing people of mental illness is not the same as helping them lead a life full of meaning, engagement, and positive emotions. Hence, with a few other prominent psychologists, Seligman founded a movement know as Positive Psychology, which sought to bring the best social scientific methods to help understand what constitutes happiness and perhaps more importantly, whether we can design interventions to increase happiness—which he has shown we can…”

Read the full post on Black, White & Gray.

Personalism and Sociology: Understanding Relationships as Obligations

On October 10, 2012, I published this post on the Black, White and Gray blog hosted by Patheos.

“Yesterday  I sat down in my favorite spot at home and surrounded myself with books and articles and began to draft a new article on personalism and sociology, a topic I have already written about on BW&G. Why do I care about personalism? Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and reflect on our theoretical understanding of key concepts or objects of study. If we don’t, we are prone to making errors in our explanations.

An interview I conducted about halfway through my fieldwork for my book on Haitian immigrants, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, illustrates one such error I made about persons. Sitting in the suburbs of Montreal one afternoon, I interviewed Lucien Smarth, a Haitian priest who also had advanced degrees in sociology and anthropology. How would you reply to the Marxian critique that religion is the opiate of the masses, meaning that people flee to religion to alleviate their real suffering, which for Marx, was material deprivation, I asked him?

Smarth stated forcefully that although intellectuals separate out material things from spiritual things, for Haitians they are all related. As I quoted him in my book:

“For me, that’s what religion is in general. We feel our limits, we feel our weaknesses, we feel our inability to change things. And then we call on another force, a divine force, to give us more strength and greater capabilities. I find it completely legitimate that people turn towards religion to solve their problems. Because that’s what I take to be the meaning of religion….So they [believers] have the task to make life down here more beautiful, so earth becomes more like the image of the beautiful life they await on the other side” (Faith Makes Us Live, p. 133).

One key idea of personalism is simple that the person is a whole. As Smarth pointed out to me, intellectuals tend to analyze separately the mind, body, and spirit, but he cautioned that such analytical abstractions do not correspond to how most people experience themselves in the world.”

Read the full post at Black, White and Gray.