- This Course is based mainly on "Nonkilling Sociology", chapter prepared by Professor Kathryn Feltey (University of Akron) for Toward a Nonkilling Paradigm (Honolulu: Center for Global Nonkilling, 2009). The Course is part of the Interdisciplinary Program on Nonkilling Studies at the School of Nonkilling Studies.
The question of what society is like, what is has been, and what it might become is the subject of sociology. In this essay, I explore the possibility of a nonkilling society from the perspective of sociologists who have addressed violence in their scholarship and/or activism. I begin with the description of a nonkilling society offered by Paige (2009:22): “…a nonkilling society is characterized by no killing of humans and no threats to kill, neither technologies nor justifications for killing, and no social conditions that depend upon threat or use of lethal force.”
It is challenging to imagine a world that does not exist. As Paige (2009) demonstrates, responses to the possibility of a killing-free society are tempered by what we believe to be true about human behavior, social organization, power, and survival. How have sociologists theorized about violence in human society? What sociological tools can be used to conceptualize and enact nonkilling relationships, communities, and societies? How can sociology contribute to the development of a nonkilling research agenda?
Sociological Theories and Violence
Auguste Comte, who coined the term “sociology,” viewed society as an integrated system, moving through an evolutionary process towards positivism which would bring order and progress to 18th century Europe. An idealist, he thought scientific positivism would make war and violence unnecessary, a process he termed the “modifiable character of fatality” (Aron, 1998: 17). Emile Durkheim, synthesizing sociological theory and empirical methods, conducted research on the relationship between social structure and suicide rates in the population. In this classic study, he found that the structural changes of industrialization and urbanization produced anomie, defined as a loosening of external constraint or regulation, putting people at higher risk of suicide (Thompson, 1982). According to Durkheim, reducing or alleviating anomie required “that we be thoughtful to our fellows and that we be just.” (1964: 407)
Other early contributors to sociological thought saw force and violence as the necessary means for maintaining or challenging and changing the social order. Max Weber (1918) argued, for example, that without violence, the state/government would be eliminated, resulting in anarchy. He went on to explain that while “force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state…the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one.” Karl Marx’s theory of social change was rooted in violent revolution, an armed struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie used lethal force to maintain control of the working masses. Thus, for Marx, freedom for the workers could only “be attained by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” (Marx, 1848: 86).
Broadly speaking, as the 20th century progressed, the discipline of sociology developed different trajectories–sociology as science in the positivist tradition and sociology as a vehicle for social change using applied and/or activist methods. The life work of Jane Addams is representative of the latter. Addams was excluded from academic sociology despite her numerous contributions to the scholarly literature. Instead, she applied sociology in the “real world,” establishing Hull House, the first settlement residence in the U.S. In Europe, the settlement house movement was a method of addressing problems generated by urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. The forerunner to modern-day social work, Hull House provided services (e.g., child care and employment assistance) and resources (e.g., meeting space for trade union groups) to Chicago neighborhoods of poor immigrant families. Through legal and political advocacy, the reformers of Hull House linked the local to the state and national-levels with the passage of legislation and establishment of government-sponsored programs.
Addams, active in the international peace movement, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Not only was she opposed to war, but as the quote above indicates, she defined peace as the nurturance of life, an orientation that would ultimately eliminate war as social practice. In her groundbreaking work, New Ideals of Peace (1907), she claimed that a new social order based on peace and justice would emerge from those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The urban neighborhoods of poor immigrants from around the globe would be the source of the “altruistic and egoistic impulse” (p.13) that would lead to a peace-based society that “would nurture all into a full and varied life (p.118). Her optimism about this possibility was bolstered by the collaborative relationships formed and sustained across national differences in Chicago neighborhoods and the labor organizations of the early 20th century.
Another early sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois, described by Martin Luther King, Jr. as “a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths,” was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1896 (Hynes, n.d.). DuBois taught at several U.S. universities and co-founded the NAACP, serving as its director of research and founding editor of its publication, The Crisis until 1934. Believing that social science could provide answers to the problems of racism and inequality, his scholarship focused on the lives of Black Americans in the early 20th century.
At the same time, he felt that social activism was the way to create social change and was a leader in the international peace movement. At the controversial 1949 Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York City, DuBose defended the presenters and participants, saying, “We know and the saner nations know that we are not traitors nor conspirators; and far from plotting force and violence it is precisely force and violence that we bitterly oppose. This conference was not called to defend communism nor socialism nor the American way of life. It was called to promote peace! It was called to say and say again that no matter how right or wrong differing systems of beliefs in religion, industry, or government may be, war is not the method by which their differences can successfully be settled for the good of mankind” (DuBois, 1968).
Pitrim Sorokin is perhaps the best example of an academic sociologist (he was the Chair of the newly formed Department of Sociology at Harvard, 1930-1942) who tackled the question of whether a peaceful world was possible. He argued that “only unselfish, creative love (as ideally formulated in the Sermon on the Mount)… in overt behavior, in social institutions and culture” would result in lasting peace (42). According to Sorokin, it is through love in all human relations that we become altruistic, our actions becoming more pro-social and cooperative. Amitology, the science through which humans can develop their capacity for care and cooperation, became the focus of Sorokin’s work.
Mid-20th century, C. Wright Mills made a lasting contribution to sociology with the introduction of the “sociological imagination,” a perspective that links individual experience/agency, history, politics, and the social structure. Mills is also known for the “power-elite” model, the ruling relations of power comprised of leaders in industry, the military, and the executive branch of the government. Bringing together the power elite model and the sociological imagination, Mills argued that structural changes in the world meant that politics “has to do with the willful making of history... (making it) sociologically realistic, morally fair, and politically imperative to make demands upon men of power and to hold them responsible” for events occurring in at the national and international level (1958:100).
In a contemporary application of Mills work, Brewer (2003) examined the peace processes taking place in Northern Ireland and South Africa. He found that changes in the structural and social context affect individuals who realize a broader array of choices such that they are able to become agents of social change (e.g. demanding peaceful alternatives to violence and bloodshed). Key to the agency of individuals is the “emergence of local spaces in which traditional lines of social differentiation are blurred” such that former group loyalties and identities (e.g. race or religion) are rendered less meaningful as different alliances and interests shape the social order (2003: 173).
The theoretical foundations of and developments in sociology can contribute to our understanding of the possibility and promise of a nonkilling society. What are these tools, and how have they been used to conceptualize peace and nonviolence? How can they be applied to further a nonkilling agenda in the world today?
Sociological Tools for a Nonkilling Society
In the second opening quote, the 13th Chief Justice of the United States used what sociologists call a social constructionist perspective in observing that human beings create social institutions and organize the social order. As sociologist W.I. Thomas observed, a socially constructed definition of a situation, if defined as real, is real in its consequences (Thomas and Thomas 1928). Thus a society organized on the basis of militaristic principles, defining war and killing as inevitable, will produce and support what is necessary for people to kill one another, including weapons and ideology. However, a constructionist perspective allows the understanding that society can be re-organized on the basis of nonkilling, anti-war principles, and that this reconstruction will produce real consequences related to the new definition of the situation.
Elise Boulding, a sociologist and futurist, cautions that “we can’t work for what we can’t imagine,” so we cannot have a peaceful future if we cannot envision what it would look like (Boulding, 1995: 204). Using a model developed by Dutch historian and sociologist Fred Polak, Boulding organized workshops on “Imaging a World without Weapons” for 30 years. What does society look like when people are asked to imagine a future without weapons, killing, and war? Results with groups of people in countries around the globe reveals that their imagined futures share some common elements: communities are more rural than urban; life-long education is valued; there is no spectator-leisure industry; nation-states become less significant; peace-keeping brigades replace military armies; and living in harmony with the environment is a priority (Bakker, 1993). When Boulding took the workshop into a men’s prison in 1999, the themes that emerged included:
- To be at peace with ourselves and one another and the world in which we live. To recognize, understand, communicate what is going on.
- There should be a peaceful environment for all mankind: no wars, hunger, homelessness, disease, violence, racism, no TV commercials and no pollution.
- People listen to and respect one another. There is equality, just laws and freedom from fear.
- Life is local; families are peaceful. There is strong community feeling and conflict resolution. People help each other and have fun together.
While Boulding was initially surprised by their responses, she observed that their ability to “not only visualize a positive future for the society which has in so many ways rejected them, but have the inner resources and moral integrity to consider concrete personal actions that could help bring about such a future” should give hope for the “capacities and potentials of our fellow human beings” to work together for a peaceful future.
In a similar vein, futurist sociologist Wendell Bell (2004) claims that societies across the globe are already working together to achieve common goals. At the same time modernization has disrupted traditional social structures, leaving anomic people searching for new sources of identity, community, and moral guidance. However technological advances in communication have contributed to an emerging global culture “from tens of thousands–possibly hundreds of thousands–of individual networks of communication, influence, and exchange that link people and organizations across civilizational boundaries.” (2004: 31)
For Bell, and other futurist scholars, there is an identifiable set of shared global values that promote the future health of all societies: individual responsibility; treating others as we wish them to treat us; respect for life; economic and social justice; nature-friendly ways of life; honesty; moderation; freedom (expressed in ways that do not harm others), and tolerance for diversity. Given that similar values have been found by researchers using different methodologies in different societies, Bell proposes three principles for a peaceful world: inclusion, skepticism, and social control. Exclusion of “others” defined as outsiders leads to aggression and violence. Global interdependence requires that people begin to see themselves as belonging to the human race rather than emphasizing nationalism and in-group/out-group sentiments. Skepticism can be practiced through “critical realism” which challenges the “delusion of certainty.” (2004: 34) Without the ability and willingness to change with new information and ideas, society is unable to plan and move forward to a desired future. The principle of social control is central to international peacekeeping with the goal of preventing “killing and violence” while promoting “peaceful negotiation and compromise.” (2004: 35) The tools that can be gleaned from sociology and used towards the goal of a nonkilling society include theoretical concepts such as the sociological imagination, the social construction of reality, verstehen (empathetic understanding from Weber), and intergroup relations. Key to creating a nonkilling society is understanding the relationship between individual agency, structural realities and constraints (and how these are socially constructed and maintained), historical legacies, and politics (power), as demonstrated by Brewer (2003).
Sociology, with its roots in human behavior, and in particular the contributions of Sorokin, puts sociologists in a unique position to “study creative altruism and develop the methodologies to put it into practice” (Weinstein; Pozo, 2004:111). Throughout the work of sociologists grappling with the possibilities for a peaceful future is the question of divisions between people on the basis of group membership (nation, ethnicity, religion, and so on). Addams saw the cooperation of different immigrant groups in early 20th century Chicago as evidence of the possibility of an international peace. Similarly, DuBois’ saw political divisions as fostering enmity and war between nations. Weinstein and Pozo note that the sociological enterprise is based on the premise that humanity is one and the divisions and differences between people are the product of socialization.
A sense of shared humanity, a way to see past the (socially created) divisions separating and alienating people from one another, is central to the agenda of creating a nonkilling world. Where can sociologists address this perspective? Certainly in research that directly addresses questions of altruism and pro-social behavior, such as James Vela-McConnell’s study of social affinity in the modern world (1999) and the Flame of Love Project (Lee; Poloma, 2009) which applies scientific methods to the study of the Godly love and altruistic, service-oriented life-choices. Also, as Addams and DuBois modeled, sociologists can contribute their expertise and knowledge to activist organizations and movements. There are sociological professional organizations focused on how sociologists can make a difference in this regard. For example, the Association for Humanist Sociology is a “community of sociologists, educators, scholars, and activists who share a commitment to using sociology to promote peace, equality, and social justice.” The international organization, Sociologists without Borders / Sociólogos Sin Fronteras (SSF), embraces its partisan position “in favor of human rights, participatory democracy, equitable economies, peace, and sustainable ecosystems.”
Perhaps the setting most conducive to passing on sociology as a way to create social change is in the classroom. As I have written elsewhere, the most important goal of teaching for me is to create a space for students to explore the ways they can apply sociology in their own lives, communities, and the larger society (Feltey 2005). In his presidential address to the American Sociological Association in 2000, Joe Feagin called for a recommitment to social justice in the ideals and practices of the discipline. To teachers of sociology, he advised that “we should make clear to the coming generations of sociologists not only that there is plenty of room for idealism and activism in the field but that these qualities might be required for humanity to survive the next century or so.” (2001) Making room for idealism and activism and applying the tools of sociology in the context of organized movements for social change, can help shape an agenda for a future nonkilling world.
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