Gary Alan Fine: Local Sociology

Peasants by the Hearth, Pieter Aertsen1556

The Futures We Build: Local Sociology and the Struggles for Better Worlds


Gary Alan Fine

Northwestern University

How can we explain a revolution, a democratic transition, or a conspiracy by shadowy elites? If we examine the genesis of the First World War, the French Revolution, the American Civil Rights movement, or the stable governance of a rural farming village, we find a set of tiny publics – an array of small groups each with shared allegiance and joint goals – working together or engaged in conflict, creating the conditions necessary for collective action. Dramatic changes and long-term continuities happen because groups of individuals commit to these projects. As Gianpaolo Baiocchi suggests, citizens develop a “civic imagination” in which they confront potentially contentious issues while seeing themselves as holding joint membership. They belong together and share a common fate. Actors define themselves as constituting a “we.” People imagine communities which they value and strive to belong.

Many analyses of political engagement take one of two forms: either they analyze how institutional structures set the conditions for politics, erasing the sites of engagement, or they examine how individual attitudes and beliefs shape political decisions. In these approaches, ongoing social relationships are marginalized and the links among micro-communities ignored. Yet, we suffer if we dismiss intermediate organizations and their shared perspectives.

These local cultures – what I label as the meso-level of analysis – should be central to seeing how people create not a better world, but better worlds. Following Anthony Giddens, structures exist insofar as they are enacted. Productive civic action consists of participants coordinating to improve their common circumstances. This requires interpersonal flexibility, negotiation, and the belief that society benefits from this shared project.

Paul Lichterman and Nina Eliasoph have emphasized the existence of phenomenological scenes. These scenes depend upon the presence of those who define themselves as mutually engaged in civic life, and include such components as intragroup relations, speech norms, and a social cartography, defining the group in light of a network of other groups. This proposes a group culture that depends upon ongoing commitments and shared beliefs – a Goffmanian interaction order – that, when recognized, permits situated interpretations, performances, and styles of civic life.

Such a view leads to the question of how groups – tiny publics – shape political order. In what way does local culture build affiliation and participation within a political system? I argue that the “political” in its various forms requires a local analysis. Civic life is not a distinct domain of action or sector of political behavior, but integral to any interaction order. Polities, communities, and institutions build on the activity of their tiny publics. Social actors often recognize the ties that bind them, believe in shared participation, create group symbols, select a preferred style of interaction, and create solidarity by complaining about constraining forces. Even ostensibly apolitical groups, such as leisure clubs, fit their commitments into political culture, no matter if the commitments remain unrecognized. From their local perspectives and specialized interests, social groups of many kinds develop what Robert Merton and Elinor Barber refer to as “sociocognitive microenvironments.” We don’t live with millions, but with a few, and they influence how we see the world.

For a social system to thrive, groups must routinely engage, create systems of meaning, and establish rules of order. This happens when people come together in common cause or in recognized dispute. We sociologists have the obligation to join the micro and the macro to do justice to each. To this end I embrace a model of sociological miniaturism, the approach that John Stolte, Karen Cook and I developed that asserts that microsociological concepts serve as an interpretive framework through which an action-oriented structural analysis is possible. Microsociological analysis provides a framework for exploring “larger” issues that stand above individual action. Culture, understood as a form of shared, local, and collective action, is at the heart of how social order is possible. Theorizing the idioculture of local communities provides a grounding of a sociology that is as attuned to the street corner as it is to global trade patterns.

To understand better worlds, let us examine tiny publics and those identities that flow from group embeddedness for the development of civil society, the public sphere, and small governance groups. These three concepts overlap, although are not identical: the first recognizes the organization of political social system, the second refers more specifically to forms of action and discourse, and the third understands the presence of groups in all governmental systems.

If a microcultural approach has general utility, it should explain how groups provide a lens for understanding political involvement and governmental control. As John Dewey wrote in The Public and Its Problems, “The intimate and familiar propinquity group is not a social unity within an inclusive whole. It is, for almost all purposes, society itself.” In Dewey’s pragmatism, we recognize that local relations constitute the society as organized with information interpreted socially, a justification for Dewey’s belief that in democracy the ear is more powerful than the eye: personal communication trumps what an individual can perceive. As he suggests, “Vision is a spectator; hearing is a participator.” Likewise, as the pragmatic philosopher Elizabeth Anderson emphasizes, the practices of social groups may be crucial to explain alterations in moral standards. Few individuals comply with moral demands out of pure conscience, absent the support of influential others.

This awareness of group influence in public life, while often eclipsed by a focus on the individual, the institution, the society, and the global is growing in contemporary social science. We find increased attention to neighborhood effects, networks of allegiance, community organizations, and places of affiliation. Meso-level scholars can now draw upon several extensive bodies of research to address how political process and community organization depends upon an interaction order, cemented within ongoing relations. This requires comparative analysis as well as in-depth case studies, for, as George Homans points out, hierarchies among groups are built through the fact that participants can compare leadership styles and competencies of followers.

These meso-level traditions have a long lineage, connected to accounts of clans, participatory democracy, township governance, and friendships as the bulwark of political systems. The importance of friendship in the construction of the state is linked to Aristotle in his Politics and to Ferdinand Tönnies, who in Community and Society describes the clan as the “the family before the family and . . . village before the village.” While these recognitions are important, it is equally vital to understand their limits. Conflicts can turn community sour. Groups are most effective when they, like the archetypal Quaker meeting, can constitute themselves as a potent consensual system, covering over disagreements. However, whether in agreement or in dispute groups affect politics.

With the examination of group action – consensual and occasionally conflictual – we must reject a political sociology that erases micro-cultures and hope to build one that recognizes that elites, conformers, the marginal, and the resistant all depend on the meanings, the social relations, and the structural possibilities provided by local communities. Let us be skeptical of a political psychology that enshrines the individual as deity or a structural sociology that does the same for the State. Following Alexis de Tocqueville and Richard Sennett, let us recognize that thriving societies depend on webs of social relations.

Building from the power of local commitments, we can see how group action builds futures and better worlds from the local outward and upward.



Fine_Gary Alan - portraitGary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He received his Ph. D. in Social Psychology from Harvard University and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. His sociological inquiries have focused on topics as diverse as restaurant work, adolescent culture, Little League baseball, meteorology, visual arts, collective memory, and selves. Among his most recent books is Tiny Publics: A Theory of Group Culture and Action (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2012).



Banner Image: Pieter Aertsen, Peasants by the Hearth (1556, oil on wood, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium).



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