Starting Points for Positive Sociology

Starting Points for Positive Sociology January 9, 2013
With Martin Seligman

Ever since I met Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, at his home near Philadelphia last fall to discuss what movement for positive sociology might look like, I’ve been pondering:

What unique opportunities exist to build a new positive sociology movement focusing on human flourishing and the common good? How can positive sociology build on the successes and shortcomings of positive psychology? What are the next steps in launching in a positive sociology movement?

To delve into these questions, in November of 2012, I convened a group of eight sociologists (and one psychologist) to meet with Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center.

The positive psychology movement sought to redress the dominant psychological focus on disease and illness by developing a research agenda on positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (Seligman’s PERMA). Similarly, in recent decades, sociology has focused on the deficits that preclude human flourishing and the common good. Although sociologists have generated important knowledge about the causes and consequences of social inequalities, describing social problems is not the equivalent of describing the conditions that promote human flourishing or foster the common good. Similar to how positive psychology shifted the focus from disease to wellbeing, positive sociology will study of the social preconditions of human flourishing and the common good.

Rather than seeing the human good as reducible to one main component (philosophical monism), positive psychology sees human goods as plural, and thus there are many versions of a flourishing life. Similarly, sociologists can describe great variation in culture, traditions, and narratives that influence what flourishing and the common good consists of.

Both psychologists and sociologists debate whether there is a common human nature and, if so, what its properties are. Positive psychology did not try to resolve the nature-nurture debate in psychology; yet positive psychology studies what free people choose to do. Similarly, positive sociology can reflect on human personhood in order broaden without having to resolve philosophical debates about personhood. For example, acknowledging that human nature is influenced by social structures and culture does not necessarily require relativistic standpoint regarding human flourishing or the common good. In fact, without some concept of a shared human nature and human freedom, the very concepts of human flourishing and the common good would not make sense.

Furthermore, acknowledging external influences and constraints on human behavior and consciousness does not have to eradicate human freedom. Without some concept of human freedom to resist or change social structures, it would be hard to imagine future-oriented behavior that would lead to social transformations.

Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to development describes human freedom as both a means to well-being and end in and of itself; similarly, some degree of human freedom as a means and end is implicit in both positive psychology and positive sociology. Despite containing some assumptions about human freedom, like positive psychology and the capabilities approach, positive sociology is not a rigid ideology about persons or societies. However, to become a field of study, positive sociology should contain a set of paradigmatic principles to guide a research agenda about the social preconditions of human flourishing and the common good.

Positive sociology can complement the work already being done by positive psychology in numerous ways. Although PERMA certainly describes many components of a flourishing life, other components of flourishing cannot be reduced to the implicit individualist and de-contextualized PERMA scheme. Sociologists have long emphasized that social forms are not simply the aggregation of individual behaviors or beliefs; social forms are entities in their own right with important causal influence on human flourishing and the common good. For example, institutions of democracy, civil society, religion and family cannot be understood without paying attention to culture, social relationships, institutions, traditions and narratives.

Because positive psychology sought to redress the dominant focus on studying disease and mental illness, positive psychology was often perceived as celebrating hedonism and discounting any suffering as part of a flourishing life. Positive sociology will seek a more balanced approach to pleasure and pain in understanding human flourishing and the common good. Even if suffering itself is not a human good, positive sociology can nonetheless explore the conditions under which suffering transforms persons or societies in positive ways. Furthermore, social units of families, communities and nations are difficult to imagine without some level of voluntary sacrifice, as the common good often requires some people freely giving up an individual good in order to benefit others. It is often through suffering or sacrifice that one’s capacity to do good and experience good increases.

Positive sociology will build on positive psychology and the capabilities approach while also deepening reflection on how the sociological tradition contributes to the study of the social preconditions of human flourishing and the common good. For example, positive sociology aims to recover the lost goods in much classical sociology, notably that of Durkheim, Marx and Simmel, each of whom were keenly interested in describing human flourishing and the common good. Similarly, much contemporary sociological work on successful societies, real utopias, and collective rituals implies a keen interest in human flourishing and the common good.

Positive sociology will thus unite various subfields in contemporary sociology and unite current sociological work with a deep historical understanding of the sociological tradition itself. Furthermore, in describing the causes of social inequalities, much contemporary sociology focuses on the past. Positive sociology will encourage a future-oriented sociological imagination that builds on Simmel’s concept of the person as purpose-driven and future-oriented.

Although positive sociology acknowledges Max Weber’s point that that values influence the formation of research questions and the interpretation of research results, positive sociology also holds that social science can describe the world as it is. Hence the goal of positive sociology is to create new knowledge about the social preconditions of human flourishing and the common good; this new knowledge will inform public policies but the definition of those policies rests on values and ideologies which positive sociology cannot define.

During 2013, we aim to expand the network of scholars interested in launching positive sociology—the study of the social preconditions of human flourishing and the common good. Positive sociology will be both methodologically pluralistic, drawing on rich sociological traditions in ethnography, comparative-historical sociology, and survey analysis. The questions positive sociologists ask may be informed by various ideologies, values and worldviews.

UNC’s Barbara Frederickson

This spring, I will introduce positive psychology and positive sociology in my two undergraduate classes by teaching important works by positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman, Barbara Frederickson, and Chris Peterson. I will also introduce students to the important work being done by sociologists Chris Smith, Philip Gorski, Nicolette Manglos and myself on theorizing the common good using sociological theories and tools.

What articles or books have you read that would be instructive for students and academics working in positive sociology? What do you see as the strengths and potential pitfalls of the positive sociology movement? Would you like to join the new network of positive sociologists?

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  • I’m applying for grad studies in psychology this fall, and one of my chief interests is positive psychology. I’ve found many connections between positive psychology and virtue ethics, and I’m fascinated by your posts on positive sociology.

    The challenge that faces all these approaches is one you mentioned briefly in your post: defining what is good. PERMA seems a good start, psychologically. But one can argue (and psychologists have) with each of the aspects that are defined by it. I don’t know how one could achieve consensus on the “common good” or “flourishing” defined sociologically. Indeed, the social and political history of the past several centuries seems to be a parade of people rejecting one definition of good, proposing another, often pursuing some proposed good until it achieves disastrous results, leading others to reject, propose, pursue, etc.

    Perhaps the reason psychology and sociology focus so much on what’s wrong is that it is so much easier to agree when something is horribly wrong than it is to agree on what is “right” or “best” or “ideal” – or maybe even “acceptable”.

    I base my own notion of the good on an Aristotelian/Thomistic framework; but this is hardly likely to be convincing to most people today.

    • Your comments are right on–it is indeed hard to arrive at a consensus of the good. I think Andrew Sayer has a good discussion of this in his book, “Why Things Matter to People.” Phil Gorski of Yale also has an (as of yet) unpublished paper on this issue. Both Gorski and Sayer, I think, would argue that the human good is plural, hence there can be different versions of the good. Both would stop short of saying any version of the good is equally good–and that is the hard part for most people to accept–that is, that we can at times say some person or some culture’s vision of the good is in fact NOT good. But in practice, Sayer is very quick to point out, we all live and act as if we can define what is good or bad. Who wants to say that mass murder is good, or that it’s okay to let someone think it’s good?

      Perhaps the best route is to a) acknowledge that everyone has some vision of the good b) acknowledge the sources of the viewpoint and c) discuss the vision of the good. In that way, we all might expand or even revise our our version of the good.

      To move away from any discussion of the good in order to avoid disagreement may end up leaving us with no vision of the good. Is no vision of the good “good” for psychology or sociology? I think not.

      If you send me an email, I can share Phil Gorski’s paper with you if you like.

    • Jason Powers

      I recommend you read Isaac Prilleltelsky’s work on justice as wellness. Awesome.

  • I have almost finished a 2nd read of Ken Wilber’s “A Sociable God” and while it may be a bit more focused on sociology of religion specifically, I feel it overlaps with issues that positive sociology takes on. He makes a number of remarks about the field of sociology in the book. (Get the 2007 edition rather than the original, as it has a long intro which updates the original with much more of his intervening work.) Wilber, whatever one thinks of his emphases, concepts, etc. (and I like them, personally) is important to listen to because of the deliberate nature of his interdisciplinary study and perspective. He also has a more informed and deeper view of why and how religions are also important (and “positive”, with all their shortcomings) sociologically than most academics do. (And he’s not Christian, if you are unaware.)

    • That sounds like a great book. Thanks! And thanks for the tips on the editions as well; I like long introductions with updates.

  • Michelle Hansen

    How exciting to hear that such a conversation is happening in the field of sociology. Margarita I look forward to future posts about this from you. I thought you might find this web link interesting. It provides an overview of a conference of 1,500 delegates from various academic fields gathered together to discuss the concept of human flourishing. Hope it is helpful:)
    Michelle, New Zealand

    • Thanks so much for this link Michelle! I will check it out, and do keep me posted.


  • Ayana Clarke

    Hi Margarita –

    The organization I currently work for has been doing quite a bit of work
    with Angela Duckworth and others to incorporate principles or positive
    psychology into the development of a character ed program and that’s
    what’s sparked me to look into positive sociology.

    In the past few days I’ve read your various posts and am cognitively salivating 🙂 at the idea of positivity being looked at and developed through a sociological lens. I’m currently completing a Master’s of Science in Social Foundation of Education and would love to further explore the developments in positive sociology.

    I’ve noted the recommendations in your previous posts, but was wondering if there is a college program anywhere or any educational opportunities available for someone who was interested in studying more about this burgeoning field. As well, are there any ways to contribute to the the research of positive sociology? As I prepare to do my thesis and continue on to complete phD studies, I’m interested in exploring this more and would love to stay abreast of the development of the research.

    ANY insight/direction you could give would be greatly appreciated.

    In another post, I read a string of comments with possible suggestions
    of names for this field. What about “sociology of enhancement”?

    Looking forward to reading your future blogs and research!