Analysing society and culture is religious.
This is the argument that this text advances towards.
One way to visit the religious within sociology is through (one of) the most enduring problem(s) of (macro) sociology in all times; the agent-structure problem.
Simply put, it’s a chicken and egg type of problem: do individuals’ practices form a/the social structure, or does the social structure constrain and explain human practices. And consequently, to what extent do individuals have, if at all, the ability (agency) to act independently of anything ‘social’ (e.g. social structure, social capital, social location, social conditions, etc.).
Most sociologists would surely join me in saying that there is insurmountable ‘evidence’ for the significant ways in which social structure is limiting our actions, which in turn reproduce it. Whichever categories we use to ‘feel out’ the social structure (e.g. class, gender, race/ethnicity, time, nature/environment, etc.), the conclusion remains that thoughts, practices, prospects and so on – are powerfully constrained by (and overall reproduce) the existing norms, practices, statuses, discourses… you name it.
At the same time we also recognise agency. Had the domination of structure been the only determinant, then the social sciences would have been a very boring philosophy. Worse, we wouldn’t need sociologists to tell us what we already know (notwithstanding the ‘how’ questions); namely to maintain that the the strong remains stronger than the weeker week, for all its nuances and complexities (e.g. intersectionality). This also risks rendering inequality and injustice unchangeable givens, if not meaningless.
Another problem with ‘social structure’ is assuming it in the first place. Critics would ask: where is this supernatural invisible omnipresent ‘social structure’? Is it not simply constructed by reoccurring actions of people (=agents)? And if everything agents can do only reproduced the same structure, then how come we do change reality? (Some structures evolve fairly quickly too… consider, for example that women could not vote only a hundred years ago, and blacks in America until the 1960s. Or the more recent transformation in Western attitudes towards non-‘heterosexuals’ (and non-cisgenders), and so on). The persistence of social- / power-structure is insufficient for explaining such changes.
A parallel way to think of this duality is through the impossibility of language. In the same way that native spoken language is something shared, with grammatical, syntax and other rules that are ‘naturally occurring’ or ‘spontaneously generated,’ but is also being performed (and changes) by its users; society too is an impossible symbolic system that is both performed by agents, and limits them. And, like agents’ actions, using language or translation are not performed by the individual speaker or translator, but (also) through time and place conventions.
The need for a dialectical solution that can extricate the social from this paradox has occupied the biggest sociologists (notably Giddens and Bourdieu, who tried to reconcile agent and structure. Recent attempts continue to cope with the immense power of structure without suggesting that action is meaningless, or resistance futile, e.g. by facilitating power through unwilling agency (Sara Ahmed 2014: 51-55); or by avoiding the essentialism of ‘structure’ altogether, and preferring ‘routinised practices,’ e.g. Unger, in some ways (not too far from Goffman I think).
2) Religious origin
Anyway, I would like to argue that this ‘problem’ was not the brainchild of the social sciences. It is a modernised secularised version of the ‘Free Will vs. Predestination paradox,’ which has disturbed (and divided) Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam (here too), and others – for thousands of years. That is, whether the omniscient and omnipotent God knows in advance or not whether an individual is going to sin.
If God is all-knowing, then God knows whether one is about to sin before one is even born. Namely, humans are predestined to be good or bad, and have no free will. Paraphrasing Sara Ahmed words, we are willed to will what God wills us to will. The problem for the clergy in this scenario is that God is unjust, because God is rewarding/punishing humans for what God has predestined them to be. Alternatively, God remains fair by giving humans free will, but then God is not all-knowing, because God does not know about (neither interferes with) how they will act. In a sense, in free will, man can create over its creator.
So, you choose, Is your God not all-knowing, or not fair?
In this problem of free-will vs. the Divine, sociologists merely replaced the omnipresent omniscient omnipotent providence of God with the secularised omnipresent omniscient omnipotent providence of Society. God is not dead as Nietzsche thought, but has transformed, as Carl Schmidt suggests. (Or, in relation to some of Talal Assad’s ideas).
The renown French (atheist and über-postivist) anthropologist Durkheim argued already in 1912 that ‘the sacred’ that believers worship is not imaginary. Rather, the emotional venerate that they feel towards it in religious life – is real, he explained, as what they feel is the sense of security emanating from their communal living and congregated practices. In other words, The holy is the social. Durkheim effectively replaced God with Society.
Carl schmidtt similarly argued that the Law is the new God.
More recently, Latour ridiculed in his critique how ‘the social’ is presupposed in Bourdieu’s sociology, as the already-answered to the pseudo-problem Bourdieu is pretending to address. He later builds his social anew, thus the social remains an idea, or at most an analytical construct that, in a sense, resides in sociologists’ heads. After all, humans power lies exactly in the flexible ability to imagine, construct, believe, practice and make ideas ‘real’.
Perhaps the reason for the resurfacing of this troubling problem in ‘the age of reason’ is that the agent-structure and the free-will vs. predestination are extensions of the problem of our existence. Of the meaning of life.
Either way, social structure is a construct that depends on your conviction.