The Sociology of Kurt Vonnegut

I don’t know precisely why this blog turned into “fiction authors I like + sociology” all of a sudden, but for the moment I’ll run with it. I was reading the comments to a recent orgtheory post about teaching intro soc* when something in Andrew Perrin’s comment reminded me of a saying of Vonnegut’s. Here’s what Andrew said:

“Most importantly, I drill into their heads that the whole point of the course is to evaluate critically the proposition that “The Fundamental Unit of Human Behavior is the Group.” They need not agree with it but they need to be able to think with it as an approach.”

First, I rather like that as a programmatic statement for Sociology. It certainly beats “the study of modern capitalist society” or “the study of modernity” or especially “the study of society”. It’s a nice little methoodological maxim that is both hard to communicate and essential to understanding much of what sociologists have done and thought. It also reminded me of this oft-repeated (with variations) quote of Vonnegut’s:

Do you know what a Humanist is? I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

I like the idea of “community” as an abstraction with which we have real familiarity and connection, and I think it fits nicely with the idea of the group as the fundamental unity of human behavior. The group is, in a way, both concrete and abstract. I wonder if, having been raised a humanist, I found sociology a nice fit when I finally arrived (late to the party) in graduate school. Of course humans are interdependent. Of course you have to study communities and groups to understand individuals. Who could be so silly as to think otherwise?

Anyway, that’s a tidbit about Vonnegut. It’s strange, his death** last year affected me more than that of any other person I had never met. I spent weeks reading his speeches and essays, and re-reading a few of his books. My friend Kelan suggested at the time a comparison of Foucault and Bokonon, a prophet and religious leader in Cat’s Cradle, which I have still been meaning to look into. Here’s Bokonon on the Quest for Understanding:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land,
Man got to tell himself he understand.

S’all I got for now. Prelim studying beckons, along with a silly banquet.

* I, too, never took an intro soc class, or really any undergrad soc classes, so I have nothing to add to that conversation, but found it interesting.
**“Kurt is up in Heaven now.” Haha!

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