Last week I was making small talk with a student about another class in which I had seen her taking a test. “Social psychology. It’s very practical.” she quipped. I tried not to take this as a comment upon the subject matter I dearly love, namely, that sociology is impractical. Later, however, as the discussion revolved around exchange theory, and the possible advantage of doing someone a favor, she suggested that social psych had ready the concept of equity. They really aren’t the same because in equity theory, relationships seek balance, but in exchange theory, doing someone a favor creates an imbalance of power, which establishes reciprocity.
I don’t fault the student here, but rather, the whole context in which we operate, one in which the views and findings of sociology are undervalued, especially as impractical, particularly by psychology. It reminds me of Thomas Merton’s interpretation of Chuang Tzu’s parable of “The Useless Tree.” Here the Taoist is in dialog with a noted logician, friend and intellectual rival, Hui Tzu.
~ The Useless Tree ~
Hui Tzu said to Chuang, “I have a big tree, the kind they call a “stinktree.” The trunk is so distorted, so full of knots, no one can get a straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked you cannot cut them up in any way that makes sense.”
“There it stands beside the road. No carpenter will even look at it. Such is your teaching – big and useless.”
Chuang Tzu replied, “Have you ever watched the wildcat crouching, watching his prey. The prey leaps this way, and that way, high and low, and at last lands in the trap. And have you seen the Yak? Great as a thundercloud, he stands in his might. Big? Sure, but he can’t catch mice!”
“So for your big tree, no use? Then plant it in the wasteland, in emptiness. Walk idly around it, rest under its shadow. No axe or bill prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down.”
“Useless? You should worry!”
interpreted by Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, Abbey of Gethsemani, 1965
Whether the tree or teaching is useless depends on one’s perspective. Moreover, the element of time, so key to thinking about conflict resolution methods and their utility, seems also to be in play.
I will lead class with this passage today. We will be talking about functionalism, Talcott Parsons, and his AGIL scheme for interpreting the functions of social systems. I will also be talking about Michael Burawoy’s 2004 ASA Presidential Address, “For Public Sociology” which not only analyzes various sociologies—professional, policy, critical and public—in terms of these functions, but also represents a call to action for public sociology. Briefly, public sociology reflects on the discipline itself, in a way that is oriented to external audiences (hence, public), and thus performs an integrative function. This blog might be viewed in part as public sociology.
Not everything must be practical or instrumental at all times. This part of Taoism, which I think has more general affinities with the Tantric view, may be offered as a critique, not only of Confucian, but also Western views of utility. In any case, it is a “teachable moment,” and thus integrative.