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Utopian Thinking in Sociology: An Interview with Art Shostak

Art Shostak is Professor of Sociology at Drexel University and editor of the new ASA teaching resource: Utopian Thinking in Sociology: Creating the Good Society. He is an enthusiastic futurist and writes extensively on topics relating to future studies which includes his research on men and abortion, and labor unions. Meghan Rich, Assistant for the Academic and Professional Affairs Program interviewed him about his work.

Why should students study utopian thought? Such thought requires that we, students and teachers alike, dare to ask what we mean when we use the concept “ideal”? What is it that is truly preferable? This a question and topic whose consideration enriches every current subject in modern sociology. The study of utopian thought uncovers hidden assumptions about possibilities about “human nature,” the workings of history, and the ability of humankind to craft a society and life that honors us all. It helps us better appreciate how long and hard humankind has wrestled with certain deep-reaching utopian questions of a sociological bent; e.g., how can a society provide fairly for all? How can we craft a society closer to our heart’s desire

This work requires that we look unflinchingly at society’s dystopian aspects, both on-going and preventable possibilities...lest we be blindsided by horrific scenarios we might have avoided sharing. No amount of preventive and humanistic preparation is too much. It teaches what is necessary if we are to get there (“utopia”) from here; that is, if we are to artfully combine directed social change with valuable aspects of social stasis. Or, as Andre Gide said,”People cannot discover new lands unless they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

It connects us to a time-honored world of mind-stretching thinkers here and abroad, ancients like the Great Philosophers, and modern sociologists of the stature of Daniel Bell, Wendell Bell, Rosabeth Moss Kantor, and Immanuel Wallerstein, along with 34 peers represented in the new ASA Teaching Manual, Utopian Thinking in Sociology.

How do you use your own utopian experiences and projects to teach?

I draw on my different experiences over the last 40 years trying to use sociology, as in helping to design para-utopian planned communities, or a progressive Job Corps camp, or empowering alternative K-12 school systems, and so on. These off-campus for-profit projects required that an inspired team, under considerable pressure, identify utopian-like goals capable of being achieved within severe budgetary limits. I highlight problems inherent in operationalizing utopian ideas and ideals, along with the partial solutions we finally settled for. I also invite students to share comparable experiences of their own, and I am also pleasantly surprised to find a few in almost any class can do so.

What are some other methods you use to teach the subject?

I employ realistic novels, like Ecotopia (Callenbach), prescriptive works of science-fiction, such as EarthFuture (Dauncey), and many films, including such dystopian works as “AI,” and “Blade Runner.” I draw on the vast body of utopian literature per se, and invite many classroom guests who are busy themselves trying to “push the envelope” where social reforms are concerned. I invite students to research and assess efforts at securing utopian gains in the last 25 years (the Commune Movement, the Freedom Budget Project, the Guaranteed Annual Income Project, the Forgiveness Tribunals, etc.), and we try to extract fresh lessons from the accounts. Above all, I challenge students to engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief,” and dream aloud of the finest possible world(s) - the better to help us plot a course there from here.

How does your work with labor unions link to utopian thought?

Labor unionists have energized me with their “Ah ha!” response to new possibilities, to ideas uncommon in their mental world, and to visions that capture their imagination and spark energetic planning. In turn, I have tried for 40 years to remind unionists of the many utopian ideals at the heart of the labor movement, the better to raise the sights of union influentials on the shop floor and in labor’s executive suite alike.

How will the field of sociology benefit from more focus on utopian thought?

For openers, the field will usefully reconnect with neglected aspects of its origins, as such early contributors as Comte, Saint-Simon, Simmel, Weber, and others, including Harriet Martineau and the forgotten early “Mothers of Sociology” all had something of value to say about utopian matters (ideals, vision, etc.), albeit not always of a flattering vein.

Second, more focus on utopian thought will enrich our many Intro textbooks.

Third, the field will have its range of concerns usefully stretched by going beyond the here-and-now to also explore systematically all kinds of possibilities (a world without paid work, or poverty, or sloth, or disease, etc.). (Theorist Charles Lemert reminds us—Sociology “does most well when it accepts its necessary nature: that what sociology talks about is unavoidably the lost worlds we imagine.”) Fourth, the field will be enriched by inputs from actors, artists, dreamers, poets, visionaries, and others around the world who artfully explore the improbable and implausible, recognizing, as they do, how flimsy are those time-bound labels.

Fifth, the field will gain from the “shock” of “discovering” how different cultures, at different times, along with subsets inside the culture, envision utopias that vary widely from one another—this a rich untapped source of sociological insights.

Sixth, the field will profit from being forced to wrestle with the body of dystopian thought a student of utopia endlessly confronts. Above all, the field will find itself challenged to re-assess its own veiled assumptions about the limits of human possibilities, and many sociologists—encountering utopian thought earnestly for perhaps the first time—may conclude humankind has far better prospects than they earlier thought.

To order Utopian Thinking in Sociology: Creating the Good Society go online at www.asanet.org or call ASA Customer Service at (202) 383-9005 x389.

Contact: Arthur B. Shostak, Department of Psychology/Sociology/Anthropology, Drexel University, Philadelphia., PA 19104; (215) 895-2466; fax (610) 668-2727; e-mail shostak@drexel.edu.