Sociology for Optimists

Sociology for Optimists

Mary Holmes

Not many people I know would rate 2016 as amongst their favourite years. The idea that Britain would stay in the EU and Hilary Clinton would be the next President of the United States, now seem optimistic. To those troubled by the outcomes of the referendum and the Presidential election, that optimism might look awfully like a dangerous complacency. Why was it all such a surprise, would a more pessimistic outlook have helped see it coming or stopped it coming?

It is important to challenge the assumption that pessimism and pessimists are somehow cleverer and more likely to have a clear grasp of any situation. The other side of this assumption is that optimists are very likeable but a little bit thick, or at least uncritical. In contrast, I consider optimism as a vital part of the sociological toolkit for making sense of the world. My recent book Sociology for Optimists set out that argument and although Brexit and Trump have happened since the book went to press, I do not regret writing it and in fact see even more need for what I call critical optimism. Here, I will outline what I mean by critical optimism and give some brief examples of sociological work that employs it.

Critical optimism often requires effort; as Gramsci suggested it requires an act of the will. So although I am suggesting a sociology for optimists, I am not suggesting that Sociologists are miserable and should cheer up. Some sociologists may be a little on the miserable side (you know who you are). A few may be known for their (un)usually cheerful demeanour. The point is not that doing sociology requires an optimistic disposition. The point is that doing sociology should involve making efforts to think both optimistically and pessimistically. In the eighteenth century Leibniz outlined optimism as a philosophical doctrine centred around the belief that the world is the best possible world, because created by God. More recently, optimism has come to refer to an individual’s tendency to imagine a positive future. By claiming it is an effort that should be made as part of our critical thinking, I am thinking of it as a stance that can be taken. If that optimistic stance is missing from sociological endeavour then our ability to understand the social world is weakened. Without optimism, the sociological imagination is in danger of ignoring important human experiences and aspects of human life. Here I want to give one or two examples.

Without some attention to optimism it is difficult to make sense of enjoyment, pleasure or happiness. Happiness is an important part of human life, but Sociology has been rather slow to consider it. The topic is popular (perhaps surprisingly for the ‘dismal science’) amongst economists, whereas — as a recent issue of Discover Society noted — sociologists are just beginning to turn explicit attention to happiness, satisfaction and wellbeing. In attending to happiness there are dangers in seeming to align sociology with exhortations to ‘think positive’ that are peddled in numerous self-help books. This can reinforce the ways in which some powerful groups seek to maintain power by perpetuating ideas about happy, self-disciplining individuals, responsible for their own wellbeing and therefore not in need of state support. Such doctrines of positive thinking and the pursuit of happiness have been ably criticised by sociologists like Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Smile or Die and Sara Ahmed in her volume on The Promise of Happiness.

What sociology can do is engage more widely, not just with happiness, but with the range of emotions associated with human experiences of pleasure and enjoyment. That people might enjoy themselves, even under less than ideal conditions, can help us understand how people endure, but also how they resist and might challenge and change oppressive conditions. Fun may even be revolutionary. One of my favourite examples of this comes from Helena Flam’s research on political movements protesting in the latter days of central Europe’s repressive communist regimes. She describes how people feared violent reactions from the state, so, instead of the usual angry marches they organised carnivalesque, enjoyable events like pet walks and casserole parades, where people might take their dog, goldfish, or favourite casserole out for a collective walk with thousands of others. The absurdity of attacking a crowd out walking with casseroles made it difficult for the state to respond violently, while enabling the people to show their strength and unity. These enjoyable occasions were key in bringing about the fall of repressive regimes.

Optimism is also vital in addressing some of the major challenges facing human societies, such as the challenges posed by climate change. It might seem surprising that social scientists researching climate change often take an optimistic stance. If researchers are to continue to engage in this area then they may feel the need of some optimistic belief in the possibility of halting environmental disaster. What is significant, is the way in which their optimistic approaches might challenge the idea that sociology is concerned with social problems and instead suggest that it is about social questions. One interesting version of a focus on questions rather than problems is Nigel Clark’s book on Inhuman Nature, where he thinks about climate change in terms of the questions it raises about the vulnerability of human beings and about interdependence on others and on the planet. This is especially powerfully illustrated in his chapter about the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and the ways in which it broke down the usual unequal and commercialised relations between hosts and tourists and, albeit briefly, opened up opportunities to share and assist each other.

There are many other examples of sociology that is critically optimistic and from which we can learn other lessons about the social world. I hope it is clear so far, that critical optimism is not about ‘looking on the bright side’ while ignoring inequalities or exploitation or other darker aspects of human life. In discussing equality in my book I strive to document achievements and to highlight the importance of striving for equality. I argue that recognising these, often limited, signs of improvement provides a stronger basis on which to understand and deal with the inequalities that remain. Sociology involving critical optimism is evident in other research into difficult experiences. In her 2013 book on Inhabiting Borders, Ala Sirriyeh writes beautifully about the ways in which young refugee women in the UK understand and experience home. The realities of gendered violence, racism and the tortuous and often lonely asylum seeking process are made evident. Yet the book also brings to life the young women’s optimism about making a life in the UK and accounts for some of the opportunities that migration can offer for renegotiating gender norms and expectations. Part of the strength of Sirriyeh’s analysis is that it takes that optimism seriously, rather than assuming it is some form of false consciousness.

Good sociology can understand the part optimism in people’s lives and also engage optimism as part of its approach to making sense of society. It has in fact done this. Early Sociology was full of an optimistic account of human progress. Now, there have been many criticisms of that belief in progress and the paths it has led us down, but I argue that Sociology retains within it some (often implicit) expectation that by better understanding the social world it can be ‘improved’. Now, it is possible that not all sociologists agree with me, but many would acknowledge an optimistic thread within Sociology. Auguste Comte thought that sociological understanding could speed improvement of society, Karl Marx said that the point of thinking was not simply to interpret the world but to change it and for Durkheim the modern world brought new individual freedoms. Even Weber, perhaps the ‘founding father’ most easily labelled as a pessimist, notes such things as the reduction in hierarchical social differences that occur in the shift into modernity.

This optimistic thread continues and is not confined to long gone, white European men. Gurminder K. Bhambra’s 2014 book on Connected Sociologies, as well as her previous volume on Rethinking Modernity (2007) for example, stress the need for Sociology to better understand the past in order to make sense of the present and its problems but also its promise. Bhambra examines how colonisation and other historical processes constituted an interconnected social world, and rejects the idea that Europe ‘led’ the transition into modernity. She offers a way forward by revising accounts of the past in order to enhance our sociological abilities to imagine different (and implicitly more equal) futures. This is critical optimism. More is emerging of this kind of global sociology that centres different questions about how human beings make their social world and promises hope for positive change.


Mary Holmes is sociologist at the University of Edinburgh. Her intellectual project seeks to provide an empirically informed theoretical alternative to the individualisation thesis. Her recent publications include Sociology for Optimists. London: Sage (2015), ‘Men’s emotions: Heteromasculinity, emotional reflexivity, and intimate relationships’ Men and Masculinities 18(2): 176-192 (2015) and Distance Relationships: Intimacy and Emotions Amongst Academics and their Partners in Dual-Locations. (2014).