Grounded Thought

At the end of Voltaire’s great satire of the Enlightenment, his erstwhile “hero” Candide asks his profoundly naïve and misguided teacher, Pangloss, whether he still believes that everything happens for the best—in spite of the comically terrible injuries and injustices they and their party have endured throughout the book (including famine, death, rape, torture, and mutilation). Pangloss says that, yes, he must hold to his view, even in the face of a lifetime of refutation, because it’s been derived logically, from first principles.

Such is the pathology of abstract thought, Voltaire seems to say. This is one of the foundations of modern social science. Good social science is always engaged with the realities of the empirical world; that engagement gives us data that keeps us grounded, gives us focus, and separates us from the arts and humanities (despite their distinct contributions).

Paradoxically, in our media-driven, information-obsessed culture, good data and basic knowledge are both more necessary and more elusive than ever. That’s where Contexts, now in its second decade, comes in.

In this issue, for example, our colleagues at Missouri State University describe how their very academic study of social capital in the Ozarks has profoundly impacted how community leaders and organizations are doing public policy and approaching their collective future. Other pieces use interviews and broader demographic data to put the challenges faced by young and low-income parents on a human scale. We’re also lucky enough to pair an extended interview with Census Director Robert Groves and an enumerator’s field report to highlight the complexities and value of the most elemental, longstanding, and essential data collection we know in the U.S.

Of course, data and information are not all sociology contributes to public discourse. Our unique, often critical perspectives of social life are also crucial, and we are very excited to share Richard Lachmann’s article situating contemporary complaints about American society in the context of the decline of previous western European powers. It offers the kind of broad, big-thinking historical perspective and critique that thoughtful sociologists can do so well—and that might, just maybe, help inform and inspire others to better understand and engage the challenges of the era.

Finally, we have a look at sleep from British sociologist Simon Williams. We’ve been angling for a piece on sleep since we began our editorship, and Williams’s piece, at the intersection of information, analysis, and perspective, really shows how sociology uncovers fresh insights about activities that are otherwise ignored as mere personal problems or left to biology or medicine. Williams thinks critically and creatively about sleep, assembling research and data that informs his perspective. This is a great example of what sociologists have to contribute already and how much more work remains to be done.

Whether such data and analysis allow us to rest easier in our lives and communities or compel us to wake up and smell the coffee is an open question. But for conversations ranging from private concerns to major public problems, grounded thought is clearly as important now as it was in Voltaire’s day.