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We Need A Sociology of Flourishing

Since our founding as a discipline over 180 years ago, sociologists have become masters at studying social problems. Sociologists can explain the overt and covert mechanisms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism with great precision. Our disciplinary ability to explain social well-being and flourishing, however, is dull. We need to sharpen our tools.

Many disciplines are trying to answer important questions about well-being and flourishing: What is well-being? How do we nurture it? And how do we sustain it? The most prominent subdiscipline answering these questions is positive psychology, a discipline explicitly focused on understanding how individuals come to thrive. Other disciplines, too, have made shifts toward studying well-being: educational scholars are studying how to promote healing, ecologists are studying how to regenerate forests, and economists are studying the economics of happiness, to name a few. A collection of funders—including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation—have supported this turn.

Well-being is in. But are sociologists keeping up?

To be sure, some sociologists have studied well-being. In the 1940s, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton examined the “axes of life,” which included staying alive, having fun, serving God, getting ahead, and advancing the collective and individual success of Black people. In the 1970s, Aaron Antonovsky introduced “salutogenesis,” the study of factors that support human health. In the 2010s, Erik Wright studied real utopias. Even more recently, Corey Keyes has illuminated the contours of mental flourishing, Michèle Lamont has taught us how to see one another, Robert Stebbins has shown us how to pursue what makes life worth living, and Laurel Westbrook and stef shuster have even revealed the joy in embodying a marginalized identity. // PeopleImages

Even so, sociology as a discipline is missing the tsunami of intellectual energy devoted toward the study of well-being present in other fields. Other disciplines have grown subdisciplines with a critical mass of scholarship devoted to studying flourishing. Sociology has not. A quick look at the last two decades of our flagship journals—Social Problems, the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, and the American Sociological Review—demonstrates this point: 90% of the mentions of “well-being” in relation to Black people are about how social structures impede Black well-being or descriptions of ill-being in Black communities. This scholarship focuses on the absence of well-being rather than its presence.

Sociologists seem to agree that we are trying to ameliorate social problems. Indeed, it is important to understand social problems. In practice, though, we appear to be putting most of our energy into studying these problems rather than investigating the mechanisms that might solve them.

Our relative absence in the study of well-being is alarming because our discipline has unique and valuable tools that could benefit this field. First, we bring a well-refined, critical lens born from studying inequality and problems. Second, we theorize about micro, meso, and macro social processes. Finally, we use a host of different methods to accomplish these tasks. The upshot is simple: we have a lot of theoretical and methodological rigor to bring to these scholarly conversations.

What might a robust sociology of flourishing look like? We argue that it’s not simply the opposite of the sociology of languishing or ill-being; understanding the mechanisms driving ill-being does not mean we know how to foster well-being. To move our discipline toward greater engagement with flourishing, we propose three strategies: ask different questions, study hotspots of well-being, and embrace paradoxes.

Ask different questions: If we ask questions about inequality, we will understand inequality. To understand flourishing, however, we need to ask different questions. For example, instead of asking, “How does social inequality come about?” we can ask, “How does social equality come about?” Instead of asking, “What are the fundamental causes of illness?” we can ask, “What are the fundamental causes of well-being?” By asking different questions, we can open our theoretical and empirical investigations to a wider range of findings.

Study hotspots of well-being: One of the best ways to understand flourishing is to study places that seem to be producing it. We speak from personal experience here. Auldridge-Reveles’s work explores the day-to-day experiences of low-income people who grow up in the places most likely to promote upward social mobility. Murphy’s work explores the agentic and creative practices that Black people use to make rewarding, satisfying, and dignified geographies and lives.

Embrace paradoxes: Poverty and disadvantage do not preclude well-being, just as wealth and advantage do not necessarily foster well-being. The best sociological research on languishing and suffering embraces paradoxes, and these paradoxes produce compelling explanations of our social world. Paradoxes are not just the core of inequality and ill-being but also the core of well-being. There are unique and messy issues on both sides. We need to understand both.

This is an invitation to ask different questions, study hotspots of well-being, and embrace paradoxes. Join us—there is room for more in the sociology of flourishing.

Trevor Auldridge-Reveles is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He studies youth well-being in rural America.

Demetrius Miles Murphy is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California. He studies Black well-being in Los Angeles County.

Note: Both authors contributed equally to this work.

Comments 2

Javier Auyero

April 23, 2024

Dear Trevor and Demetrius,
Very interesting piece. A phenomenal example of what you want us sociologists to focus on is Katherine Sobering's book THE PEOPLE'S HOTEL.

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