To Rebuild Society, We Should Rethink our Foundation
By Julia Polese, Intern
On February 13th, New York Times columnist David Brooks examined the current trends in sociological study that have displaced economic and cultural determinism as the primary explanation for the weakening of the American social fabric. He explains that regardless of the origin of social disorganization – job loss, government growth, or abandonment of traditional norms – it continues through the generations. Disruption causes more disruption and weakening social fabric within certain communities can be tied not primarily to sweeping moral decay or the recession, but to sociological factors on as small a scale as a child’s attachment to his parents. “It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies,” he writes. “The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities.”
This trend points to a third route between the extremes of building the Great Society and subsidizing atomization. Sociological studies in the past several decades regarding crime and reasons for delinquent behavior have largely drawn from Social Control Theory, outlined by Travis Hirschi in 1969. In his seminal work, Causes of Delinquency, Hirschi broke with the preceding scholarly consensus by claiming that both delinquents and those who have not committed crimes share the same disposition to delinquency, but what differentiates them are their social bonds and relation to conventional society that constrain their baser passions. The sociologist named attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief as four essential aspects of a person’s development. Deficiency in one or more of these values can weaken one’s social bonds and, as many subsequent studies drawing from Hirschi’s theory have shown, lead to delinquent behavior. The key to social disruption is breakdown in relationships.
Brooks writes that in order to “rebuild orderly communities,” orderly people need to be cultivated. While the columnist proposes sometimes using the government to build “organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly,” these structures do not have to be created by tax codes and mandates to provide individual incentives to behave. Rather, the family structure can provide such an incubator for responsible citizenship. As the fundamental “orderly community” and basis of civil society, the family shapes a child’s belief in the norms around him, his attachment to others, and involvement in and commitment to the community.
“Social repair requires sociological thinking,” says Brooks, and the sociological data consistently has revealed the significant role the intact family can have in reweaving the disintegrating social fabric. However, sociological thinking must be done within the correct paradigm. Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, states that “Sociology done well cannot but reflect the way God made man.” A correct anthropology in light of our state as fallen creatures must inform attempts at “social repair.” Sociology is reflective, but cannot be fundamentally reparative. Repair begins with grace from outside us that constrains our passions and reorders our will to what is good. The family is one means of such grace, and the data cannot help but reflect the goodness of this first structure.