Perhaps envisioning Chris Uggen as a Sociological Spiderman last week got me going, but over the past few days, I have found myself thinking about all kinds of super-hero analogies and metaphors for sociologists and the sociological enterprise. The one that has stuck with me is the idea of sociologists as “Society’s Super Egos.”
I’m not sure exactly where I got the idea—maybe from a review or backcover blurb I once read that described the foundational German sociologist Georg Simmel as the “Sigmund Freud of society.” It was Freud, after all, who came up with the whole super ego concept. Clearly the most sociological of his ideas, Freud thought of the super ego as a kind of psychic representative of societal norms and expectations which acted a constraint on the otherwise greedy interests, impulses, and self-absorption of the ego and its animating id (see: Civilization and its Discontents.)
I find it both useful and amusing to think of sociology as a kind of societal super ego. As analysts of “the social,” we are almost by nature critics and contrarians, always searching for different ways to see social arrangements and alternatives to the conventional wisdom; exposing inequalities and injustices; advocating for the marginalized, the forgotten, and the dispossessed; unpacking taken-for-granted assumptions and cultural norms; and delving into how things came to be and how they might be better. When it is done properly, sociology operates as a kind of collectively oriented, self-reflective mirror or lens, that reflects back at us—all of us. Playing both the Devil’s Advocate and the critical onlooker seems to be our birthright. In a broader, less self-oriented context, sociology’s critical orientation and perspectives provides society and all its aggregated actors a means of self-assessment, collective reflection, and even, if you will, a collective conscience.
Of course, playing the part of the collective super ego has its downsides and dangers. One of the downsides is that naysayers and critics are not always the most well-understood or beloved members of a community (we all well aware of the tendency to blame the messenger or marginalize the critic). As for dangers, the super ego role requires a certain, very real degree of arrogance, of we-know-best aloofness. This is as it should be. Often the whole point of sociological practice is to assemble information and ideas that are missing from public knowledge or run counter to received understandings. Heck, we invented the notion of false consciousness. You gotta have big egos, super-sized egos, to do that! And this is where my amusement with thinking of sociologists as society’s super ego takes a bit more serious turn.
Sometimes our opinions of ourselves can get a little too big. We can become too confident in ourselves and our visions of society, too disconnected from the realities and experiences of those whose perspectives may be different, but who make their meanings and worlds just like us. I’ve written about that several times over the last few weeks and won’t repeat that all here. Instead, what I want to do is underscore this second and perhaps more familiar meaning of the term “super ego”–one that is just too big, too full of itself and only itself, not realizing that any self always requires others that is it constantly defined by and in relationship to. I take this additional or alternative meaning of super ego as a cautionary tale, a manifestation of the sociological mission and practice that we must always be careful about falling into.
And what I really like is at the end of the day, and why I think i find the phrase so amusing, provocative, and on-point, is how these different ways of thinking about the term super ego fit together, the kind of ironic, self-depreciating way that the term Society’s Super Ego works when you put the psychoanalytic and more common sense meanings together. Thinking of ourselves as society’s super egos provides a neat framework for taking the sociologist’s role in and relationship to society seriously, but not so seriously that we flip from being bearers of information and insight to experts who cannot be questioned or ultimate arbiters of right and wrong or good and bad. We inhabit social worlds just like everyone else, and we’ve got a particular, kind of complicated role to play in it. We should embrace our super ego role and, at the same time, be careful not too get too caught up in our own super egos–and, of course, to always use the super powers of sociology for good rather than evil.