Sociologist as Killjoy: In Defence of Pessimism


Roy Coleman 

In ‘advanced’ societies it is now normal to be told to put-on a bright, happy or at least relaxed face before work commences. Sociologists are not immune to this process: it is structured into the procedures of academia like any other ‘workplace’. And like other 21st century workplaces we glimpse “a weird assortment of gurus and consultancies ….pushing the cult of happiness”. Mindfulness courses, student experience dogma and the ‘I work in a happy-place’ academic-come-ambassador at university open days are evidence of the pressure to perform happiness. Less obviously, the key to ‘job satisfaction’ and ‘success’ in the university workplace is now deemed quantifiable in how many publications one turns out, how much funding one attracts and how many students one enrols. The performance of happiness is also writ large in city governments all over the advanced world and part of the economic impulse to attract investment, tourists and consumers. In short, there are many areas in life where we are forced to be ambassadorial in outlook: to take on the role of cheerful and uncomplaining promoters of places, workspaces and aspiring selves. Striving for happiness is the obligation, the duty and responsibility of all workers (and consumers) to perform happiness. In Emile Durkheim’s terms this is a wrongheaded view of ‘happiness’ which reduces it to a possession ecouraged by a damaging drive to ‘success’ which he called”morbid”.

The founders of sociology were onto these tendencies and saw them as the negative side to progress or rational modernity. In their sociology they fought back with a challenge to the forced optimism of modernity and its promises of ‘the good life’ – whether capitalist, socialist or communist. Forced optimism was identified by sociologists in many guises and witnessed in Durkheim’s notion of the forced division of labour, Simmel’s identification of the blasé attitude to suffering, Wirth’s idea of passive spectatorism engrained in a cheap thrills culture, Mills’ rejection of the cheerfull sociologist and Robert Park’s worry that mass jovial escapism leads to an inability to change the world compassionately. Many of these writers have been rebranded by later sociological ‘masters’ as naïve optimists, supporters of the status quo and defenders of established cultural political economies. In fact, they expressed concern that our path to rationally engineered social contentment was doomed without the intimacy and compassion that such paths eskwew. Forced optimism will encourage social harms.

The rebranding of sociology’s roots led to a colder, more calculating social science in the 20th century with the likes of Parsons, Giddens, Habermas and Beck. (Post)Modernist thinkers inaugurated a mechanical, over-rational and impassive modelling of social formations whereas their forbears pointed in the opposite direction: the irrational basis of social life, for good and bad. Durkheim’s critique of Kant applies to the calculating sociologists that came after him:

“With some people it is….a disposition for discipline that predominates. They do their duty without hesitation …and without any particular appeal to their hearts. These are men of substantial intellect and strong will …but among whom the emotional faculties are much less developed than those of the intellect” (Durkheim, 1925).

Durkheim attacks duty and obligation as detached from (and otherwise unfit for) the generation of compassion, care and happiness. Duty is the modern, forced and avenue to fake emotional expression – it stifles spontaneity.

Durkheim’s sociology pointed to the social and psychic harms generated by the forced optimism implied in duty and the channelling of the passions into worship of technology, the search for novelty and ‘fun’, endless acquisition and “infinite desiring”. Forced optimism – engrained into laisse faire market economies and critiqued by Durkheim – represents the apex of what Mestrovic calls the postemotional bully. It is an unleashing of a certain kind of blind optimism or emotional channelling that has as its target the next acquisition, the next status enhancement or – for Veblen at least – the next step taken on the wrung of established hierarchy. As Durkheim said “we must not be dazzled” by such developments because they are “taking place in the midst of a morbid effervescence, the grievous repercussions of which each one of us feels”. Egoistic ‘success’, narcissism and weariness go hand-in-hand in his view. Suicide, he reminds us, is born not of normlessness but of too many norms that stress unlimited ‘social’ connection, espouse ‘success’ at all costs, limitless wealth creation, status assertion and other by-words of civilization.

We would do well to go back to some early sociologists without the established textbook assumptions as to what they were about. For one, Durkheim railed against pragmatism in sociology because pragmatism is the enemy of truth and promotes a kind of bright-sided mentality in which the pragmatist does not waste time “worrying about knowing about whether there is anything else” beyond the appearance of something. On the whole, pragmatists want to be liked and accepted – particularly by the powerful. On more than one occasion, Durkheim indicated that pragmatists are happy to be of service and unconcerned to have the object of knowledge defined for them. Unlike our partly pessimistic (for good reason) sociological ancestors, states and corporations are not in the business of inquiring into the nature of morbidity, melancholia and suicidal feelings in contemporary social orders. They want and receive research that follows the pragmatic line that helpfully tries to find “a powerful incentive for workers [and consumers] to turn themselves into happiness police”.

Pragmatic sociologists are mere fine-tuners of established institutional practice, expert counsellors and gurus – no better than what Mills called the “cheerful idiot”, who “can only judge work in social science according to whether or not its conclusions are gloomy or sunshiny, negative or constructive” (1959).

What we have seen in capitalist modernity is the pathologization of spontaneous non-authorized emotional energy.  

As we are increasingly compelled to ‘like’, ‘follow’ and ‘interact’ (all entrepreneurial business inspired mantras). And particularly in the ‘workplace’ (a place for many of true misery and suffering) we see the increasing relevance of our early sociological heritage that picked up on the commercialization of emotion, the enforced passivity of civilized life and the deadening of spontaneous passions in civilised modernity. What we have seen in capitalist modernity, and in communist variants, is the pathologization of spontaneous non-authorized emotional energy. Such energy has always been imagined as something tied to political insurrection, dissent and ‘dangerous’ unprompted social change. The uncomfortable truth is that our modern lives witness increased disillusionment – a paradox for Weber, Durkheim and others – and in its wake the ubiquitous happiness police attempt to contrive wellbeing into lives caught-up in the drudgery of work, the tedium of bureaucracy and the boredom of acquisitiveness. As the man said: “what we have to discover is society as it is, not a society as it sees itself” (Durkheim, 1925).

‘Happiness’ is now a matter of reputation management and its successful performance is a means of gaining competitive advantage over rivals.

The lesson from early social science is that ‘happiness’ cannot be engineered, taught or institutionally syringed. This will only increase harm. The artificially inseminated ‘happy workplace’ is even more likely to lead to a denial of harms and career us into greater morbidity. ‘Happiness’ is now a matter of reputation management and a means of gaining competitive advantage over rivals. One recent consequence of this has been the routine denial of endemic levels of sexual harassment committed by university academics against students within image conscious universities keen to protect their “own reputations in an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace”.  

Our established routes to happiness (consumption, status enhancement, emotional labour) are in fact worsening social morbidity as Durkheim called it. This is a morbidity in which the denial of stress, harassment and violence are the institutional norm.  Looked at this way, ‘happiness’ regimes are no more than the rational bureaucratic means to extract acquiescence to terminal tedium. The veneer of institutionalized cheerfulness only serves to further mystify power and its abuses. Right now, social scientists need to be proactive killjoys.


Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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