Sociology explores social life: the relations and divisions between people, the relationship between individual agency and larger social structures. C. Wright Mills, a mid-twentieth-century American sociologist, has deﬁned sociology’s aim as translating between “private troubles” and “public issues.” For example, one person losing a job or one child bullied for being Jewish would be “private troubles.” These would relate to the “public issues” of unemployment or antisemitism – but not always in a straightforward way. Sociology’s task, therefore, is to understand how these two levels are related. In this sense, sociology contrasts to other social sciences: to economics, on the one hand, which more often examines a public issue like unemployment without reference to the diverse personal experiences of joblessness which lie beneath it, or to psychology, on the other hand, which explores personal experiences but not in relation to the larger social structures bearing down on them. Sociologists, then, tend to understand culture as part of social life, looking at how it reﬂects,
produces or is embedded in social distinctions and divisions. Sociologists are less interested in the aesthetic or creative dimensions of culture, and more interested in the social forces expressed through culture, or the way it gives meaning to social life. Sociologists tend to deﬁne culture as “the social process whereby people communicate meanings, make sense of their world, construct their identities, and deﬁne their beliefs and values” (Best 2007). For instance, Mills argued that culture always expresses the working of power. As sociology became institutionalized as an academic discipline in the twentieth century, it tended not to focus explicitly on culture, until a “cultural turn” of the 1980s placed it at the center of the discipline. However, the early architects of sociology were profoundly concerned with culture, and issues such as ethnicity and assimilation have been on its agenda throughout. Sociologists have approached Jewishness in two main ways. Some sociologists have used the
conceptual and methodological tools of sociology to examine Jewish life, including Judaism as a religion, either as an object of study in itself or to explore larger social questions. Other sociologists have instead sought to explain non-Jewish attitudes to Jews, including antisemitism, again either as an object of study in itself or because antisemitism might help tell us something about societies in which antisemitism ﬂourishes. These two approaches to Jewishness were already apparent in one of the ﬁrst questions
sociology addressed as it emerged as a discipline. Sociology was born in Europe at the historical moment when modern society was emerging from the ancien regime which preceded it. In
earlier historical periods, Jews had always interacted with wider Christian society, but had remained both excluded and autonomous from it. With the emergence of nation-states and of modern citizenship, European intellectuals engaged in a debate about the status of Jews within the new order, and the validity of the exclusions and privileges they had experienced. Should they be “emancipated”: given the freedoms of Christian citizens? Should they – could they – be assimilated into wider society? This debate was known as “the Jewish question.” As the postcolonial scholar Aamir Mufti has argued (2007), this question has been one of the
constitutive questions of Western modernity. Sociology, therefore, has always had an intimate and tense relationship with Jewishness. All three of the discipline’s “founding fathers” – Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim (two of whom, Marx and Durkheim, had Jewish forebears) – had a strong interest in, and ambivalent response to, the Jewish question. As we shall see in this chapter, the conceptions of “Jewish culture” with which sociology has worked have been deﬁned by the terms of this question. Later, as we shall also see, alternative conceptions of Jewishness would arise within sociology (both in Eastern Europe and in North America), which saw Jews as an ethnic group.