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existential sociology

existential sociology A mainly American (especially West Coast) school of sociology, which has emerged as a rejection of most orthodox scientific versions of sociology, claiming as its roots the European existential philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as the phenomenology of Husserl and Schutz. The claim is usually made that the grand laws of the Enlightenment may become new tyrannies, and need to be challenged by looking at life as it is lived, with all its angst and even terror. In some of the writings of its proponents, the world is without meaning, and the sociologist is charged with the study of the processes by which people make sense of their lives and milieu. In this, it has some similarities with the philosophies of Max Weber and (more obviously perhaps) symbolic interactionism, a claim made by Edward Tiryakian in his book Sociologism and Existentialism (1962).

The most recent proponents of this sociology stress intimate familiarity with the experiences of everyday life. Two books published in 1970 identified the new sociology. Jack Douglas's collection of readings on Understanding Everyday Life distinguished the traditional sociologies from a range of newer ones, while Stanford M. Lyman and Marvin B. Scott's A Sociology of the Absurd provided essays on such topics as time, space, and accounts, which highlighted the new approach and its areas of inquiry. More recent works such as Jack Douglas and J. Johnson's Existential Sociology (1977) and J. Kortaba and A. Fontana's The Existential Self in Society (1984) take this position further.

Existential sociology claims to study human beings in their natural settings and in all their complexities, most importantly incorporating their brute bodies and feelings into the picture, two areas that are often neglected elsewhere in sociology. It looks, for example, at chronic pain.

To date very few sociologists have followed in this tradition, and it has many critics who accuse it of creating yet another schism, of avoiding the central concerns of classical sociology, and of vulgarizing the tradition of existential philosophy developed in Europe. See also EXISTENTIALISM.

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