GLS 511: The Social Organization of Cruelty
This course examines the origins and organization of cruelty (slavery, torture, genocide, child abuse, the treatment of "inmates" in nursing homes and mental hospitals) with the aim of: 1) developing a general theory of cruelty, and 2) better understanding cruelty as an ongoing social achievement.
In contrast go most, perhaps all, other species, human agression and predation (e.g., interpersonal violence, slavery, war, genocide, torture for political purposes, and the treatment of "inmates" in nursing homes and institutions for persons with disabilities) are often done with full knowledge of, and sometimes the intention of, inflicting pain and injury. This is what distinguishes cruelty from mere aggression and predation. The major objective of this course is to help students to develop a general theory of cruelty that encompasses interpersonal, middle range (e.g., family, organization), and macroscopic (societal, historical) levels.
We will of course recognize the importance of considering both biogenetic and psychogenic explanations. However, to avoid reducing cruelty to these levels, will, heuristically, treat cruelty as a social achievement. That is, we expect to find that even in situations of great cruelty:
- Persons are learning and performing complementary roles and identities, e.g., victims and victimizers.
- There is a division of labor; e.g., those who identify "deviant" persons, those who pass laws making the victimization legal, those who run the trains, those who operate the camps, prisions, and special hospitals.
- There are hierarchies of power, authority, prestige, and privilege.
- There are reward and punishment contingencies; e.g., for being a "good" victim or victimizer.
- There are norms and rules; e.g., about how "far" one can go.
- There are culturally-sanctioned methods by which actors make sense of what they are doing or what is happening to them.
The course will be interdisciplinary. It will draw on historical and contemporary research in social psychology (e.g., experiments on obedience and attitude formation); ethnographies and autobiographical accounts of mental hospitals, nursing homes, prison camps and concentration camps; historical research on genocidal movements; current sociological research on family violence; moral philosophy; poetry and plays.
Last Update: March 8, 2004