‘Buddhist Sociology’ by Inge Bell – A summary

Summary of Bell, I.P (1979) “Buddhist Sociology: Some Thoughts on the Convergence of Sociology and Eastern Paths of Liberation” in Scott G. McNall, ed. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: St Martin’s Press.

I haven’t done any commentary on this yet, but I thought I’d get this summary out anyway…

The first explicit call for a ‘Buddhist Sociology’ was made by Inge Bell (1979) who suggested that an examination of sociology from within the perspective of the ‘eastern  disciplines’ could  challenge some of the theoretical assumptions of Sociology,  inform research methods, and contribute to a critique of the profession itself.

Buddhist challenges to sociological notions of socialisation

In contrast to sociology’s view of socialisation as a mainly positive process, Bell conceputalised the realisation of Enlightenment as a process of desocialisation in which the individual unlearns everything society has taught them, including dualisms such as good and evil, subject and object, casting the enlightened being as one who, having gone through the process of desocialisation, was free to deviate from social norms and, able to see the world afresh without human concepts.

Bell further suggested that the process of realising Satori, or Enlightenment did not involve resocialisation, a process instead variously described as ‘assimilating a thought system which denies the validity of all thought systems; ‘regaining the qualities of childhood’, and ‘experiencing an expansive, unlimtied state of existence in which ‘every deed expresses originality, creativity…. [in which there is] no conventionality, creativity, no inhibitory motivation….’

Bell however did not entirely dismiss the utility of Socialisation, and accepted that there were some posiitve aspects, such as learning  language, learning to use technology and learning basic social codes, which she contrasted to ‘dangerous’ aspects of socialisation which were those tied to and generated by conern for the fate of the self, such as ideas about the afterlife; beliefs that one can be immortalised through celebrity, myths which justify the will to power, and the master illusion of the self as seperate from its environment.

Buddhist challenges to sociological conceptions of the self

Bell congratulated sociologists such as Mead and Bulmer for recognising that socialisation normally results in the creation of an ideal social-self, which is seperate from the ‘subjectively experienced self’, and that emotional problems such as anxiety can emerge when the ideal self and the ‘me’ don’t converge, but went on to criticise them for viewing the ideal-self as a necessary construction and a legitimate structure without which the individual could not function socially, and one which enabled goal-oriented behaviour, underlying a growth-process.

Bell contrasted this to the ‘Eastern view’ according to which the self is not a fixed entity, rather only a series of occurances and experiences,  and as such ‘I’ am merely a process, a continuous creation and re-creation, changing as ‘I’ enter each social situation. In such a view subjective reflections on one’s ‘ideal-self’ merely represent a refusal to accept reality fully (and thus one has to question the validity of engaging in depth-studies of the constructions of such ficticious selves)

Bell suggested that Peter Berger’s micro-analysis of the self came closest to Buddhist conceptions of the self, evidenced in such lines as ‘deception and self-deception are at the very heart of social reality….. in the end we must return to the nightmare moment when we feel ourselves stripped of all names and identities’, but criticised Berger for seeeing the proccess of realising one’s lack of self’ as a wholly negative process.

As a way of overcoming the attendent fear at the ‘death of the self’ Bell argued that we should incorporate the possibility of an Enlightened being into Sociological analysis, a being who plays many roles but does not use them to confer a sense of self; and one who has seen through the view that the self is normal and inevitable, but none the less goes on as before, but does so with a sense of lightness.

Finally in this section, Bell pointed out that incorporating an Eastern sense of self into the sociological imagination would help us realise that there is something more valuable than the conceptualising, knowledge creating ntellect, called basic intelligence, which is our ability to perceive and deal with reality without reference to accumulated knowledge.

A Buddhist contribution to methods

In a relatively short section on Metholodogy, Bell suggested that the Eastern paths could offer social researchers a  potential way of going beyond the distortions which arise because of self-interest and to engage in genuinley value-free research.

She celebrated Mannheim, Mills and Gouldner for their realisation that to do so man must understand his own position in history and how this shapes perception, but then argued that intellect alone was not enough to lift us above our values. To illustrate this, she cited the example of Mannheim (Ideology and Utopia) who, having developed an analysis of how social position formed ideology, went on to evelate his own class, the ‘social intelligensia’ to the position of the only group in society capable of seeing objectively.

Bell concluded that self-interest is rooted not in intellect, but in emotion, and so in order to transcend self-interest, we need detachment from our emotions, and ultimately to detach ourselves from self. She went on to say that enlightenment must revolutionise the practise of Sociology, which to my mind implies that Bell was suggesting that some form of spiritual training towards self-transcendence is necessary to realise a truly value-free sociology.

Toward an Enlightened Sociology

In this section, Bell vents her frustration at the fact that Sociology has almost nothing to say about how students might actually live in order to raise the quality of their lives, and that this should be remedied by restoring teaching, and personal contact between teacher and student as a central value of the profession in order to encourage students to engage in ‘enlightened self appraisal’.

She suggests that the teaching of Sociology would be most useful if it focused on encouraging students to reflect on what can be changed, as well as offering adivse on how to cope with what cannot be changed. Bell believed that at the root of all of this lay a deep-appraisal of the universe and one’s place in it, which meant getting over the notions that ‘good’ is whatever contributes to ‘my happiness and security’ and ‘bad’ is whatever threatens these things.

As a means to develop such an outlook, she suggested that the teaching of Sociology should focus on developing students’ empathetic understanding, rooted in cultural relativism which could be promoted  in a number of ways: students might be required to live in some unfamiliar part of society for a year, they might be guided into what she calls ‘sociadrama’, involving taking on the roles of others, as well as visits from various people.

Toward a Practicing Sociology

In this section Bell criticised the profession of Sociology, on a number of grounds for being full of ideas about reforming society, but making little connection between these ideas and their day-to-day actions. She cites as examples:

  • Theorising about community while junior colleagues suffer from insecure positions.
  • Moaning about inequality while thinking their own students are unworthy of their attention.
  • Claiming to be concerend with improving society yet being primarily concerend with career advancement
  • Supporting the competitive system of publish-or-perish which leads to a obstructive body of material that demeans those who write.

Ultimately Bell argued that the problem of professional Sociology was that it demythologised American culture, only to replace it with the myth of ‘academaya’, where the professional role was one of striving, competing and deadly seriousness. She saw all of this as a highly developed form of concern with the ego which propogated the idea of goal-orientation as the only possible mode of human conduct. In Bell’s own words…. ‘we enlighten our students to the edge of liberation only to ensnare them again in the authority structure of the acadamy and the related professions’.


Bell, I.P (1979) “Buddhist Sociology: Some Thoughts on the Convergence of Sociology and Eastern Paths of Liberation” in Scott G. McNall, ed. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: St Martin’s Press.

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