Rights and Obligations

When I attended the University of Chicago’s Sociology Ph.D. Program in the late 1990s, all students in their first year were required to take a two course sequence, Sociological Inquiry I and II, co-taught by a couple senior faculty members. Ed Laumann, Charles Bidwell, Marta Tienda, and I think Donald Levine were the instructors my year. In this course sequence, we read mostly long-forgotten works by former University of Chicago faculty and students. We read selections from Robert E. Park’s and Ernest Burgess’s Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921), from St. Claire Drake’s and Horace R. Clayton’s Black Metropolis (1945), from James Coleman’s Asymmetric Society (1982). Most of the things we read in class you would never read in any other Ph.D. program. It was the Paris Island for Chicago Sociology. Only instead of making Marines, it made Chicago sociologists.

One of my favorite articles from the Inquiry course sequence ended up being an article by the great University of Chicago sociologist, Morris Janowitz, with the dreadful title “Observations on the Sociology of Citizenship: Obligations and Rights.” The essay discusses the trend in Western democracies to emphasize and expand citizen rights while allowing citizen obligations to attenuate. Janowitz argues that this trend is creating an unnatural imbalance between rights and obligations in modern Western democracies.

Traditionally, the Western conception of citizenship involved a balance of rights and obligations. For Aristotle, for example, a citizen had both the right and obligation to participate fully in the governance of the city-state. A citizen, for Aristotle, was one who both rules others and is ruled by others. Over time in the West, citizen rights have been extended and expanded in the name of tempering social inequality and injustice. Movements to expand political rights to a broader swath of the population grew out of the institutionalization of citizenship rights in national constitutions. The exercise of these extended political rights led to demand for greater social rights of equality, tolerance, and acceptance. Citizen rights grew and grew.

The problem for Janowitz wasn’t the expansion of political and social rights but that citizen obligations have been permitted to atrophy as rights have been extended. For him, the invocation of citizenship in the demand for rights must be accompanied by a corresponding recognition of the obligations of citizenship if democracy is to be preserved. Citizens need not submit to every demand of the State or forsake their inalienable rights to liberty and freedom, but their acts “should be inspired by a lively sense of responsibility towards the welfare of the community” (T. H. Marshall, as quoted approvingly by Janowitz).

I am rereading Janowitz’s article now because I think that this imbalance between citizen rights and obligations lies at the core of many of our current social and political problems. A callout culture that aims to “cancel” the cause celeb villain of the day. A desire to “own” the Libs or the Cons. The trolling of political opponents. The condoning of political and ideological violence. Demands to “deplatform” folks with whom one disagrees. The erosion of due process rights. The ease with which we seek to destroy people’s lives and careers for seemingly minor infractions of newly emerging orthodoxy. The polarization and corrosiveness of our political and social culture.

How different would our politics and culture be we if weighed our potential actions by whether or nor they were “inspired by a lively sense of responsibility towards the welfare of the community?” Would we seek to callout and cancel folks over something they said or wrote? Would we desire to “own” people we disagree with? Would we troll people with a politics that differs from our own? Would we condone violence of any kind? Would we seek to silence and deplatform folks because their ideas differ from ours? Would we think eroding due process, even for heinous crimes, is advisable? Would we be less willing to try to destroy the lives of others because of slip up in the present or past act of stupidity? Would we be more forgiving of the real or perceived sins of others?


In a sad addendum to this post, when I checked the University of Chicago Sociology Department website to see if the old syllabi for the Sociological Inquiry course sequence I took are available online I discovered that the sequence is no longer required or even offered. In place of an “indoctrination” into the Chicago tradition and way of thinking, there is now a standard sequence of research methods, statistics, and sociological theory courses. With the passage of a few decades time since the days when I once sat around that intimidating and expansive oak table in the Chicago Sociology Department seminar room, I find this incredibly tragic. I learned more lifelong lessons from reading those long-forgotten and obscure works and the discussions that ensued about the Chicago tradition than I ever did from reading the contemporary works that were the core of my subsequent classes. I learned to think differently about broad social and political processes there. I was exposed to a broader and less obviously ideological brand of sociology.

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