In Search of Soul and Soulful Social Science

05/04/2015 04:42 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

It's graduation season again, and after more than 35 years as a university professor, I am particularly concerned about the kind of world this year's college graduates are about to enter. We live in times of increasing emptiness. World and national events have promoted widespread cynicism. Consider the dysfunction of a U.S. Congress that is supposed to "represent" the people but in truth represents the interests of large corporations and hedge funds and the billionaires who run them. To the average voter, the political system is rigged, which makes it dirty. Why participate in a broken politics in which money rules, in which no one seems to care about the social contract?

When it comes to the poor, most of us lack soul. Most of us close our eyes to the painful poverty that stares us in the face each and every day. If you take a Greyhound bus, you'll confront visibly poor Americans of all stripes who, in the absence of credit cards, pay their bus fares in cash or with money orders. These are folks whose lack of credit makes it very difficult for them to buy a car or purchase a plane ticket. But you don't have to take a Greyhound bus to see poor people. They are everywhere -- invisibly visible. We routinely "see" them at busy urban and suburban intersections, asking for donations. They often carry crude signs that read, "Homeless Veteran, Am Hungry, Please Help." If you give them a dollar, they usually say, "God bless you." Indeed, in the "richest" nation in the world, there are roughly 49 million American families that experience "food insecurity." Hunger is an ever-present reality in poor households, an experience that has a drastic developmental impact on children who, through no fault of their own, have been born into poverty. Even so, hunger is out of sight -- something that doesn't correspond with the myths that we like to spin about our society.

Can you have soul if you would deny food to an innocent child?

Our race relations lack soul. Most white people don't want to talk about race. Most white people don't want to believe that racism exists in our society. Yet the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, North Charleston, and Baltimore suggest that little has changed. Racism still weaves its way through our social order. In many respects it defines our society. Yet most of us have little knowledge of the stressful discriminatory conditions that African Americans confront every day. Even in the presence of video documentation of brutal violence, we close our eyes.

In the world of higher education, our institutions lack soul. They have become large and impersonal corporations that build a "brand" that creates a "civil" educational environment. These branded environments seem to discourage students, who represent our social future, from engaging in uncensored debate in their search for a meaningful life. In many classes students seem hesitant to participate in classroom discussions -- especially lively debates. These are classes that lack soul.

You would expect to find some soulfulness in the social sciences. But soulful social science is usually the exception rather than the rule. How many social science books have soul? In my discipline, anthropology, there has been much recent discussion of ontological turns, post-materialist turns, and post-humanist turns. These are described with mind-numbing technical precision. Lost in the spin of these "turns" is a clear image of the individual -- old, young, middle-aged, male, or female, living in Europe, South America, North America, Asia or Africa -- all struggling to make sense of an increasingly incomprehensible world. Like the poor, they get erased in the blinding swirl of specialized jargon.

There is light on the horizon, however. In an increasingly disconnected world that lacks soul, my students give me hope for the future. Most of them do not come from privileged backgrounds. Most of them attend school full-time but work one or two jobs. Even though they confront a world without soul, they continue to search for it. When they find a snippet of soul, they connect to it. Sometimes they find a sliver of soul in anthropological works -- films, books and social media. They find it in works that foreground narratives that underscore the centrality of social connection, that describe how the quality of social life devolves from the quality of our social relations -- the real stuff of a soulful social science. These works make us feel less isolated in the world. These are the works, they tell me, that linger, that connect writers to their readers -- works with soul.

Soul is about human connection. Soul is about deep feeling, about self-knowledge and empathy. As my Songhay friends in West Africa like to say, a soulful quality makes life sweet, which, in turn, sweetens the quality of life in the world. My students remind me that without soul, there is no social contract and no social harmony -- only social disconnection, disharmony, incomprehension and dysfunction. As resilient seekers of soul, they also remind me that our social future may well be a bright one.