Existential Sociology Essay

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Existential sociology emerged in the late 1970s as the most recent version of everyday life sociology. Writers in this perspective have attempted to integrate symbolic interactionism’s powerful concepts of the self and the situation, phenomenological sociology’s emphasis on the social construction of reality, and ethnomethodology’s telling critique of conventional sociological theory and methods, with an innovative argument for the centrality of embodiment and feelings to human agency. Thus, existential sociology can be defined descriptively as the study of human experience-in-the-world (or existence) in all its forms. A key feature of experience-in-the-(contemporary)-world is change. Existential sociologists expect, if not assume, change to be a constant feature of people’s lives, their sense of self, their experience of the social world, the other people that populate the social world, and the culture that provides meaning for life. Everyday life is more than merely situational and problematic, a point on which all the varieties of everyday life sociology generally agree. Everyday life is dramatic – in an aesthetic sense – and experienced as such. In contrast to Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical model of social life, the drama that existential sociologists see in everyday life does not follow anyone else’s script. The actor is simultaneously writer, producer, and actor on a stage not necessarily of his or her choosing, but one that cannot simply be exited without confrontation with the producer/director (e.g., agents of social control).

Existentialist ideas began influencing the social sciences more than four decades ago. In 1962, Edward Tiryakian published Sociologism and Existentialism, an influential work of sociological theory, which sought to resolve two very different ways of thinking about human social life and existence: ”sociologism,” which sees society as preeminent over the individual; and ”existentialism,” which places a much greater emphasis on individuals, their choices, their responsibilities, their passions, their decisions, their cowardice, their virtues, and so on.

The concept of the existential self is concerned with the experience of individuality – through the perspective of the subject – as it unfolds, adapts, and copes in concrete, everyday life situations. The existential self refers to an individual s unique experience of being within the context of contemporary social conditions, an experience most notably marked by an incessant sense of becoming and an active participation in social change. The first major feature of the existential self is embodiment. Being-within-the-world means that feelings and primordial perception precede rationality and symbol use and, in fact, activate them. The second major feature is that the existential self is becoming. Our becoming must be grounded in the real, social world if we have any intention of being effective in coping with the given world. Existential sociology examines the various social activities in which people engage to preclude or escape meaninglessness including, for example, religion, spirituality, recreational drugs, music, dance, art, sex, athletics, self-actualization, and intellectual endeavors.


  1. Kotarba, J. A. & Fontana, A. (eds.) (1984) The Existential Self in Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  2. Kotarba, J. A. & Johnson, J. M. (eds.) (2002) Postmodern Existential Sociology. Alta Mira, Walnut Creek, CA.

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