The Problem of Suffering and the Sociological Task of Theodicy

European Journal of Social Theory 4 (2):199-214 (2001)
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Once the preserve of philosophy and theology, what Weber called `the problem of theodicy' - the problem of reconciling normative ideals with the reality in which we live - recurs in the social sciences in the secular form of `sociodicy'. Within a functionalist framework, sociodicies have offered legitimizing rationalizations of social adversities, inequalities and injustice, but seldom address the existential meaning and ethical implications of human affliction and suffering in social life. We suggest that an apparent indifference to these questions in social theory reflects a deeper tension between modernity's millennial expectations of moral progress and the escalating history of violence, exploitation and suffering in the modern world. The task of sociodicy, we argue, should be reconstructed as a critique of the decivilizing implications of this tension, not just to document the consequences of suffering on people's lives, but in order to reassess the experience of modernity at the end of one of the most disturbed and violent centuries the world has known.



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