Towards a Comtean Revival in Sociology

I have been closely associated with the field of science and technology studies (STS) since my graduate student days, nearly thirty years ago. In 1984, as a PhD student in history and philosophy of science, I published the first piece in a major positivist journal to extol the virtues of the field. In fact, my experience of writing the piece inspired me to develop ‘social epistemology’. But even back then I had my doubts about where the field was going with its critical re-appraisal of the nature of science and its place in society. In a Comtean spirit that I had picked up from my undergraduate days at Columbia, I always envisaged that ‘sociology’ would eventually take over the natural sciences and focus them in a humanly beneficial direction. Moreover, I imagined this happening in a quite material way – that is, sociologists would not simply be offering advice from the sidelines (which nowadays looks ambitious) but the scientists themselves would be sociologically trained.

To be sure, I realized even as a callow youth in the 1970s and 80s that such ideas were bound to be tainted with the brush of Nazi and Soviet eugenics. At Columbia I benefited from a course in history of science by Loren Graham, the leading US expert in Soviet science, who had us read E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology shortly after it was published in paperback. For those too young to remember, this book – and the very idea and person behind it – was trashed in terms reminiscent of how ‘intelligent design’ is treated today. (Much of this trashing happened in the pages of The New York Review of Books.) And the trashing continued for another ten years or so, until the hot button term ‘sociobiology’ got replaced by ‘evolutionary psychology’, where the original research programme thrives today. (This was also the time when Stephen Jay Gould was seen as speaking ‘correctly’ and Richard Dawkins ‘incorrectly’ for evolution. My, how times have changed! Does anyone under 40 even know who Gould was?)

In any case, as the years have gone on, STS has made a good living from inhibiting any large-scale, long-term planning for science and society. This fits the tentative, hypersensitive, neo-liberal world in which we live. As soon as ‘heterogeneous’, ‘contingent’ and ‘uncertain’ are strung together in a sentence, the natural conclusion is to commission more (STS) research rather than enact legislation that might alter the terms of the problem. (Note I did not say ‘offer a solution’. But equally I said ‘enact legislation’ rather than simply write a journal article saying how we need to change the question – I mean to encourage political risk-taking rather than academic one-upmanship.)

The resulting research invariably tells us that while we are naïve to think that a clear distinction can be drawn between X and Y — where X = things as they are and Y = things as we might wish them to be — because Y was always already present in X, we should remain wary of entirely embracing Y because it is unlikely to be as we envisage it to be. Armed with this neat formula, you can, in one fell swoop, outflank both the reactionaries and the utopians – while committing yourself to absolutely nothing. I suppose if you are mainly concerned about not offending prospective employers and funders, championing ambivalence must look like genius. To my mind, however, it’s the sort of reductio ad absurdum that shows why we need more permanent posts in academia – so as to encourage people in what I have called ‘the right to be wrong’ (Fuller 2000).

However, recent works like Chris Renwick’s (2012) British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots show how biological considerations ran deep in the original conceptualisation of sociology as a discipline, and it was only for reasons relating to the academic politics of the UK, France, Germany and the US (different in each case) that biology and sociology did not develop more in sync with each other. I believe that the time once again has come to re-negotiate that boundary (Fuller 2006). We can do much more than simply provide ‘biopolitical critiques’ a la Foucault or Latour that in the end simply champion ambivalence. Rather we can follow the model for more constructive engagement that sociologists have had in recent years with economics. Of course, there are the useful critiques of neo-liberalism in abundance, but above and beyond those are also more-and-less interesting attempts to understand social phenomena through rational choice theory and, still more ambitiously, attempts (typically under the rubric of ‘economic sociology’) to reconstruct the science of economics in sociological terms.

An analogue to this last project is an especially needed form of engagement between biology and sociology – which would mean inter alia treating genetic information more as a form of capital than, say, a foundation for evolutionary theory. To be sure, the very idea that sociology might ‘own’ biology will strike many as scary and outrageous. It would certainly require that sociologists develop their own expertise in biological phenomena, as they have in economic phenomena. Truth be told, eugenics as originally conceived by Francis Galton had just this aim in mind – and it was usually how eugenics was understood in the period leading up to the Second World War. Given the ease with which historical memory fades unless actively maintained, it is no longer clear that ‘eugenics’ strikes the sort of fear in people’s hearts as it did when I was a student. Certainly the molecular revolution in biology means that the terms of engagement have changed radically. Still, re-branding is probably not a bad idea: Anyone for a course in ‘bio-sociology’?

REFERENCES

Fuller, S. (1984). ‘The Cognitive Turn in Sociology’. Review of Advances in Social Theory and Methodology, eds. K. Knorr-Cetina and A. Cicourel. Erkenntnis 21: 439-450.
Fuller, S. (2000). The Governance of Science. Open University Press.
Fuller, S. (2006). The New Sociological Imagination. Sage.
Renwick, C. (2012). British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots. Palgrave Macmillan


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