Interdisciplinarity and the poverty of post structuralist intellectual strategies

Post-structuralism exchanges the undesirable situation of lack of communication between the social sciences for the equally undesirable one where the internal logic of each subdiscipline is completely ignored. To be specific, there is little satisfaction with the present status quo where the boundaries between economics, political science, sociology and anthropology have become solid blinkers preventing interdisciplinary studies of social phenomena. But such compartmentalization will not be transcended by the facile and mindless abolition of the existing division of labour between disciplines.

[Instead we need] a painstaking process of theoretical labour that aims at building bridges between the various specializations. Such a strategy does not abolish social science boundaries: it simply aims at transforming them from impregnable bulwarks to transmission belts facilitating interdisciplinary research … what is badly needed today are more systematic efforts towards the creation of a theoretical discourse that would be able to translate the language of one discipline into that of another. Such an interdisciplinary language would not only facilitate communication among the social science disciplines, it would also make it possible to incorporate effectively into the social sciences insights achieved in philosophy, psychoanalysis or semiotics.

Post-structuralism, by completely side-stepping this difficult but necessary theoretical task, simply proposes the free and indiscriminate mixture of concepts and ideas derived from philosophy, literature, sociology, psychoanalysis, semiotics and elsewhere. This rejection of boundaries, in combination with the neglect of micro, meso and macro levels of analysis, of social hierarchies, and of the agency-structure distinction, quite predictably leads to a hotch-potch that is neither good philosophy nor good literature, nor yet good sociology, psychoanalysis or semiotics.

[This leads to] the present incredible situation where anything goes, and where complex macro phenomena are reductively explained in terms of signs, texts, the unconscious or what have you. As far as I am concerned, such crude exercises constitute a relapse to pre-Durkheimian attempts at explaining social phenomena in terms of instincts, race, climate or geography. The only difference is that today’s postmodernists draw their reductive explanations from psychoanalysis and linguistics rather than from biology and geography.

Sociological Theory: What went Wrong?: Diagnosis and Remedies, By Nicos Mouzelis

I rather like the ‘conceptual pragmatism’ advocated by Mouzelis. As I understand his arguments, he is proposing that any adequate body of sociological theory (as opposed to social theory) must be capable of facilitating communication and translation between paradigms. Sociological theory which is geared towards ‘building bridges’ can sustain productive conversations across the boundaries of substantive intellectual differences precisely because it provides a rich and multifaceted language within and through which a whole range of divergent substantive claims about the social can be expressed.

If there are common points of reference then sociological theory can provide the sort of intellectual topology (i.e. mapping continuities and discontinuities between different approaches and theories in a relational way) which is a precondition for progressive debate about theoretical topics. But without such common points of reference – if  conceptual idioms like structure/agency or macro/micro which recurrently emerge in practical settings are either ignored or rejected in favour of ‘transcendence’ – it becomes difficult for sociological theory to perform this function beyond those who are, in some sense, ‘internal’ to the approach.

I’m fascinated by theorists who can incorporate a diverse range of perspectives within the same over-arching framework. This is why I was drawn to Richard Rorty even though I think, in retrospect, his project was a regressive one. It’s also more latterly why I’m drawn to realist social theory in spite of the (largely though not entirely unfair) perception it suffers under as being more concerned with scholastic critique than practical rapprochement. I’m not convinced theoretical debates can be adequately understood without an understanding of what (as some more or less stable issue which is relatively autonomous from the debate itself) is at stake in the respect positions being staked out. This minimal claim is perfectly compatible with a sociological approach to the history of ideas, as the ‘what’ does not need to be a timeless historical question, only something which has recurrently occurred with sufficient frequency to allow it to be treated in abstraction from the substantive disputes.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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