Please keep up, Sociology

How can we have a real ‘global dialogue’ in a sociological discipline that is becoming increasingly censorious and elitist? In each major publication or event we wheel out the same theorists to regurgitate the same ideas. Textbooks and monographs are becoming repetitive, predictable and dull. The research and publication apparatus operates to railroad younger sociologists into using their research projects as default reproductive vehicles for the disciplinary elite’s rather inadequate and in some cases obsolete theoretical frameworks. There are many good young thinkers in our discipline, and there are certainly many good thinkers outside it. Continental philosophy is especially lively at the moment; Žižek, Badiou, and Stiegler – along with political theorists such as Dean, psychoanalysts such as Bollas and economists such as Keen – and numerous others across the globe are generating penetrative ideas we could use to rethink core concepts such as ideology, subjectivity, desire, economic forces and the sociosymbolic order. Why don’t we hear more discussions about ways in which we might incorporate some of these sparklingly brilliant ideas into our discipline? The answer is that the elite theorists who guard the discipline’s ailing domain assumptions run a tight ship. Access to the discipline’s ethical and philosophical inner sanctum is heavily guarded. Anyone who thinks otherwise should try getting a full-blooded critique of the discipline’s long-standing domain assumptions published in a core journal.

In the absence of any real dialectical momentum in social theory we struggle to construct convincing explanations of the advanced capitalist world as it is. For instance, at a time when we are coerced into suffering austerity to prop up a 600-year-old banking system that we allegedly can’t do without, and female billionaire Gina Rinehart recently accused Australian workers of ruining the economy by refusing to work for $2 a day, why does sociology continue to reproduce flawed and obsolete concepts such as ‘reflexive modernity’ and ‘hegemonic masculinity’? Should it not strike us as odd that the vast majority of leftist sociologists in fact argue for nothing more radical than a slightly more regulated and socially inclusive market economy, a genuflection to the ‘end of history’ rather than a move forward towards something new and genuinely progressive? In the cultural realm, do these same sociologists not simply enjoin us to be a little more tolerant towards each other in a socioeconomic system that is functionally dependent upon competitive individualism and its hostile psychosocial forms? Is there no better and fairer form of economic organisation and no higher social plane on which our class, ethnic and gender differences can be transcended? Can there be no more movement in the World Spirit? Is this really the best we can do?

In sociology’s current liberal-empiricist paradigm, which limits us to the investigation of possible modes of inclusion in an incorrigibly exclusive and hierarchal system, our deep fear of ideology and real politics ensures that our discipline falls yet further behind in its attempts to make sense of the current conjuncture. Recently, British journalist Aditya Chakraborty (2012) asked why sociologists had been largely silent in the aftermath of the Credit Crunch, and what suggestions they might have for new ways of organising the socioeconomic order as neoliberalism crumbles. The terrible truth is that our heavily policed, negativistic, economically illiterate and philosophically moribund discipline had very little to say. It is sclerotic, languishing in the shadow of the past’s political failures while occasionally offering attenuated critiques of neoliberalism’s most destructive excesses.

If we ever reach a stage where we are inclined to begin a process of paradigmatic renewal, how would we begin? Firstly, we must stop dreaming that supposedly organic cultural forces are leading us to a fairer social order just around the corner. We need to develop an ultra-realist ethnographic method that unsentimentally addresses the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The wave of protests that followed the economic crash is already dying out, and we suspect that the key reason for this is that most people can see no coherent alternative way of organizing the economy. In the absence of something different and compelling, populations remain mired in post-political cynicism and depressive hedonia. Only when we grasp just how apolitical and consumer-fixated many individuals have become can we begin the process of identifying a path forwards.

The dominant sociological paradigm cannot bring itself to admit that resistance to the system simply no longer exists in an organic cultural form, and that divisive identity politics and the current concatenation of social movements cannot generate the oppositional momentum once generated by universalist politics, even in its milder social democratic forms underpinned economically by Keynesian capital controls. Simultaneously, we need to audit current core theoretical concepts – especially those dealing with ideology and subjectivity – and begin to import and construct anew. Our core journals, however, are resistant to such fundamental revision. We need to ramp up the pressure in the current debate on the publishing system; do we go for open access or some sort of hybrid, and how do we maintain quality whilst promoting greater freedom of thought?

In short, we must see the post-war intellectual period as a spent force, take from it what might be useful – probably considerably less than we once thought – and become a true intellectual community busy in the task of generating and circulating honest empirical data and truly reflexive theory. None of this is possible unless we extricate ourselves from our current position of servitor to failed left-liberal politics, a failure brought home by the current capitulation to austerity and the potential return of the very extremist politics that the liberal left fear. Until a new paradigm-shifting debate is up and running, we have little of worth to take to the public other than an endless procession of complaints about spatially bound instances of social inequality.

At the moment we are floundering in a catastrophist continuum dominated by frightened liberals. We have explained this at length elsewhere (see Hall, 2012; Winlow and Hall 2013), but, put very simply, we became so frozen with fear of the totalitarian power that blighted the mid-20th Century that we voluntarily dismantled the intellectual and political infrastructure that opposed, or even sought to regulate, liberal capitalism’s destructive dynamism. Now we face the return of the real conditions in which totalitarian reaction is more likely: geopolitical tensions, austerity, bankruptcy, humiliation, chronic insecurity and social hostility. If we are to have a ‘global dialogue’, let’s have one, but we must reorganise the sociological discipline in order that we can transcend its subtle and insidious mode of censorship.

Professor Steve Hall and Professor Simon Winlow are Co-Directors of the Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology. They address these issues in greater depth in their book Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social?

References 

Chakraborty, Aditya (2012) ‘Economics has failed us: but where are the fresh voices’? Guardian Comment is Free, April 16th

Hall, S. (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage

Winlow, S. and Hall, S. (2013) Rethinking Social Exclusion: the End of the Social? London: Sage


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