The Art of Sociological Argument – review by @AcademicDiary

Graham Crow’s The Art of Sociological Argument (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) is a book about rhetoric and how sociologists have made their arguments and communicated with their readers. Crow takes eight sociological writers from the classic founders to the present day. Each sociologist is treated to a chapter on the biographical and historical contexts of their thought and writing.

The authors reviewed include obvious choices like the big three ‘founding fathers’ – Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, although Crows discussion of them though is far from obvious.  For example, I was surprised to realize how short their sociological lives were – Marx having greatest longevity at 64 years with Durkheim next at 59 years and Max Weber just 56 years.  Crow leads us through the ways in which they used metaphor, like Weber’s idea of bureaucracy as an ‘iron cage,’ or personification, as in Marx’s unforgettable ‘Mr Moneybags,’ to make their arguments.

Next Crow gives us a trio of American sociological writers – Talcott Parsons, Charles Wright Mills and Erving Goffman.  It’s no secret that I have a weakness for the writing of C. Wright Mills but reading this book I found myself having much more sympathy for Talcott Parsons as a person. Parsons comes across as patient and even tempered, while Mills seems bombastic and imprecise by comparison. Yet at the same time, Mills is more lasting and alluring to his readership.  Goffman is presented as a sociological humourist with a brilliant eye for analytical metaphors. However, the purpose of a metaphor for Goffman is to support an argument like scaffolding: “Scaffolds… are to build other things with, and should be erected with an eye to taking them down”. Erving Goffman did more than any other sociologists to give us a way of understanding society’s back stage, while at the same time being very secretive about his own personal life.

The last part of the book features a chapter on Michel Foucault and another on Ann Oakley. Crow talks very thoughtfully about Foucault’s use of shock tactics and a kind of gothic style in his writing. Foucault’s rhetoric insists on leaving things open, refusing to claim the final word on any given issue. For Foucault, those who claim knowledge pilfer the voices of their subjects and in the contexts discussions of crime this “shuts the prisoner up (in both senses)”.

Ann Oakley is the only female sociological writer to be included. The chapter dedicated to Oakley’s writing was this reader’s favourite. What Crow does so successfully is to re-enchant books that you think you know already. It was a real surprise and revelation to be introduced to the range of Oakley’s writing from her classic The Sociology of Housework to policy reports, memoir, fiction and poetry. The diversity of Oakley’s work is astonishing, she writes: “All writing is an invitation to the imagination… a matter of new arrangements of words, and thus of new forms.”

In a way Oakley’s work is a provocation to find new ways of writing sociologically.  Crow quotes Oakley from one of her eighties poetry collections: “who would want a history of articles / typed and dissected, lost and uncredited.” By implication Oakley is challenging us to ask: will the books and articles we’ve written all too speedily for the audit culture inevitably have a short shelf life?

The Art of Sociological Argument is a wonderful and beautifully written book. It has cost me a small fortune in impulse purchases from Amazon.  Reading Crow makes me want to go back to the classics from Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd to Oakley’s Gender of Planet Earth. The book reads like an argument that has been rehearsed and honed through teaching the work of these great sociologists.

Crows conclusion is that there are ways we can improve the way we express our arguments.  He offers ten points on how to write sociology more artfully.  I have paraphrased them here as follows:

  1. Care for your readers – invite your readers into a conversation with your problem, rather than preach to them by being overly didactic.
  2. Challenge your reader’s presuppositions and surprise them, even if this means being shocking.
  3. Don’t be afraid to use humour and irony to amuse and persuade.
  4. Work with what is counter-intuitive and perplexing and it will open up new insights.
  5. Metaphors and analogues can help get beyond descriptions of phenomena that are readily perceived.
  6. Formulate imaginative questions that invite interesting sociological answers.
  7. Foster a capacity for self-criticism.
  8. Seek to persuade and do not assume that readers will share your agenda or understanding.
  9. Avoid claiming too much in an argument but also be aware of the risks of claiming too little and not explicating its potential.
  10. Literary style is no substitute for content but a good argument is all the better for being well presented.

In fifty years from now such a book will need to be written very differently. It has made me reflect on the transformation of Goldsmiths Sociology during my twenty years here, from a department with less than a handful of female colleagues to one where the majority of Goldsmiths sociologists are women. This year our department celebrates its half century.

Sociology has no future without feminist writers and the male domination of the discipline, as represented in the writers reviewed in this book, simply cannot and should not last. That’s not to mention the ubiquitous whiteness of the authors included in this book. With this in mind it is interesting to think and perhaps hope for what the sociological pantheon might look like, and how different the discipline will be, when Goldsmiths Sociology celebrates its centenary.

Les Back has been teaching in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London since 1993. His main areas of academic interest are the sociology of racism, multiculture, popular culture, music and sound studies and city life.


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