Stephen Harper on (not) committing sociology

Last year the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in the wake of a foiled terrorist attack in Canada that “this is not a time to commit sociology“. I’m sure we’re not the only sociologists who immediately fell in love with the phrase. It seems he’s been in at it again, this time arguing that there’s no need for an inquiry into missing indigenous women because this is not a “sociological phenomenon”. Clearly, it is – as this fact sheet observes “Aboriginal women and girls represented approximately 10% of all female homicides in Canada” while  “Aboriginal women make up only 3% of the female population”. Once you look through the data, it’s obvious that not only is this a “sociological phenomenon”, it’s manifestly an example of  something that you can’t adequately understand non-sociologically, as this author makes clear:

Of course, not only is all crime a sociological phenomenon , but also without a broader sociological analysis we can’t begin to understand why the rates of missing and murdered indigenous women are tragically high compared to non-indigenous women. Furthermore, it’s clear that if rates of violence against non-indigenous women climbed as high as those of indigenous women, this government (even with its woeful record on women’s issues) would be more likely to announce not only a public inquiry but a full-scale national strategy. (This double-standard in how we value human lives is what sociologists call “racism.”)

However rather than simply repudiating Harper’s comments as stupid and harmful, which they certainly are given the longstanding inaction on this issue in Canada, it’s interesting to consider what they reveal about the politics of social explanation:

Harper’s two disparaging comments about sociology, however, also need to be understood alongside his gutting of the long-form census in 2010. It is widely accepted that this action fundamentally undermined Canada’s ability to understand its own demographics, long-term social trends, and inequalities — in short, its sociology.

So what does Harper have against sociology? First, Harper is clearly trumpeting a standard component of neo-liberal ideology: that there are no social phenomena, only individual incidents. (This ideology traces back to Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.”) Neo-liberalism paints all social problems as individual problems. The benefit of this for those who share Harper’s agenda, of course, is that if there are no social problems or solutions, then there is little need for government. Individuals are solely responsible for the problems they face.

This ideology is so seductive not only because it radically simplifies our world, but also because it mirrors the two social institutions neo-liberals actually believe in — the “free” market and law and order. Everything is reduced to either a simplistic market transaction or a criminal case. In the former, you either have the money to buy stuff, or you don’t and it’s up to you to get more. In the latter, a lone individual is personally responsible for a crime and is punished for it. Easy peasy. No sociology needed.

Categories: Committing Sociology

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