By John-Paul Smiley
What is the role for sociology going forward? What should it look like as a discipline? Discussions of this topic have become commonplace (see, for example, Flyvberg: 2001: Rutzou: 2016). The failure of the majority of researchers in the discipline to predict and understand both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency indicates the need to rethink the approach taken, in order to contribute more usefully to public political discourses. What I want to suggest here is that a more openly activist approach to sociology is now required, in order to achieve the sort of impact its practitioners desire. But this is to be a more holistic sociology, one which makes much greater use of computational data science in order to provide robust empirical groundings, but that does so in conjunction with more reflexive and conscientious engagements with ethics, history, and philosophy.
It is to be openly activist because social research in general nearly always already is, though it is rarely acknowledged or labelled as such, and recognition of this allows researchers to more honestly, reflexively, and transparently engage with and present their work. For example, a sociologist’s work very often suggests change, of cultural and/or institutional forms, in the service of advancing some implicitly or explicitly desired vision of the ‘good life’. This is an inherently political act. Similarly, suggestions for the need for policy interventions, whether in matters of domestic social policy (for example, welfare cuts) or debates concerning intervention in international matters (for example, military, humanitarian and/or peacekeeping interventions) all aim towards particular normative ends (see Bartram: 2010), and rest on implicit visions of ourselves and others, as humans, and of the duties, freedoms, obligations and rights we believe accompany these conceptions (see Chernilo: 2014; 2016). Even in cases where research suggests stasis, this too is a political act as it denotes an articulation of resistance to change and an argument for the status quo to prevail – all based on often tacit philosophical assumptions. Research acts are thus always political acts, regardless of whether the researcher themselves is aware of this. And these political acts are informed by ethical-normative assumptions which are inexorably tied to historically specific visions of ourselves and others. The vision of sociology as a detached, objective discipline is an illusion. It is not how we practise, it is not how we, as humans, live, and so continuing to suggest it as an ideal for the discipline going forward is unhelpful. Far better to be honest and explicit regarding our varying assumptions and biases in order to facilitate quality, genuine, and sincere dialogues (see Smiley: 2016).
In pursuing whatever particular vision of the ‘good life’ a researcher does, however, this is where the activist-sociologist must also become a historian. There must be recognition that such assumptions, beliefs and visions are culturally and historically specific, that they have emerged at a particular point in time, in response to perceived needs that have been negotiated by various social actors, and which are open to constant contestation and revision. There must also be recognition of the history of peoples which are the object of any study (see Fatsis: 2016), especially if the researcher has any explicit intention to inform political decision-making. ‘Peoples’, to the extent that they are meaningful as a category, are historically emergent and specific. And by virtue of this specificity, there will be a tendency for the individual social actors within them to possess prevailing configurations and versions of ‘cultural software’ (Balkin: 1995), which shapes and constrains their social attitudes and behaviours, leading to predominant configurations of ontological security, what Croft (2012) has defined as, ‘…the need to construct biographical continuity, to construct a web of trust relations…’ (Croft: 2012: p.219). This is what Balkin (1995) meant when he stated that,
‘To exist in history means to be the bearer of a particular type of cultural software…historical existence is not merely existence in time, but existence at a time when one is constituted by a particular form of cultural software’ (Balkin: 1995: p.1229).
It is thus only through the recovery and understanding of any social actors’ historical embeddedness, that robust knowledge of them is truly possible, and without such, the capacity for political discussion and persuasion on any topic in the present is reduced, as one lacks a genuine understanding of the social ‘others’ one is engaging with. In order to think usefully about the future, then, a sociologist must have a rich and nuanced conception of the present, and forming such requires one to look back to the past.
To facilitate such rich, nuanced historical understandings, this activist-sociology should have more robust empirical groundings in computational data science. The promise of such lies in its potential to allow researchers to identify what Bauman (1990) has referred to as the ‘….social in the individual, the general in the particular…’ (Bauman: 1990: p.10). It will increasingly offer sophisticated background and contextual data to the fundamental foci of sociological inquiry: social constructions, social inequalities, social orders, and social patterns, and will allow researchers to see the numerous figurations and patterns which make up social life in ways previously impossible, and with that, provide new opportunities for re-understanding practices. This is not to suggest that computational social science become the only tool utilised by researchers – there is, and should remain, a place for a variety of research methods. What is does suggest, however, is that these other methods, including those common to qualitative small-n studies such as interviews, be complemented with such data in order to at least provide greater background and context to their studies – this is to be quantitative data utilised with qualitative sensibilities. So, for example, if a researcher intends to carry out ethnographic work with working-class social actors, a richer story will be provided by empirically understanding the historical emergence of the category in the territory under consideration, through which the actors self-identify. A study of such, even with a small sample size, would have increased value by providing a more robust empirical foundation through which to interpret any observational and/or interview data gathered, allowing any results and conclusions to be interpreted in a more holistic context. But it must be recognised that such data will always require interpretation by researchers, both concerning what it supposedly represents in itself, and also with regards its supposed potential to inform any particular political decisions. This critical point is especially important to recognise because, as, Lukács (1923) stated, ‘A situation in which the “facts” speak out unmistakably for or against a definite course of action has never existed, and neither can nor will exist’ (Lukács: 1971: p.23). Any such seemingly preferential ‘courses of action’ will always be informed by the social actors’ own cultural-normative assumptions, which are themselves historically specific, and so require reflexive recovery and consideration.
Finally, what does all of this mean for the training provisions for sociology students going forward into the future? The training of doctoral students in sociology should necessarily include greater training in quantitative methods, particularly computational data science. But this must be complemented with training in ethics, history and philosophy. Students should be taught to recognise their own assumptions and biases and to use that knowledge to assist them in producing more robust logical arguments. To this end, mandatory introductory training modules in computational data science, ethics, and political philosophy should be completed (these could be web-based modules, for convenience). Researchers should also have to complete a brief essay by the end of their first year of doctoral study on the historical emergence of their objects of study in comparative perspective (approximately 5000 words should suffice). Such training would enhance the future relevance of sociological research not only by providing more robust empirical groundings, but by ensuring all researchers could clearly articulate their philosophical presuppositions and are able to locate their research, and present their arguments, in historical perspective. This would represent a significant step towards ensuring quality sociological contributions to more informed contemporary and future public discourses, allowing sociologists to participate more productively in political life going forward in the decades to come.
John-Paul Smiley is an independent social researcher
Copyright remains with the author, John-Paul Smiley, who reserves the right to use/reuse this work, in part or whole, in the future