We’ve hosted an ongoing argument here about the nature of sociology. Having initially been rather rude, Max Parkin offered what I thought was a perfectly reasonable response which I thought I’d reproduce here because, leaving aside the needless unpleasantness, it’s turned into an interesting discussion.
Sociology is not art. It has nothing to do with art, nor with literary crit, nor with French eumerdification. It isn’t about preserving anything in aspic. It’s about trying to make the discipline cumulative and not just continually revolutionary. Revolutions don’t emerge from eumerdification. If the core concerns of sociology are constantly changing, that’s a problem. For me, the core concern of sociology is the problem of order – and not just for me but for every sociologist whose work I have admired from the classics to Lockwood. But who reads – who among the current young generation has even heard of – Lockwood today? Only the best theoretical sociologist the UK has had in the last 50+ years, of course. Yet the youngsters don’t know his work (I know they don’t; I have asked wherever I go; so did Ray Pahl who was equally puzzled), but have Bourdieu quotes tumbling from their laptops and mouths. And even the many French sociolgists I know don’t take Bourdieu that seriously! For empirical work, they find Goldthorpe more useful. You know, the Goldthorpe who is the best empirical macro-sociologist the UK has had in the last 50 years. It was G and L whose work attracted me to sociology and nothing since has persuaded me that their way isn’t the most promising for sociology. Why do UK sociologists prefer and keep turning to prophets from other countries? Naturally, I accept that there are other ways of doing sociology that are very insightful, too. But if one’s concerns are macro-sociological, as mine are, I fail to understand why the newer generations are so ignorant of what’s on their doorstep. Read Solidarity and Schism; read Lockwood in BJS 1996 – there’s a research agenda for today!
I think there are three important points here. Firstly, how is it that sociological work of the highest quality (and much else besides) can be eclipsed so quickly? Secondly, how has continental theory had the influence on British sociology that is has over the past few decades and what have its effects been? Thirdly, how have these two factors intersected to bring about the erosion of sociology as a cumulative enterprise? What else has been involved? The causality here is extremely complex and it’s Max’s crotchety simplification of it which has been winding me up . On this view, there was a sociological enterprise in rude health (oddly concurrent with Max’s entry into the discipline, almost as if there was anelement of retrospective idealisation at work here….) until an invasion of fashionable french intellectualism, cheered on by modish young sociologists in generations following Max’s own, soon desecrated this intellectual arcadia and left a rudderless sociology being pushed and pulled by the tides of narrow minded fashion.
Clearly, I’m exaggerating for rhetorical effect but the point I want to make is about the kind of logic implied by Max’s arguments: everything was working, something external was involved in stopping it working therefore this external factor was the causal agent. Whereas I think there’s something much more complex going on here. For instance the emergence of an audit culture incentivised academic over-production (ever more books, journals and papers being ever less read) while squeezing out reading that isn’t instrumentally attached to the exigencies of present work. In this way, the speeding up of intellectual culture tends to be self-reinforcing and it’s a hugely negative trend. The more that is published, the faster debates move on and, given the underlying mechanisms driving the over-production, the limited time and space this allows for reading will tend to be subjugated to the demands of keeping on top of an ever-growing literature in order to contribute to the debate thus intensifying the process which is causing the underlying problem! This is part of what brings about the eternal sunshine of the spotless sociologist.
The same structure of incentives which drives this over-production also valorises novelty: in the contemporary academy, rewards go to those who can combine existing elements in new and exciting ways, capturing the intellectual attention of others and shaping the direction of future scholarship. However this process by its nature is something of an arms race, as the same incentives which drive X to propose Y also create the climate in which Z will soon come along and propose a radically new programme. I agree with Max both that sociology should be a cumulative discipline and that continental theory is implicated in the contemporary climate where it is anything but cumulative. Nonetheless I think his understanding of the causality is straight forwardly incorrect: these trends are structural not cultural. I suspect there are particular properties of continental theory which leave it ripe for appropriation by purveyors of sociological novelty seeking to make a name for themselves but I think this is a very different claim. Furthermore, it seems to me that part of the reason this can happen is because of the relative weakness of sociological theory as an enterprise. My suggestion is that Max’s attitude is the negative face of a common orientation towards sociological theory which, in its positive moment, seeks integration of a sort which ultimately produces the very fragmentation it abhors:
Sociology seems to produce a number of co-existing and mutually exclusive (semi) paradigms which continually split and re-form in different combinations. Those who are committed to the idea of the necessity of a ‘theoretical core’ frequently argue that such a situation represents a moment of synthesis, a moment that requires the development of a uniﬁed frame of reference representing structure and agency as presuppositional categories (as argued, for example, by Parsons,Alexander Habermas, Giddens,Archer, Scott, etc.). The fact that an accepted synthesis never comes and that each new attempt gives rise to further critique suggests that ‘synthesis’ is one of the moves that gives rise to new splits and forms and is not, therefore, a resolution.
Holmwood, J. (2010) Sociology’s misfortune: disciplines, interdisciplinary and the impact of audit culture. The British Journal of Sociology. 61:4, 639-658
As someone who only discovered sociology after four years of getting pissed off by philosophy, it was its promiscuity which drew me in and its relevance to the world around me which kept me there. As a statement about my own intellectual biography, the constant change in the ‘core concerns’ of sociology is precisely what made the discipline so gloriously fascinating for me. But I agree with Max that it poses problems. However I see these as practical problems to be addressed through constructive and cumulative work in sociological theory; building the infrastructure and tools to allow sociology to engage with new concerns while also working progressively to relate this novelty to those more established objects of sociological inquiry.
Categories: Committing Sociology