The Sociology of Intellectual Faddishness or, Why it’s unfair to blame everything on Foucault

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.

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16 replies »

  1. Max’s rejection of sociology “from other countries”, and his dismissal of anything foreign as a fad, are typical of the way academics use nationalism to justify their own ignorance of global social science.

  2. Imagine if British physicists dismissed Einstein’s theory of relativity on the grounds that it was foreign, and urged their British colleagues to use “British” physics.

  3. Lumping together very different scholars (Foucault the post-modernist philosopher, Bourdieu the sociologist who opposed post-modernism) just because they were born in the same country is nonsense.

    And no, anything that has been mainstream field for 40 years is not a fad. A research programme that includes the most influential sociological monograph of the 20th century (“Distinction”) is not a fad.

    It’s normal for there to be a backlash against dominant paradigms. Usually the backlash is led by scholars who never bothered to learn the now-dominant paradigms when they were knew, and have for years been hoping that these innovations would just go away. Now that it’s clear that this isn’t going to happen, many of them are panicking, and are fighting a desperate losing battle to turn back the clock and restore the value of their now-worthless cultural capital. The word “fad” is a favourite weapon of such individuals. One often finds their students (who have mistakenly invested in the same cultural capital) fighting alongside them. One only needs to know a little Bourdieu to understand such dynamics…

    • “Usually the backlash is led by scholars who never bothered to learn the now-dominant paradigms when they were knew, and have for years been hoping that these innovations would just go away”

      That’s every bit as reductive an ‘explanation’ as the one Max offered that I’m arguing against.

      • Reductive it may be, but sad to say, serious critiques of Bourdieu on theoretical or empirical grounds, from scholars who know his work well, are rare. Attacks from scholars with little or no knowledge of Bourdieu, and who portray widespread interest in Bourdieu as part of a reprehensible fad for “French” thought that includes Foucault, are common. See, for example, this post by archaeologist Michael E. Smith, and my comments:

        The common denominator in these attacks is that they come from people who have little knowledge of what they’re attacking, and who therefore have a professional interest in portraying it as not worth knowing. If they acknowledged it as worthy of study, they’d logically have to invest a considerable amount of time in studying it themselves. That would be an expensive investment; it’s much cheaper to write dismissive blog posts in the vain hope that this will bring about a drastic change of course in mainstream sociology.

        I’ve heard similar diatribes from qualitative researchers against quantitative methods, and vice versa. I think it’s very common for scholars to disparage any knowledge that’s widely used in their own fields but that they themselves haven’t mastered. This is basically a form of proselytism. If succesful, it expands the potential market for the speaker’s own work, at the expense of the work of those who use the rival paradigm.

        Of course, there are more refined variations on this theme. Scholars who have some knowledge of Bourdieu can often get away with making sophisticated-sounding but absurd claims about Bourdieuian sociology because their audiences know less about it than they do. Here’s one example:

        The article makes statements such as “Homology, however, depends on a cultural homogenization” and “Bourdieu reduces all field relations to the power binary of dominant and dominated”, which sound very strange to anyone who has actually read any of Bourdieu’s books, and give me reason to have serious doubts about the peer-review process of the Annual Review of Sociology.

        This is unfortunate, because there are serious debates to be had about Bourdieu’s theory, which has its weaknesses and gaps like any other. These debates are taking place in some quarters, but they are not served by the gross distortions or nationalist posturing that often passes for critique.

      • I think you’re right! This is exactly what I want to understand (see both this post itself and the sunshine of spotless sociologist post linked in it) but I don’t think what you’re now saying is what your initial comment said. Which I assume was directed at Max’s argument rather than mine. There’s a really interesting structural process at work here and reducing it to a narrow cultural claim about competing cohorts (e.g. faddish young sociologists seeking novelty vs crotchety old sociologists who never bothered to learn what are now dominant approaches) really isn’t helpful.

  4. Hmm. Turning to your post above, I don’t think there’s any such thing as “British sociology”, nor do I think there’s any such thing as “continental theory” on which “the erosion of sociology as a cumulative enterprise” in Britain could be blamed. Ideas don’t have nationalities and they don’t stay within geographical containers. There’s a global conversation going on, academics move all over the world (just as an example, I’ve worked in four countries in the past four years), they publish in countries other than the ones they live in (everyone wants to publish in the top journals regardless of where they’re located), and the same debates and alternatives can be found pretty much everywhere. Nor do I agree that “the speeding up of intellectual culture” is a “hugely negative trend”. On the contrary, academic cultural production is still incredibly slow. It can take years to get a journal article published, and many more years before a new idea gets noticed and begins to have an influence. I think academic publishing needs radical reforms to overcome this problem.

    Turning to the spotless sociologist post, you’re surely right that there’s a problem with the way social scientists are trained. However, it’s not just that old debates are repeated without any awareness that they’ve happened before. It’s that whole subfields are ignored by many of those who need them the most. For example, nationalism studies has produed several decades of debates, theories, and questions that anyone who is tempted to use words such as “nation”, “patriotism”, “ethnicity” or “identity” should be required to know about, in order to avoid assumptions that were thoroughly discredited long ago. But this literature hardly seems to be taught, and when students who aren’t doing PhDs on nationalism have any contact with it, this contact usually seems to be limited to one book (Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities”), which simply represents nationalism studies as it was in the 1980s, preserved in formalehyde.

    I do think that this has a lot to do with the power of an older generation of academics who are resistant to any ideas that they didn’t study when they were students. Not because they’re crotchety (this is not a matter of individual personality), but because this is an effective career strategy: invest in cultural capital early in your career, then just live off the interest until you retire. At the extreme, some people never read anything that was published in their field after they finished their PhDs. Their antiquated syllabi make it difficult for students to find out about more recent research. When they serve as PhD supervisors and peer reviewers, their lack of familiarity with the state of the art leads them to oppose young scholars’ attempts to build on it, since they are ill-equipped to evaluate such attempts. This stifles innovation, since young scholars have to water down their theoretical arguments in order to pass their PhDs or get their articles published. Thus I do think this is very much a struggle over the value of old vs. new cultural capital.

  5. And I completely accept that you’re not making the simplistic case I accused you of in the last comment but I still think you are, essentially, reducing an extremely complex phenomenon to the behavioural dispositions of particular cohorts within academia.

  6. Or to put it another way – if you’re right that this is an “effective career strategy” then what are the conditions of possibility for this?

    • I’m not trying to explain all the issues you and Max were talking about; I’m just trying to explain Max’s stance, because it’s so common. Its structural conditions of possibility involve several things I can think of off the top of my head, and probably much more besides:

      1. Long-term academic employment is hard to obtain, but once you’re in, it’s not difficult to keep your job indefinitely without doing much more than publishing variations on the theme of your PhD topic. This is particularly the case in the US, where tenure effectively eliminates any incentive for senior academics to engage with new ideas, never mind produce new ideas of their own.

      2. Academic employment and job security in the social sciences depend heavily on social capital. If you’re on good terms with a lot of people in your cohort, you can readily form mutual appreciation societies (what Bourdieu called cycles of consecration), in which A writes the preface of B’s book, B writes a positive review of C’s book, C invites A to contribute a chapter to an edited volume, and so on. Everyone involved gains prestige without having to face criticism of their work. The uses of social capital also take other, more complex forms; see the article “The academic caste system: Prestige hierarchies in PhD exchange networks” by Val Burris.

      3. The high importance of social capital is a symptom of the fact that the social sciences have relatively low autonomy in Bourdieu’s sense, meaning that there’s barely any consensus about which knowledge you should be required to master in order to be a social scientist, or about the criteria that should be applied in evaluating research. In fields with higher autonomy (like mathematics), your prestige depends mostly or entirely on how good your work is, in terms of objective, accepted criteria, but in social science, it’s relatively easy to convert all sorts of other capitals (like social capital) into prestige. Thus you often find that everyone thinks X is a good scholar because other prestigious people think X is a good scholar, but nobody can say exactly what it is that X has done well. Since X’s prestige doesn’t depend on any actual results, it can’t be challenged on the basis of new results; hence X doesn’t have to engage in any substantive debates about new ideas.

      4. Since it’s not clear what you should have to know, a viable strategy is to get away with knowing as little as possible. This strategy favours superficial conformism (which is perhaps more what you and Max were talking about): people adopt mantras without thinking much about what they mean, as a way of displaying their good taste, i.e. signaling that they’re the right sort of person, the sort one would want to work with. Everyone who uses this strategy is complicit in pretending that these mantras refer to theoretical concepts whose validity has been conclusively demonstrated. It’s in their interest not to discuss exactly what that presumed validity is based on, because if they did, it might become clear that some of these concepts rest on flimsy intellectual foundations. Such critiques would ultimately increase the autonomy of the field, which wouldn’t be in the interest of those who adopt the strategy of knowing as little as possible, because it would require them to know more. Anyone who rocks the boat will have a hard time accumulating social capital, and hence will not benefit from the phenomena described in (1) above.

      5. PhD students are in a structurally very weak position in relation to their supervisors and examiners, who wield absolute power over their future careers. They’re supposed to make an original contribution to their field, but in doing so they have the potential to undermine the work of these powerful gatekeepers. This is a clear conflict of interest, and leads many PhD students to self-censor.

  7. ok to repost that comment as a post? it’s much more likely to get seen if so – some v insightful points that might spark further discussion.

  8. Sure, just correct “the phenomena described in (1) above”, which should be “(2) above”.

  9. Sociological Hipsterism = ” what do you mean you’ve never read [insert fringe theorist]?! They are the pinnacle of sociology. As so happens, I am an expert on them and therefore an authority over you and everything you say or argue”

    Or the equally annoying…
    “I liked [insert fad] before they were cool…”

    Some theorists can perhaps be assumed to be popular enough that you don’t need to explain their theory, but for the majority, surely a critical outline of how you have interpreted them and found them useful/problematic is always necessary, rather than an appeal to expertise.

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