Reflections on My British Sociological Association Keynote

8 September 2014: My keynote address is now on-line

I delivered the first keynote of the British Sociological Association annual meeting this year. I was especially honoured to learn that I was a popular choice, because what I had to say was designed to get people to think about the nature of the collective they form by virtue of being ‘sociologists’. I improvised the keynote, so what follows are my reflections based on what I did say but also the response of people both at the event and on twitter. The keynote itself should be posted on-line by the BSA in the near future.

As someone who comes to sociology with ‘professional’ credentials (aka PhD) from history and philosophy of science, not sociology, I actually made a conscious choice to become a sociologist when I moved from the US to UK twenty years ago. Before that time I was seen as a funky philosopher promoting ‘social epistemology’. Frankly, I don’t believe that much about me has changed (except looking older), but what has changed is the academic environment in which I have been practicing my funkiness. I think that moving to the UK was exactly the right decision at the time, but for reasons that raise some important challenges to an organization that calls itself the ‘British Sociological Association’.

My keynote was framed around the conceit of the great science fiction writer HG Wells’ candidacy for the first UK chair in sociology, at the London School of Economics in the first decade of the 20th century. Wells clearly saw sociology as primarily a normative discipline, taking his cue from Comte and Spencer as 19th century benchmarks for what ‘sociology’ might become. To be sure, these two figures differed radically from each other – and from Wells — in terms of their projected utopias. Nevertheless, both saw ‘sociology’ as mobilising our best scientific knowledge to enable humanity to be all it can. Although Wells did not say this when making his pitch for the chair in 1905, his critical eye on Marxism throughout his career shows that he would have included Marx as a fellow traveller. (By the way, when exactly did Marx become a ‘sociologist’ – the 1960s, perhaps?)

Today’s sociologists should ponder what it might mean to take that Wellsian ambition seriously. Sociologists are nowadays inclined – at least rhetorically — to allow the inevitable uncertainty of their findings to slide into a kind of learned helplessness, so that they sometimes casually insult the intelligence of non-sociologists (helpfully not in the room) by ending a talk with: ‘It’s really all very complex and I’m glad it’s not me who has to sort out this mess… (Next contract, please!)’ And, courtesy of John Law, ‘mess’ has become a badge of methodological honour in some precincts of this field. Yet non-sociologists manage complexity perfectly well all the time, indeed, often in watered-down sociological terms – perhaps redeeming the media’s educative function. So what’s the value-added of sociologists stressing the ‘complexity’ of things, unless they highlight certain factors in the complexity as being salient for some larger prospect that may have escaped the notice of the non-sociologists but that nevertheless may be of interest to them?

In this respect, ‘complexity’ poses a very direct challenge to sociology. If sociology is a proper ‘profession’, then it needs to stand for something beyond a certain sense of ‘technical reliability’, be it based on qualitative or quantitative methods. I have no doubt that artificially intelligent machines will soon be able to perform a very sophisticated form of social research that will represent all the available complexity within prescribed parameters. That’s because the ‘prescribed parameters’ will have been set by someone other than the artificial researcher. When I said that ‘anyone can do social research without being a sociologist’, that’s exactly what I meant. Social research without sociology is precisely what an artificial researcher will eventually be programmed to do.

Now some social researchers will object at this point, saying that they have a special kind of knowledge that no machine could have because they are themselves embedded in the target society, if not belonging to it normally. I see this point clearly. But in that case, what is the virtue of amplifying complexity without resolution? Yes, you’re one of ‘them’, in some sense. But doesn’t that increase your responsibility to say something a bit more definitive, however contestable, than what your non-academic fellows could say? If not, then you would seem to have provided grounds for eliminating publicly funded higher education.

I realize that we all need to publish to earn our keep, but to retain professional standards as sociologists in this political economy, we should require that people who claim the title of ‘sociologist’ to present findings that include a judgement about the matter at hand, where the researcher’s own voice is one of clarity, not the usual dithering, ambivalence, blah, blah. Of course, any judgements pretending to be definitive will be contested and eventually be shown fallible. But the only way that sociology can contribute to social progress is by the public airing of such conflicts, with the onlookers deciding as they will about to what to make of it all.

The above helps to explain an assumption I made in my talk that clearly riled some in the audience: The more that ‘social researchers’ offload personal responsibility for what they reveal about their informants to their clients, the more they diminish their own humanity – and in that respect betray the Wellsian imperative. If there is one crime against ‘humanity’ that can be held against actor-network theory is the idea that information overload — aka ‘plurality of actants’ — absolves you of moral responsibility for what you’re talking about. On the contrary, all it does is to ease your replacement by a machine. Excellently done social research that gives clients all they need to know in order to do whatever they want does not require training in sociology – and in the long term may not even require membership in Homo sapiens.

I am not sure that my argument is obvious or strange (or wrong!), but I think it is what an organization that calls itself the ‘British Sociological Association’ needs to hear now. Since all ‘sociologists’ continue to genuflect to Max Weber, let me end by offering an interpretation of his very strong distinction between ‘science’ and ‘politics’ as vocations. Weber would be the first to object to my hypothetical researcher who gamely presents the ‘mess’ of social reality in the spirit of advertising their own virtuosity to future funders. Weber took seriously that science and politics are two autonomous professions, which means that each has its own ends, which are conditioned by their respective modus operandi.

Just as the politician needs to explain to his/her constituency why s/he chose to make a particular decision, the scientist needs to do something similar, but to the politician. However, the additional burden placed on the scientist is that s/he must represent fairly alternative point of views because s/he is not in a position of making the ultimate policy decision. In other words, what we might regard as the ‘scrupulousness’ of academic judgement simply reflects the relative lack of power in the moment of decision. (In this respect, I see Carl Schmitt as picking up on Weber.) The bottom line is that a Weberian sociologist fully realizes that s/he does not take the ultimate policy decision. Nevertheless, as a matter of professional integrity, the Weberian takes an explicit stance based on the available research, but which is presented in a way that enables the politician to disagree.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Sociological Craft

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3 replies »

  1. You should also get Sara Delamont to write a piece – her plenary was excellent, very funny and some astute points about gender inequalities in relation to the H index, and naive, sloppy internal colonialism in sociology journals.

  2. Well said, on all your points. I do think professional sociology needs to be shaken out of its insularity and conservatism (small ‘c’). E.g. how many core journals of sociology publish a reasonable number of articles by persons with non-sociology–political science, philosophy, communication, free lance, etc–affiliations? I suspect, but bibliometrics would have to confirm, very few. If indeed confirmed, shame!

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