C Wright Mills Again: ‘Doing Sociology’

By | October 23, 2013

There are worse plights than being drawn back into the world of C Wright Mills. I have been re-reading The Power Elite, as some will be aware. On page 245 of my old edition from undergraduate days I chanced upon two statements on the sociological undertaking that like so much else in his output continue to resonate.

They are:

One continual weakness of American ‘social science’, since it became ever so empirical, has been its assumption that a mere enumeration of a plurality of causes is the wise and scientific way of going about understanding modern society. Of course it is nothing of the sort: it is a paste-pot eclecticism which avoids the real task of social analysis: that task is to go beyond a mere enumeration of all the facts that might conceivably be involved and weigh each of them in such a way as to understand how they fit together, how they form a model of what it is you are trying to understand.

… in America the political theorist too is often merely a more systematic student of elections, of who voted for whom. As a professor or as a free-lance intellectual, the political analyst is generally on the middle levels of power himself. He knows the top only by gossip; the bottom, if at all, only by ‘research’. But he is at home with the leaders of the middle level, and, as a talker himself, with their ‘bargaining’.

So, here are two statements somewhere between the grand theory of a Parsons and the empiricism of a Lazarsfeld. Wright Mills situates himself between two established camps. Several of my claims 60+ years later echo his stance. Fort example: (a) a credible, realist sociology, part of a reconstructed Enlightenment project, MUST be post-positivistic, YET OFTEN ISN’T, EVEN NOW (witness the putative Anglo-Saxon sociology of health inequalities); (b) data never wrap things up as far as the sociologist is concerned, it always being a matter of (fallibly) MAKING A CASE FOR HOW THINGS ARE AND WHY; (c) too often we sociologists are insufficiently reflexive (the positive interpretation) or bothered (the negative interpretation) about how our social placements as academics, in increasingly neo-liberal institutions, shapes our agendas; and (d) too little effort is committed to what I have called ‘META-CONSTRUCTION’, or making optimal ‘synthesizing’ use of extant theories and research (as opposed to either chasing new data or data-sets or reinventing wheels).

More generally, what his work demonstrates, sometimes fortuitously, is the salience of continuity over time (social statics or order) over discontinuity (social dynamics or change).

He said a lot of good things, and did so bravely (plus, he rode his motor bike into his department).

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