Meta-Reflection in Sociology

By | January 14, 2015

This is a quick one-off blog calling for a greater commitment to what I have called meta-reflection in sociology.

Meta-reflection refers, first, to the putting aside of time to think things through. Much of life, and more of academic life, now consists in riding a roller-coaster to nowhere in particular in order to keep body and soul together (or body anyway). Conclude the thesis, article, chapter, book; publish (no, not just anywhere); get the next funding proposal in! Meta-reflection calls for a time-out (preferably in my view as part of café society).

Second, it is premised on a conviction that we already possess a considerable and under-utilized body of work, both theoretical and empirical (and yes, empiricist too). While the need for innovative theorizing and for up-to-date or novel data and analyses remains, there are published warehouses of the stuff that we neglect. It would pay us to tap and reflect on these. It really is okay to relearn lessons from dead social theorists, sociologists and researchers!

Much of my own recent output – mainly publications, but a few blogs too – comes within the orbit of meta-reflection. This is especially true of my work on health inequalities, but it applies also to my discourses on stigma. I have attempted to draw on and occasionally to develop extant theory as well as quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods investigations to explore optimal ways of determining the extent and nature of, and ultimately explanations for, enduring health inequalities and stigmatization. I have staked claims for theory that is in my view consonant with available evidence bases. I am of course deeply indebted to innumerable predecessors and contemporaries!

Meta-reflection denotes, third, a mode of institutional resistance. There is now a premium on roller-coaster productivity pertinent to crass metrics like the REF. To (appear to) stand still is to attract opprobrium, too often from line-managers as crass(ly ambitious) as the metrics they bend the knee to. We are fast accelerating away from the concept of education as intrinsically worthwhile. Education in its entirely needs defending against the bureaucratic instrumentalism characteristic of this vicious neo-liberal interlude.

My final observation is less contentious than it might seem. It is that committing to the slow and still hours needed to engage in meta-reflection is likely to occasion a redrawing of the boundaries between Burawoy’s four sociologies and what I call ‘action sociology’. Just as we must defend education from neo-liberalism’s privileging of capitalism’s ‘imperative to work’, so we must take a stand against sociology’s submission to this same ideology. To resist is to do action sociology, namely, to contest institutional and other means of sabotaging or subduing thoughtful research (i.e. to defend evidence-based policy against policy-based evidence). As I have often remarked, it is more hazardous for young sociologists and academics to put their heads above parapets now than it was for us babyboomers.

I hope I have made a case, however annotated, for meta-reflection. It is of course not only meta-reflection that is out of sink with the prevailing ethos of our universities. Nor will many sociologists and others want to engage in meta-reflection. My argument is that it would be wasteful of resource and opportunity if too few of us do; if too few of us do, sociology as a whole will lose out. These notes on meta-reflection are part and parcel of a much larger debate on a closing down of academic space that is already taming what we do and say.