Sociology: An Overriding Narrative?

By | March 17, 2015

I here pull together a family of propositions, if with due caution. In a 1996 paper in Sociology I argued that the conduct of sociology is a logical and moral adjunct to a (Habermasian, ‘reconstructed’) project of modernity, or it is nothing. Sociology, I maintained, must be oriented to ‘lifeworld rationalisation’. What I meant by this is that we sociologists are necessarily geared to reasoned consensus rather than strategic (or instrumental) advantage. Otherwise, to repeat myself immediately, why bother?

All sorts of things follow from this in my view. I totally reject so-called ‘postmodern’ – or relativistic – stances that too readily and keenly distance themselves from the ethos of the European Enlightenment that closed the eighteenth century. It is of course true that it was a masculine, white, capitalist and imperial/colonial episode. But it was also a first strike against religious and other ideologies (that is, views of the world that reflected, and continue to reflect, particular vested interests). We should not sacrifice the baby with the bathwater.

I remain impressed by Habermas’ concept of an ‘ideal speech situation’, which I’ve never seen as utopian. Do we not as we promote and exchange (routine, everyday as well as scholarly) views presuppose, at least in principle, the redemption of validity claims? We surely presume that we can be called to account (got our facts wrong, proffered an imprudent or immoral judgement, etc)?

So surely we sociologists must ally ourselves with our lifeworld consociates rather than our (careerist) strategic line-managers? That we might opt for the latter is as understandable as it is by the way.

Sociology, in short, must – necessarily and morally – aim at a consensus on the hows and the whys of social phenomena. Moreover this is not an aim to be pursued/realised only in European or even Occidental high/late modernity. Unquestionably the West commands the main institutional weaponry of scholarship, that is, according to the criteria it promotes: the ‘best’ universities, the privileged use of the English language, the bulk of resource and research revenue, the highest impact journals, and so on. Although there are belated signs of the emergence non-Western theoretical and substantive sociologies, these have yet to penetrate the collective consciousness of most of those of us practicing in Western settings. It is imperative that we pick up on these and the few credibly imaginative texts on ‘global sociology’ that have been published in the last decade or so. The concept of lifeworld rationalisation I have in mind is global not Western, European or national.

Necessary, moral and impossible? Exceedingly tricky. There are several reasons for this. First, those of us apprenticed in sociology in countries like Britain will be compelled to rethink our masculine, white and imperialist false starts. The seeds of such a rethink have already been sown, and not just by overseas thinkers: feminist and black sociologists still fight for representation in British universities that remain institutionally sexist and racist, but their voices are now there to be heard.

Second, it will require a near overdose of Mills’ sociological imagination to pioneer, and a superhuman and thankless diligence to build institutional infrastructures sufficient to support, a global sociology.

Third, the arguments of those inclined to favour multiple ‘local’ sociologies over a core ‘global’ narrative will have to be successfully contested. In practice this means seeing off those inferring a postmodern or cultural ‘relativism’ from what we might call inter-local cultural complexity. To advocate this kind of ‘epistemological’ relativism is of course (a) self-refuting, and (b) what Habermas calls a ’neo-conservative’ surrender to the status quo.

What philosophers have sometimes called the ‘principle of charity’ allows us to draw on our own cultural contexts to make sense of others, past or present (otherwise we must either appropriate or remain entirely tongue-tied about them).

A lifeworld-oriented consensus is one thing, but does/might this comprise an overriding narrative of ‘the social’? I am much more inclined to say yes than no. Of course there are obstacles in addition to those already listed. The social is dynamic and changing. Many sociologists have settled on the acceleration of change as the core characteristic of high/late modernity or financial capitalism: Archer now refers to ‘morphogenetic society’ for example. So any overriding narrative would have somehow to allow for continuous and multifaceted change, and in the global arena. Nor can human agency and cultures – or contingency – be swallowed up in some sociology of evolving transnational structures. And it gets worse. The social, as I have argued in other blogs, is ‘emergent from’ and ‘feeds back to’ the psychological, biological, and so on (although it cannot be reduced to them).

I am tempted to make a link at this point with an earlier notion I flirted with, namely, that sociologists are in the slow and painstaking business of adding pieces to a jigsaw that can in principle be completed however unlikely this is in practice (see yet another blog).

Is my sanity slipping here? Is this a blog too far? Well maybe. But here’s the thrust of my thesis: the sociological project, necessarily and morally oriented to lifeworld rationalisation, also presupposes the attainment in principle of an overriding narrative of the social in human affairs.

One of the wonders of submitting such pieces as this to the ether is that it circumvents peer review and permits ‘thinking aloud’. As ever, the invitation to respond critically attends its posting.

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