Sociology: SO Important

By | January 27, 2016

I have delivered a number of blogs characterizing my view of sociology. I have in particular maintained that it is part and parcel of what Habermas called lifeworld rationalization (in other words, that it is rationally and morally allied to representing and projecting justice and solidarity into the public sphere). I have argued too that this involves more than merely publishing research results and advising policy-makers. Specifically, I have promoted the concepts of ‘foresight’ and ‘action sociology’. The former refers to investigating ‘alternative futures’ at micro-, meso- and macro-levels, and the latter to actively resisting any attempts on the behalf of our ‘governing oligarchy’ and their minions to block, circumvent, undermine or rubbish sociology’s more challenging output. If we sociologists timidly back out of intellectual-cum-political conflict, we are turning our backs on all that is at the core of and worthwhile about the European Enlightenment (which needs reconstructing but NOT abandoning); and we are, I think, on a collective retreat.

This blog is a less ambitious but no less passionate contribution. I want here to re-assert the significance and potential of ‘professional sociology’. Professional sociology is at the kernel of what we do. If it weakens, then so do its offshoots.

I want to maintain that sociology is a science of society: just like, say, physics, it scrabbles around hoping/aspiring to detect mechanisms that must exist for the world we inhabit to be and deliver happenings and ‘events’ in the way that it does. Of course this is allied to ‘epistemic fallibilism’: at any given time and place we can only get it partly right (cellular and biological via psychological all the way to astronomical structures, social change and brutal contingency interfere). Tomorrow’s social world will be ontologically enduring and similar but likely to be epistemologically quite different. BUT, at least if we play our (reconstructed Enlightenment) cards right, it might be better understood and explained than is today’s.

If sociology is not a science, if we ‘surrender’ our judgemental rationality to culture- or, worse, fashion-orientated sociology and relativism, then the baby goes with the bathwater.

It is vital that we commit to a ‘scientific’ professional sociology sufficiently independent of third-party (class, command, masculine, white etc) agendas to accord with, indeed prioritize, lifeworld rationalization; and beyond public to stretch to foresight and action sociology. This heralds it’s own ‘mundane’ institutional requirements. Here are six propositions:

  • professional sociology, which sits at the core of all sociological activity, must be seen and defended as a credible ‘science of society’;
  • science stands in opposition to ideologies of all kinds;
  • professional sociology must learn from, apologize to and re-connect with disability, feminist, neo-colonialist, southern etc sociologies (without attempting to take them over);
  • this is worth accenting (and I return to it below), professional sociology must challenge the largely opportunistic and deaf discipline of economics, which is (just) an aspect of the science of society;
  • professional sociology is answerable to critical sociology, oriented to public sociology, and must fuel policy, foresight and action sociologies;
  • professional sociology is tamed and becomes ‘bourgeois’, self-serving and effete if fails to find a way of transmuting into action sociology.

Piketty rightly argues that economists should acknowledge and become reconciled to their rightful home in the social sciences (in my view, sociology). Its practitioners have hoodwinked us with their regression analyses, mathematical equations and pretentious formulae, parading a physics-like precision and promise that many physicists baulk at. There is science and there is …

Times for my colleagues in sociology are tough (although they were never easy). My counsel has always been to take out sufficient insurance to keep (increasingly ambitious and neo-liberal) line-managers off one’s back and at bay. The space that is left should allow for: (a) a quiet and clandestine pursuit of personal (‘vocational’) aspiration and satisfaction; (b) an input into at least one of Burawoy’s four and my six sociologies (it is actually possible to be sufficiently tamed as to sidestep sociology completely); and (c) a contribution to what I have argued is sociologists’ logical and moral duty to lifeworld rationalization.

I cannot envisage a worthwhile sociological commitment that by-passes (a) and fails to deliver on (b). (c), it seems to me, is a responsibility that pertains to the sociological community as a whole (I cannot over-emphasize this). We cannot all do everything. But we must somehow or other cover all bases, or we are collectively stuffed. A discipline tamed! I fear that we are at present – as a community – looking the other way … affluent workers/embourgeoisement …

Sociology versus ideology (that is, world views that reflect vested interests).What more vital intellectual investment?




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