Sociology versus Ideology

By | June 11, 2014

I have long had a bee in my bonnet about ideology. When I learned my sociology its meaning was unambiguous: it referred to a way of seeing and understanding the world that reflected a particular set of vested interests. Nowadays its meaning has shifted, becoming etiolated in the process: it merely denotes the worldview of any social segment or grouping. This represents a severe and telling loss in my view, the subject of this brief blog.

Through the – it transpired, largely passing – phase that led some to promote a ‘postmodern sociology’, I invited colleagues to hold their nerve. This postmodern phase was profoundly relativistic. Lyotard claimed that the grand narratives that had characterized modernity had yielded to petit narratives in what some eagerly called post-modernity. The principal property of the grand narrative was its presumed Enlightenment-oriented, compellingly rational appeal to all thinking people, whether pro- or anti-capitalist or pro- or anti- some substitute grand design. Petit narratives on the other hand were discrete, take-it-or-leave it philosophies and projects for which no conclusive rational defense could be mustered. A postmodern sociology could only be one petit narrative among others.

I have argued that although the notion of a postmodern sociology was a passing conceit there is no doubt that we now occupy a postmodern or relativised culture.

There is a symmetry of sorts between the classic notion of ideology and that of a postmodern sociology. But there are also telling differences. The former only has point and purchase, for example, if sociology remains non-relativistic (relativism, incidentally, is as self-refuting as it ever was: it can only be stated or espoused, let alone defended, in non-relativistic terms). In fact, contemporary usage of ‘ideology’ reduces it to petit narrative. Thus a postmodern sociology is both petit narrative and ideology. My defense here of classic concepts of sociology and ideology necessarily involves rejecting this pervasive, ‘lazy’ and wrong-headed usage.

I have written and blogged quite a bit on my commitment to a sociology geared to lifeworld rationalization and extending beyond Burawoy.s public sociology to invest in action sociology. What this blog focuses on is (a) the importance of a classic understanding of ideology, and (b) sociology’s role in opposing ideology.

We all tend to see and interpret the worlds in which we are ‘involuntarily placed’ (Archer), and our own status- and role-sets (Merton), in line with our interests, be these material or psychosocial. But this does not mean either that our personal interests take us over entirely or that we cannot (learn to) distinguish between perspectives on our worlds that suit us, or others, and perspectives that are – and I use the word in its broadest sense – scientific. It is obvious for example that a world said to be comprised of ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’, with the latter including people on benefits but not those who inherit and live off rent from their capital, is an expedient one for owners of capital: this is blatantly class-based ideology. Axiomatically, it is as important now that we expose ideology when we discern it as it was in the heyday of classical sociology; and there are of course a myriad of non-class-based ideologies that require exposure for what they are (e.g. hierarchic and gendered heterosexuality and what Rex man years ago termed ‘internal colonialism’).

Ideologies, for all that they invariably seduce by catching aspects of our worlds, misrepresent reality via errors of omission and commission.

If it is the sociologist’s task to understand, explain and ‘expose’ ideology masquerading as science, how are we to distinguish sociology, qua science, and ideology? This is no easy question to answer in the twenty-first century’s postmodern or relativised culture, yet if asked I am still unfashionably inclined to defend the idea that sociology is scientific; so what do I mean by this?

I certainly do not mean that sociology should ape the practices of positivists and others who trade only in the observed conjunction of events. I prefer the (critical) realist emphasis on deep and enduring social structures (like class, gender and ethnicity) that, when not annulled by other structures – and not altogether like gravity does in the writings of physicists – systematically influence and shape events. But if sociology is scientific it wraps little up even in its own (irreducible) domain of the social. This is partly because it chases structures in an ‘open society’ in which many social and non-social structures are simultaneously at play, and partly because of the intrusions of agency and the flotsam and jetsam of contingent happenings.

What I do mean is that a sociology rooted in a reconstructed Enlightenment philosophy and project (pace Habermas) does and must retain the potential to deliver rationally compelling and demonstrable explanations of the ways in which social structures help mould our lives for-self and for-others.

(People often say don’t use parentheses but sod them!)

Sociology versus ideology matters – Habermas again – because it affords us a collective chance to delineate and escape (a) the distorted communication and/or (b) the systematically distorted communication that is the modus operandi of the system colonization of the lifeworld (I would add, on the part of the class-driven and highly globalised – Bauman refers in this context to ‘nomads’ – governing oligarchy that prevails in financial capitalism in Britain and elsewhere).

A hint of passion and anger seeps in here. As I see it, if sociology fails to honour its classical aspirations – and, as Habermas asserts, a postmodern sociology is a form of neo-conservatism – then it too is to all intents and purposes colonized. And there are other colonizing threats, like the neo-liberal assault on our universities, the co-optation of ‘ambitious’ academics via instrumental artefacts like the REF, and so on.

I must again add the rider that I am now retired and have less to lose in saying this than young sociologists making their way. A lot rests not only on sociologists’ holding their nerve but also on their spirit and courage.

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