3:1— Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Post 1 of 3


At a time when inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research is becoming the norm, aligning one’s work with any one discipline seems outdated. However recent events in Canada have prompted me to re-consider identifying myself as a sociologist (in-training). On the one hand, the discipline has been put into question by veteran Canadian sociologists (see Curtis and Weir). Whatever side of the debate one takes, sociology’s public utility and institutional longevity have been cast into doubt. On the other hand, the Prime Minister of Canada is openly dismissive of sociology. In the wake of the Boston terror attacks, after one of his political opponents highlighted the need to consider the “root causes of terrorism,” the Prime Minister famously replied that now is not the time to “commit sociology”: terrorist attacks must always be dealt with immediately and only in the severest of terms by state authorities. More recently, Harper refused calls for a public inquiry into the thousands of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, rejecting it is a “sociological phenomenon.” Given our leader’s indifference to sociology, the discipline’s uncertain future, and the general movement towards post-disciplinarity, this hardly seems like the time to dedicate oneself to entering the profession’s ranks.

But Harper’s off-the-cuff remark has, in a way, galvanized sociologists (and criminologists) who have come to the defense of the evidence-based policy-making approach that the Conservatives continue to ignore. And the resulting op-eds and blog posts have consistently made reference to the Conservative Government’s “War on Science.” Since Harper took office in 2006, federal funding for research departments (e.g., Environment Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Library and Archives Canada, Parks Canada) has been slashed, federal labs have been shut down, and government libraries have closed their doors. The national census even became an object of controversy because of changes made by the ruling government.

As the decision-making processes of the executive branch have become increasingly autonomous, Canada’s knowledge production infrastructure has crumbled and federal scientists have been muzzled. This prompted federal scientists and researchers, in the summer of 2012, to march on Parliament to stage a funeral mourning the “Death of Evidence”. Perhaps this war was begun as soon as Harper was elected. In 2006, the office of the National Science Advisor, previously reporting directly to the Prime Minister, was first moved to Industry Canada; the Science Advisor was never consulted by Prime Minister Harper. Then, at the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, conservative parliamentarians tried to tar and feather Dr. Arthur Carty over his office and travel expenses. Finally, the national science advisor was dismissed by Harper in 2008, and Canada remains the only G8 nation without one.

Now, it is not my intention to turn this space into a soap box for Canada’s scientific public; nor do I want to constitute some sort of “Harper effect” wherein the scientific apparatus has been manipulated by the sovereign towards clandestine, ideological ends. Rather it is intended as a passive aggressive “thank you” letter. Whatever Harper’s actual views of sociology, he has unknowingly gifted sociologists with an interesting and engaging problematic: instead of approaching sociology from a disciplinary/institutional perspective, we should approach it mainly as a practice that necessarily engages others and oneself. Given the ongoing “war” in the human-park that is Canada, I think it is indeed time to commit sociology, and, like others, am committed, now more than ever, to that label— thanks, both directly and indirectly, to the Prime Minister.

17 thoughts on “3:1— Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Post 1 of 3

  1. what would “evidence” based mean for sociology, how does one control for sameness of research subjects and for interventions and what kinds of follow-ups are done to determine possible effects/outcomes? Are the sociologists organizing any actual/substantial political opposition to this buffoon or are they merely committing academic sociology in reply?


    • I wouldn’t want to identify sociology too much with the evidence-based approach — it is certainly not the only one of course. But there is certainly a movement calling for evidence-based politics here in Canada, because institutions have been disassembled quickly, when there was supposed to be object permanence to them. The case of the Experimental Lakes Area was not specifically mentioned: it is a “one-of-its-kind” freshwater research facility which examines how chemicals affect regional ecosystems. Although the Conservatives tried to close it down (to further cripple environmental monitoring capacities), the ELA lab was, fortunately, saved through the intervention of the Liberal Provincial Government, which continued the lab’s $1.3mn/yr funding. So the Harper Conservative Government has certainly lost some battles in this war, and could be its biggest loser in the coming 2015 national election. Canada’s “public science” movement is being organized mostly by academics and activist federal researchers. I’m not really sure how involved sociologists are, nor what the movement’s overall impact will be but it will certainly be useful fodder for political opponents of the current regime.

      On another note my sincere thanks to Nicholas (and Jan) for inviting us to do a 3:1 session on this idiosyncratic Canadian theme. Space did not permit me to mention them in my letter of thanks to the PM


    • That’s a good point about sociology in general. As other areas of research — I’m thinking medicine or psychology or even management (ever read EBM?) — move toward evidence-based decision-making, sociology has not, and that may be because … sociology doesn’t decide anything. That was intentionally overstated, but it makes me wonder. What is sociology’s practice wing? Psychology has a robust research wing and a robust practice wing, and so does medicine and so on.


  2. Quick question for Michael: what does sociology mean/imply in the two phrases “committing sociology” and “sociological phenomenon”? (does sociology imply different things in these two frames or, I guess, metaphors?)


    • For example, with regard to the “committing sociology” by PM Harper, it seems that the phrase connotes a certain “let’s not get all academicky” evidenced (no pun intended) in this line “the Prime Minister elaborated on his assertion that now is no time for academic pondering, saying that those who would seek to hurt Canada are starkly opposed to Western values.” Admittedly, that may be the journalist’s interpretation leaking into that description. Still, it seems to hold: “committing sociology” is akin to “being academic” (with the implied, “rather than taking swift action”).


    • I think most people would agree that “evidence” of a growing population of missing and murdered aboriginal women would necessitate federal leaders at least investigating the “root causes of the problem.” In this framing, politicians must commit sociology as public issues are invariably sociological phenomenon. Canada’s sovereign simply does not want to do that on issues that would somehow upset his regime.

      Interestingly, his last electoral opponent was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Former liberal leader Michael Ignatieff would have committed sociology, in one way or another, on Canada’s public issues, and the federal investigation would have already been launched. So there is the practice of sociology, the universe of objects that mediate the social order, and the sociologist (which can be anyone). For one to commit sociology involves the positive embrace of uncertainty and problematization.


      • The idea of needing to conduct investigations into this trend is well-noted; however, the way the PM sees it, this is a police investigation rather than an academic (and/or sociological) analysis. This is in the final quote from the article you linked to above on “sociological phenomenon.”

        Regarding your second paragraph: Sociology embraces uncertainty and problematization as well as reflexivity in matters deemed “social” sounds like a line out of the Curtis playbook! (I read the paper from him and Weir before getting through your 3:1) C & W identify sociology that way, but the PM apparently does not read Curtis!!! (that was a joke, at first, now I see it is a tragic comedy)


    • In contrast (sort of), with regard to the “sociological phenomenon” by PH Harper, it also seems that the phrase connote a certain “let’s not get all academicky” but in a different way. When one is “committing sociology,” the “being academic” part is pitted-against the “doing something active” part (researching is like standing around doing nothing productive). This seems pretty clear. The other one is less clear. When identifying a “sociological phenomenon,” the PM suggests a couple things: (1) type of investigation: that the many deaths in question of Canadian aboriginal women are not linked together into some sort of broader social trend; which is then oddly linked to (2) type of action: the notion that this is not a sociological phenomenon (in the former academic sense of “committing sociology”) indicates that we don’t need to “commit” more sociology (i.e., stand around and research this stuff) we need a different kind of action of the law enforcement variety (i.e., let’s not stand around doing sociology, we have criminals to catch), which again makes sociology an “inactive” thing paired against some other “active” thing. The PM apparently said (and this captures both 1 & 2 above): “”It’s very clear that there has been very fulsome study of this particular … of these particular things. They’re not all one phenomenon,” said Harper. “We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.””


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