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

Historically sociology has been entwined with the state, sociology playing the part as both gadfly and confidant. Growing out of early nineteenth century moral statistics, the discipline was related to the regulation of the productivity and industrial morale of ‘labouring classes’. Of course, sociology played a critical role too, troubling the purported objectivity of state rule, exploitation, and the role of the state in codifying relations of class, gender and race. The interplay of these lines of inquiry ran deep into the modern state project. As such, sociology has confronted the ‘public’ as both a technique allied to state rule and, as C. Wright Mills wrote, as a project to transform “private issues into public issues of social structure”. As such, there may be something revealing about a state official slighting a practice that had been central to modern state formation, especially when the slight isn’t just rhetorical but manifest in policy.

The infrastructures that connected sociology to ‘the public’ in Canada have been retrenched. The long form census has been scrapped; and the archives and libraries closed or hamstrung by cuts. This may seem minor but sociology grew out of these public institutions; the advice of Harriet Martineau, an oft-neglected figure in the discipline’s formation, to any social observer was to begin by consulting public records. In this sense, the decline of these infrastructures threatens to put a number of issues and questions outside the grasp of the discipline. At the same-time, largely through tax-credits and other initiatives, this government has sought to relocate rule from the scale of the public to individualized ‘rational’ and risk averse subjects (see Phil’s post on resilience). If society assumes a form where rule shifts from the scale of the public to the individual, violence, poverty and even illness can be explained and ‘governed’ at the scale of personal conduct. Thus, there will be no public where the forces of social structure can become framed as public issues. There will be neither ‘a time’ nor ‘a place’ for sociology.

Under these conditions, what might a commitment to sociology entail? To avoid resorting to vagaries or excluding some projects through ignorance, I will lay out two projects that may be of tactical importance. The recent work by William Walters on the constitution and mobilization of publics through specific materials and technologies offers an important line of inquiry. Re-reading the public as practice offers the chance to recover it, which is necessary for state projects are increasingly making less of the public as a technique of rule. Moreover, if the state and sociology have historically met in service of ‘publics’, it seems appropriate that we should take an interest in the public as something more than a metaphysical concept or guarantee of the liberal state. It may be useful to take a similar stance and ask what infrastructures, institutions and scales of state informed sociology as a practice, and what are its conditions of operation today? Second, the strengthening of the individual as a scale of rule has been a gift to disciplines that seek to displace the social with the biological; here I am referring to the return of genetic explanations in crime and the neurological focus of cognitive psychology. Sociology is confronted by battle-lines similar to those that were in place when it became a discipline. Again, it seems we must demonstrate the social-historical character of the ‘individual’ so as to underscore that individuals conceived in projects of rule are not neutral or abstract but reflect the desires and anxieties of those who rule.


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

  1. This seems like a solid suggestion: “Again, it seems we must demonstrate the social-historical character of the ‘individual’ so as to underscore that individuals conceived in projects of rule are not neutral or abstract but reflect the desires and anxieties of those who rule.”

    I guess one of the questions would be something like “how do we get the public interested in sociology and/or the sociological imagination?” Do we need to start writing more newspaper pieces or get sociology more integrated into public schools? I really don’t know, but I’m open to suggestion.


    • here I think Latour is right that publics (interest-groups) have to be assembled and if you don’t show them how the work is serving their interests (is intimately tied to their daily lives) than I don’t see much hope (or reason really) in their being willing to divert their ever dwindling resources to such research.
      Also if you think about say the politics of educaton/prison reform the research is pretty clear that it’s cheaper to get kids well socialized in early-ed than to start locking them up in middle-school/high-school but politically this has been a loser in too many places so unless you folks can help on the political front the old idea of creating well-informed public servants seems less and less valuable.
      It will be a good test of the social-imaginations of faculty and students if they can find a way to survive the rising tide of neo-lib austerities so far the record is pretty dismal.


      • ps when climate scientists turned to Bruno for help (his vindication if you ask him) what they got was a book, a blog, several academic conferences, and a growing pile of papers/books, as political operations go this is pretty pathetic.


        • Clearly — research alone is a weak reward for the public, and this is especially true when that public experiences (or prefers or gets social connection from) anti-intellectualism. Something different is in need. Surely, it cannot be “sociology can help you make money” if we need money to do the research that would only rarely bear such fruit. What else might work? Skills, we might hear; however, aren’t those skills related primarily to our wonderful tradition of research methods; oh how well those might sell to an anti-intellectual public!?

          I see psychology, perhaps because it is sociology’s closest cousin, as a discipline that has successfully — for better or for worse — embedded itself into the American consciousness. Even if many, many citizens consider psychology to be “bunk science” and practicing psychologists to be “trumped-up shrinks,” the public appreciation for “mental health,” the full integration of psychology into the high school system in US high schools, and public figures such as Dr. Phil, again, for better or for worse, there is a public to be identified, a practice to employ and justify the science, and “mentally healthy adults” who tell their friends about how psychologist X in community Y really “helped them out” and how their depression can be “worked through, without the necessity of pharmaceutical drugs.”

          Now, does sociology have this? Surely, when a school thinks about the socio-administrative policies they develop, do they think of sociology? I think not. When a consumer organization runs a focus group, do they think of sociology? I think not. When an HR department conducts an exit interview, do they think of sociology? Again and again the question will be the same — I think not. Other readers of the blog might say with ease I KNOW NOT. Sociology has made many, many outstanding contributions to intellectual and methodological debates whose influences are so many and which run so deep into the fabric of society as we know it (not being punny there) that, perhaps, sociologists think they are sort of owed something in return (for example, to be left alone with their work) or decry the many instances where their insights might have shifted the sands of change though they were not (for example, thinking about the many sociologists I know who responded this way to the recent highly public cases of protest in Ferguson and New York).

          At a time when budgets are tight, there are no more rewards for past contributions. Psychology’s methods — esp. standard tests — are pay-for-play, which was a solid way, so many years ago, to protect their methods and intellectual property. Sociology’s methods, in contrast, can be purchased for the price of a research methodology textbook and the time it takes for some practice. I recognize that, in reality, learning methods takes time, energy, and usually requires a mentor to help “tune-in” those skills. Still, for a person in HR to learn the basics about interviewing, do you really need a sociolo-mentor or just a sociology research methods textbook? Answer: likely neither because you’ll end-up buying a practical “this is how you do interviews for dummies” book by an author who simply cannibalized the basics from sociology one way or another, none of which required “paying” any sociologist for their work or “paying” them with recognition.

          Okay, that’s enough — perhaps I am committing sociology about committing sociology here …


          • academic/clinical psychology is in the business (as you say) of forming technicians who will be trained in and buy the techniques/technologies manufactured (and often copyrighted/patented) by academic researchers and employed upon the public, this has left the researchers in the position of chasing the monied interests (see the rise of sports psychology and the rest) and fearing the rise of neuro/cognitive-sciences which will soon be replacing them altogether.
            So that’s a bit of a dead-end. I think we are on the verge of the kind of “crisis” that Husserl and co. faced as to whether there is a real (as in viable) alternative to engineering (computer-science, etc) to be developed by academics with an interest in the “social”, and perhaps the work of folks like Mol and Rabinow is something along these lines as is:


          • Nicholas – this is indeed an interesting problem facing sociology (and I would add other social sciences and humanities like history, English and something like classics). I think your assessment that there requires a need to ‘sell’ sociology’s contribution isn’t far off given the current context. I feel there may be an argument that, historically speaking, some types of sociology have always been faced with these pressures. I think of people like Elias or Simmel or Benjamin who struggled to get jobs or faculty positions and really didn’t received recognition for their work. On the opposite side, we can find criminology (and its close but distant cousin, criminal justice studies) gaining enormous presence within university program offerings and governmental policy. That sociology informs most of criminology isn’t really acknowledged, or discounted as ‘merely theoretical’ when it is. For example, the entire ‘chicago school’ strand of criminology is founded on urban sociology and symbolic interactionism. It would be surprising though to find a copyrighted questionnaire for sale that reads ‘S.I. Q-12: 12 questions to access social interactions in the metropolis”. However, things like the bogardus social distance scale were constructed using key sociological insights, in this case Simmel’s concepts of closeness/distance and Elias’ (and others like Merton) insider/outsider relations. So I think there has been the ‘sale’ of sociology, but it was at liquidation prices. You won’t find me hanging around for dividends owed though. The weight of instrumentalization is being felt most acutely within fields that have had difficulty turning basic research and observations into tangible outcomes (the explosion of graduates teaching English as second language is perhaps a short-term reaction to this pressure). Aside from criminology, perhaps a model is to be found from one of STS’s methodologies: working alongside hard science practitioners and within laboratories and institutions (anthropology’s position could also be discussed here). If we say that sociology is the discipline par excellence for reflexivity (certainly this can be another stream of discussions), then maybe working alongside disciplines that do not have that kind of reflexive bend could be mutually beneficial. If sociology is a martial art (as Bourdieu tells us), then maybe there is a need to get to know our ‘opponents’ intimately, learn their ways and arguments to defend ourselves against attack.

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            • what would make ” sociology … the discipline par excellence for reflexivity” ?
              and if we are not making some claims for the calculative powers of statistics (on suicide rates of populations or such) than what makes sociology different from anthro, philosophy, or social-psych and all?


  2. Well, I think this is part of Phil’s point, is that today the lines between sociology and other disciplines are hard to discern, as they have borrowed from sociology quite heavily. What makes sociology the ultimate source of reflexivity is perhaps the way in which it structures our view of the historical. I find, for instance, that philosophy is somewhat unwilling to confront the fact that its objects of concern are historically constituted and therein what we can know and the procedure that we can undertake to know it, is historical in form. This type of reasoning is more or less impossible to pursue if one is loyal to platonic ideal categories. In fact, William Barrett deals with the whole problem Marx introduced to philosophy- at the same time he exited it, a rather cruel parting gift- of the conditions of existence. If what we know and how we know it is shaped by the form of society we live in pure reason, abstract logic, becomes limited in that it can no longer be ‘abstract’ and, therein, pure in form (hence the attempt of philosophers to develop a language of pure logic capable sustaining purely a priori reasoning. It is the fact that sociology largely breaks from philosophy that makes it discipline of reflexivity. The idea that our categories and concepts used to think are social rather than developed in the world of the mind is what makes the discipline possible and distinct from philosophy.

    If we take on board that we are historically constituted beings then we must recognize what we study and how we study is a relational and, therein shifts in the course of our engagement. It is this underlying premise that the social is historical and the historical is social, that gives the discipline its edge on reflectivity. As an aside, I don’t think that other disciplines cannot take this up- Anthropology for instance could- but I haven’t seen it foregrounded as the concern of the discipline in the same way- in many ways it seems to me that Anthropology is still really trying to deal with its historical relationship of the observer, both in terms of trying to decide if the social distance that framed the discipline is necessary and if it is necessary does is mean that anthropology remains inherently colonial in form. Hence, the discipline’s obsession with the methods of ethnography.
    Anyways, I am sure Phil has more to say but I figured I would at least try to point to why sociology isn’t philosophy.


  3. Actually, Wittegenstein and his attempt to find a formal logic behind all presuppositions is more or the less a great example as to why knowledge and conditions of existence posed such a problem to Western Philosophy; and hence why sociology may have a relation to social reflexivity that is distinct. I think I need you to clarify what you mean by structuralism. If you mean to say that a relationship between how we think, act and feel is shaped in relation to our own historical period (which is all that was claimed in my post), is a dubious reiteration of structuralism, that definition would leave me rather suspicious of anything that wasn’t structuralism. If you mean structuralism as a belief that some historical or social structure determines the individual, then I would share your concern but also point out that I never made this claim in my post. To say that we are conditioned by historical circumstances is patently true, to say precisely how, in what ways and from ‘where’ is impossible. We live in historical and social circumstances that are not of our choosing it is in the task of going beyond that premise that structuralism becomes the issue. Moreover, there is nothing in the post that suggests that the social is something that only belongs to humans. Rather, the suggestion is that sociology’s capacity for reflexivity stems from the way it tends to conceptualize the relation humans do have to social-historical conditions (i.e. they are reflexive about the forms of knowledge they have). The statement doesn’t suggest that the social is just about or only includes humans, just the way sociology captures their reflexivity.


    • you seemed to have missed Wittgenstein’s 2nd act than (and those more widely known as continental who have been and remain deeply invested in historicity) and I suppose all of the folks who followed up (and still are at work) with that trajectory, you were the one that mentioned structures and I don’t know what it could mean to interact with a historical “period” (and I think you later say as much “to say precisely how, in what ways and from ‘where’ is impossible” to which I would add the “social” apart from what people do with what things are at hand {are you applying sociology to non-humans?} ) and yes the question remains if the conceptualizations/practices aren’t tied to the statistical analyses that have given it some modern (tho obviously as we are discussing ever less) political/economic standing than what if anything makes it “sociology” and more capable of self-reflexivity than all the others who have and are working on such issues like:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Sch%C3%B6n ?


  4. Okay. A few points. One, where I mention ‘structures’ I say “what makes sociology the ultimate source of reflexivity is perhaps the way in which it structures our view of the historical”, I could have just as easily used the word informs, guides, or organizes… Suggesting that the phrase implies I am advocating or relying on a return to structuralism is only possible in a very unforgiving reading (one that suggests you want to dismiss the author rather than hold a discussion with them). As for continental philosophy and the adherence to historicity, its probably a really good example of ways historical reflexivity has been taken up. However, the point I was really driving at, and I should have been much clearer about this, is that the ideas and methods that would inform much of early twentieth century sociology can be traced to breaks with philosophy by various theorists in the nineteenth century. That some branches of early to mid twentieth century philosophy also became concerned with the historicity is an important point but it does not invalidate that the break was and continues to form one of the pillars for the discipline; perhaps its even possible to trace how aspects of sociological thinking were worked into philosophy, the reverse is of course true.

    Second, this suggestion that the discipline has suddenly become undefined or indistinct from any other forms of knowledge because it no longer adheres to a positivist statistical method, requires excluding huge swathes of work that made up the discipline. Marx, Weber, Simmel, W.E. B Debois, form much of the intellectual roots of the discipline none of which were positivist or statistical in focus. So, I think we could make a good case, as you and others have done on this blog, about a crisis of in the perception of the applicability of sociology but the foundations of the discipline are not just in statistical research. So, designating a departure from positivist research as the basis of the discipline’s crisis simply isn’t a valid diagnosis; without cutting out a number of thinkers from the discipline.

    Finally, I wouldn’t mind asking for some clarification on one of your points. Above you seem to suggest that any knowledge of the social is impossible “apart than what people do with what things are at hand”. Is this actually what you meant to imply or have I misread the comment.


    • I was/am genuinely asking what (if not structures) would make something “social” apart from being the behavior of an animal that interacts with others?
      also I wasn’t positing ” a departure from positivist research as the basis of the discipline’s crisis” I was trying to imagine a way forward given that the paying/controlling communities by and large find academic sociology to be without means/meaning and the remaining (and dwindling, no?) employed practitioners are scrambling to prove their worth before their depts are downsized (if not undergoing total excision). Still not sure what folks like Marx did that would make current sociology per say as a subsidizable branch of higher-ed (seems to be well used&abused by other disciplines, no?)
      yes “what people do with what things are at hand” is about the size of my current anthropo-logos, do you see some other way to knowing, something more or other than people doing things with what is at hand?
      just found this today:


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