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.