‘So­ci­ol­ogy fo­cuses on show­ing that what­ever lit­tle progress we have made is il­lu­sory or doomed to fail­ure’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Steve Fuller is pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of War­wick. His lat­est book is Post-Truth: Knowl­edge as a Power Game (An­them).

Does so­ci­ol­ogy have a fu­ture as a dis­ci­pline? The rad­i­cal de­cline in the num­ber of de­part­ments in the quar­ter-cen­tury I have lived in the UK does not in­spire con­fi­dence.

More­over, the prob­lem does not re­late to any gen­eral per­ceived malaise of so­cial science. The is­sue is much more about what the “added value” of so­ci­ol­ogy is, within a set of dis­ci­plines that range over the en­tire hu­man con­di­tion in mul­ti­ple over­lap­ping ways, sep­a­rated some­times only by the jar­gon they em­ploy.

We can take stock by ask­ing why so­ci­ol­ogy was cre­ated in the first place. The peo­ple we call “clas­si­cal so­ci­ol­o­gists” – the Holy Trin­ity of Marx, We­ber and Durkheim, plus a few oth­ers – were uni­formly im­pressed by hu­mans’ col­lec­tive abil­ity to learn from the past in order to break de­ci­sively with it. They gen­er­ally ques­tioned in­her­i­tance in all its forms as a source of le­git­i­macy, which, in turn, made so­ci­ol­ogy a po­lit­i­cally pro­gres­sive “science of moder­nity”.

I be­lieve that this orig­i­nal fram­ing is sound, but needs up­grad­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, to­day’s ver­sion of the dis­ci­pline is its own worst

en­emy. In­stead of show­ing how far we have pro­gressed and sug­gest­ing how we might go still fur­ther, so­ci­ol­ogy fo­cuses on show­ing that what­ever lit­tle progress we have made is il­lu­sory or doomed to fail­ure. In­deed, the first step in this de­featist ar­gu­ment is to cast doubt on the va­lid­ity if not the very ex­is­tence of the “we” that I am re­fer­ring to.

A sign of the times is that so­ci­ol­o­gists now like to fash­ion them­selves as an­thro­pol­o­gists, who take moder­nity to be a myth that helps to sta­bilise power re­la­tions be­tween “the West and the Rest”. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ 1962 book The Sav­age Mind was the clas­sic rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the no­tion that an­thro­pol­ogy was dis­tin­guished from so­ci­ol­ogy by its fo­cus on “pre-mod­ern” so­ci­eties, which were by def­i­ni­tion static. Yet by Bruno La­tour’s 1991 book We Have Never Been Mod­ern, the de­clin­ing for­tunes of Marx­ism – which un­til the fall of the Ber­lin Wall had been the most am­bi­tious self-de­scribed “pro­gres­sive” move­ment in his­tory – had led so­ci­ol­o­gists to lose faith in the whole no­tion of progress.

How­ever, the clas­si­cal so­ci­ol­o­gists – in­clud­ing Marx – had agreed that the main en­gine of mod­erni­sa­tion was cap­i­tal­ism, not so­cial­ism. So­cial­ism was just one pos­si­ble – and in Marx’s case, de­sir­able – fu­ture for cap­i­tal­ism. In fact, none of the his­tor­i­cal forms of so­cial­ism may sur­vive our cen­tury, although cap­i­tal­ism is likely to reign supreme. But in­stead of ap­ply­ing what re­mains of value in the failed so­cial­ist ex­per­i­ments to the “Fourth In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion” on which cap­i­tal­ism ap­pears to be em­bark­ing, the con­cept of progress is scorned, if not de­monised by so­ci­ol­o­gists. “Anti-cap­i­tal­ist re­sis­tance” is the clos­est that so­ci­ol­ogy comes to pro­ject­ing a co­her­ent po­lit­i­cal hori­zon, and it is largely con­fined to es­o­teric “cri­tiques”, oc­ca­sion­ally punc­tu­ated by some street theatre.

More­over, the rise of iden­tity pol­i­tics as the main ex­pres­sion of so­ci­ol­ogy’s “post-so­cial­ist” men­tal­ity may make mat­ters worse by stress­ing ideas of restora­tive or repar­a­tive jus­tice. En­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to claim en­ti­tle­ment by iden­ti­fy­ing with their so­cially recog­nised an­ces­tors sounds like the sort of in­her­i­tance­based con­cep­tion of so­cial order that so­ci­ol­ogy was de­signed to op­pose. The twist now is that such claims are meant to come from the his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged in­stead of the ad­van­taged. The post-apartheid South African set­tle­ment in­spires this line of thought, but its ex­ten­sion to Amer­i­can de­scen­dants of African slaves has so far been un­suc­cess­ful.

Mean­while, real peo­ple from his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged groups con­tinue to try to free them­selves from their roots – not only through class mo­bil­ity but also by gen­der and even race trans­for­ma­tion. That they are un­able to change their iden­tity with equal mea­sures of suc­cess is the sort of so­cial in­equal­ity on which so­ci­ol­o­gists should fo­cus if they want to re­main true to the orig­i­nal spirit of the dis­ci­pline. In­deed, the fu­ture-fac­ing spirit of these iden­tity shapeshifters should pro­vide in­spi­ra­tion to mem­bers of a dis­ci­pline that, as things stand, has largely lost its faith.

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