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