‘We are tearing each other apart rather than working together to produce better research’
The rise of the ideological right to the highest positions of power has put academia on the defensive. Social science is most frequently in the cross hairs for budget cuts, with proponents accusing its practitioners of leftwing bias. And sociologists often get tagged as the worst offenders, pushing a politically correct, leftist agenda that is intolerant to other views.
Are today’s sociologists more liberal than the typical voter? Probably, but that isn’t new. Sociology has long been a discipline that produces research with an eye towards social reform. So attempting to argue that sociology is politically neutral would probably be a waste of energy.
But I worry about a different more internal threat to sociology. The subject’s tendency to employ deconstruction as a method of critical inquiry has turned inward, and we are tearing each other apart rather than working together across differences to produce better research.
The divisiveness is observable at conferences, in peer reviews, on blogs and even in faculty meetings. What does it say that in the spaces where we come together as colleagues we feel compelled to expose each other’s supposed failings – sometimes with glee? Women and people of colour face the worst forms of intradisciplinary policing (the tenure- and promotion-denying kind). Admittedly, vitriol also comes from outsiders, but criticism from within is more common. Simply put, we won’t have to worry about the farright bringing us down because we’ll do it to ourselves.
Exacerbated by funding cuts and the neoliberalisation of the university, we are becoming a loose affiliation of individual entrepreneurs in competition for finite resources. Sociology isn’t the only place where the squeeze can be felt. Attacks have turned personal in other disciplines. But sociology, better than any other discipline, should know the value of community and social support in hard times. We should see the proverbial writing on the wall and arm ourselves with the tools to fight back, implementing lessons learned from thousands of research studies that show how communities persevere amid structural neglect or decline. Instead, we learn early in our training to pull down our peers so they don’t climb higher than us. Just like crabs in a barrel.
Three years out of graduate school, I can still feel the wounds. It was boot camp without the brotherhood that builds cadets into armies. With no formal mechanisms to scaffold a spirit of construction, students learn that the easiest way to earn a reputation is to deconstruct each other. A member of my cohort once took me out for drinks under the guise of celebrating my birthday, only to spend an hour detailing everything that I had said during our first-year courses that he deemed stupid. Rather than being geared towards helping a peer new to the discipline to think more sociologically, his critique turned personal.
Encounters like this crippled me. I expected harsh critiques from faculty members, but I did not expect the people I saw as equals working toward a common goal to throw themselves into feeding an intellectual anxiety built on fear and intimidation.
After my second year, I stopped talking as much in class. I limited my attendance at workshops and conferences. I retreated from the department unless I had meetings or teaching duties. The worst thing I did for my career was to leave unfinished papers collecting digital dust for fear of being criticised for them. Luckily, I eventually found a partner, Marie, in the same position, and we made a pact to write every day, read each other’s (very different) work, and offer only constructive criticism.
Marie liked to quote Madeleine Albright’s comment that there should be a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. Her explicitly feminist support gave me courage to send in-progress work to my adviser, who did his part by reading (multiple) drafts with an eye towards building me up as a scholar. But there was still much negative noise I had to filter out to move forward.
French sociologist Bruno Latour describes critique as “a potent euphoric drug” because when you deliver a critique “you are always right!” Sociologists, myself included, get hooked on this drug early in their careers. But I can’t help but wonder how much further along in my development as a sociologist I would be if graduate school fostered a culture of construction, harnessing the insights of sociology to teach peers to do more for each other, not less – to deliver critiques that multiply rather than subtract, to borrow Latour’s words.
As an assistant professor, I have started to experiment with ways to use critique to create a more constructive environment. When we discuss a reading in class, I tell my students that they have to say something useful they learned from the research before they can launch into criticisms. Like a game of building blocks, you can build bigger and higher if you don’t knock down the other blocks as you go.