Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sociology degrees - please take one

So said a graffito written in a toilet cubicle in Glasgow University above the toilet-paper dispenser. Indicative of the relatively low esteem the discipline is held - a fact that distresses and perplexes Anthony Giddens:
"We live in a world of extraordinary change, in everyday life, family relationships, politics, communications and in global society. We are witnessing, among other things, a return of the gods, as religion re-emerges as a major force in our societies, locally and on a worldwide level.
My question is: in such circumstances, why isn't sociology again right at the forefront of intellectual life and public debate?"
I don't know exactly, but perhaps people are less willing to study it now for similar reasons I was disinclined to when I went to university. The impenetrable and ugly jargon. Or the way in which sociology students used to say to me, "Man is a social being", as if this were some breath-taking revelation that made their statist political preferences self-evident.

But these were minor considerations compared to the feeling I always had that it was sociology, rather than economics, that was the 'dismal science', offering a diagnosis but without any cure - or at least not one that satisfied. A sort of Calvinism without salvation; a discourse where contemporary social institutions were invariably understood as being 'oppressive', without any vision of what shape future ones might take.

It seemed to be characterised by an ahistoricism curiously combined with a confidence in their deterministic view of the human condition - this being the other problem with it for me. Any 'science of society' that seeks to make law-like generalisations really should have had a better track record. Why should sociologists be called apon to explain a 'return of the gods' when they conspicuously failed to predict this in the first place? And why should they be expected to understand this post-Soviet world of ours when this state of affairs too was hidden from them until it actually happened?

Perhaps I'm being unfair, and retrospectively satisfied that I made the right choice in avoiding the subject, but I do think part of the answer to Mr Giddens' question lies within his own speculations:
"[S]ociology's star was dimmed by the rise of market-based philosophies from the early 1980s onwards. As a phase of government, market fundamentalism lasted some twenty years - roughly the period covered by the Reagan and Thatcher governments. Its overall influence lasted longer, since more sophisticated versions of it continue to guide international organisations, especially the IMF and World Bank, down to very recent times. If markets settle most aspects of social life, including social justice, the scope of social factors - the prime province of sociology - is correspondingly reduced. The economic, as it were, predominates heavily over the social."
But 'market fundamentalism' didn't have this effect on history, or psychology, or political economy, or philosophy - so shouldn't sociologists ask themselves why it had this effect on the field of sociology? It may simply be that they are avoiding the realisation that they were simply wrong about too many things. The apostle of the 'Third Way' should, I think, at least consider this possibility.

Anthony Giddens: understandably depressed

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