What are you doing tonight? I’m going out to commit some sociology…

In the wake of a foiled terrorist attack in Canada, recent comments have offered a fascinating insight into mindset of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Now is not the time to “commit sociology,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday in the wake of a foiled terrorist plot to attack a Via Rail passenger train that has some now musing about the causes of radicalization.

“In terms of radicalization, this is obviously something we follow. Our security agencies work with each other and with others around the globe to track people who are threats to Canada and to watch threats that may evolve. I think though, this is not a time to commit sociology,” he said.

“Global terrorist attacks, people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding, are a threat to all the values that our society stands for and I don’t think we want to convey any view to the Canadian public other than our utter condemnation of this kind of violence, contemplation of this violence and our utter determination through our laws and through our activities to do everything we can to prevent and counter it.”

What I love about this is the manner in which the clumsy mode of expression (‘committing sociology’) works to foreground what is a much more pervasive attitude among the political class: explanation is construed as tantamount to justification. This is something I’ve talked with Les Back about in two podcasts about the UK riots (first and second) where, analogously to ‘committing sociology’, there was much public proclamation of this disorder being ‘criminality pure and simple’. In each case, our political leaders display an orientation which is not simply a scepticism about ‘committing sociology’ but a desire to proclaim the indefensibility of sociological reasoning and performatively purge it from the public discussion.

But what is it they are seeking to purge? It is not per se academic sociology. I would suggest the hostility is directed towards a mode of sociological reasoning which is under attack within sociology: one that is causal, humanistic and explanatory. The mode of sociological reasoning which Harper feels compelled to preemptively dismiss is one which would avoids the merely descriptive (where would be the subversive challenge in that?) but rather seeks to offer causal explanations of how social action does not emerge ex nihilo, with the most ‘extreme’ acts constituting situated responses to social circumstances with a far broader reach than that of the actors themselves. The prohibition being enacted by Harper and others is on explanation rather than simply understanding: the challenge is posed by a mode of reasoning that doesn’t merely aim to understand the other from their own point of view but instead explains how that point of view came into being within a shared social context, identifying the social facts irreducible to particular individuals which nonetheless have led particular individuals to violent action.

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