The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Sociologist

This wonderful phrase comes from Stephen Mugford who just forwarded me a letter he wrote some time ago complaining about the largely unacknowledged reinvention and rediscovery which can be seen in contemporary sociology and how it compares to the much more innovative research trajectories which he argues can be seen in disciplines like cognitive science. I think there are two fascinating questions here which need to be separated:

  • How does research get ‘forgotten’ such that its themes and findings can be inadvertently ‘discovered’ by later researchers who present what they have done as novel? 
  • What explains disciplinary differences in the observable propensity of researchers to do this?

The obvious issue which a consideration of these questions gives rise to (for me at least) is: how  does the technical infrastructure of scholarly communication shape these tendencies? Furthermore do contemporary information seeking practices amongst researchers marginalise older work? Do intellectual fads and fashions render it more difficult to translate the conceptual vocabulary of older work into contemporary terms*?

I sometimes worry that my reading patterns are, in a sense, shallow and the question Mugford raises had me thinking about the literature used in my thesis in terms of the earliest publication dates. There is a smattering of tangential references prior to the 70s, there is the mid-career work of the philosophers and theorists I’ve engaged with most in the 1980s and 1990s (Archer, Giddens, Taylor) and then the rest is somewhat more recent. I’m sure I’m not entirely atypical in this respect but I tend to read very widely but never in any depth unless I become fascinated by a certain thinker or argument. I realise I do this with fiction too. Once I get enthusiastic about a writer I’ll read all their books until I get bored or run out. Which meant it was great fun to belatedly discover Irvine Welsh at the age of 24 though it took a year or so for occasional Scottish terms to drop out of my internal conversation. For some reason the term ‘spraffing’ still sometimes pops into my inner speech. But anyone, I digress/spraff.

Is there a broader problem here? It’s a depressing vision of sociology that sees it as a continual process of saying things, being forgotten and then others repeating the original claims. But it’s clearly at least a somewhat accurate one. The cross disciplinary question is important because it raises the possibility of different patterns of development in this respect being constrained and enabled by the dominant intellectual currents within the disciplines. Or in the case of sociology, the unusually (?) cyclical nature of these currents. We build a house of cards, others spend a decade or two gradually toppling it, before building their own house of cards which is, of course, eventually toppled.  It’s enough to make one feel a bit existential:

What do people gain from all the toil
   at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
   but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
   and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
   and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
   and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
   but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
   there they continue to flow.

* Incidentally this seems like another instance where the ‘bridge-building’ sociological theory advocated by Mouzelis would be helpful.


  1. I have been a sociologist academic now for about 20 years (not quite as long as Stephen, who taught me as an undergraduate!), and have therefore been around long enough to have noticed this phenomenon myself. Rather irritating if it is one’s own work that more recent/younger scholars failed to have noticed ….


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