The Sociology of Intellectual Faddishness or, Why it’s unfair to blame everything on Foucault

There’s an ongoing argument here about the nature of sociology. Having initially been rather rude, Max Parkin offered what I thought was a perfectly reasonable response which I thought I’d reproduce here because, leaving aside the needless unpleasantness, it’s turned into an interesting discussion.

Sociology is not art. It has nothing to do with art, nor with literary crit, nor with French eumerdification. It isn’t about preserving anything in aspic. It’s about trying to make the discipline cumulative and not just continually revolutionary. Revolutions don’t emerge from eumerdification. If the core concerns of sociology are constantly changing, that’s a problem. For me, the core concern of sociology is the problem of order – and not just for me but for every sociologist whose work I have admired from the classics to Lockwood. But who reads – who among the current young generation has even heard of – Lockwood today? Only the best theoretical sociologist the UK has had in the last 50+ years, of course. Yet the youngsters don’t know his work (I know they don’t; I have asked wherever I go; so did Ray Pahl who was equally puzzled), but have Bourdieu quotes tumbling from their laptops and mouths. And even the many French sociolgists I know don’t take Bourdieu that seriously! For empirical work, they find Goldthorpe more useful. You know, the Goldthorpe who is the best empirical macro-sociologist the UK has had in the last 50 years. It was G and L whose work attracted me to sociology and nothing since has persuaded me that their way isn’t the most promising for sociology. Why do UK sociologists prefer and keep turning to prophets from other countries? Naturally, I accept that there are other ways of doing sociology that are very insightful, too. But if one’s concerns are macro-sociological, as mine are, I fail to understand why the newer generations are so ignorant of what’s on their doorstep. Read Solidarity and Schism; read Lockwood in BJS 1996 – there’s a research agenda for today!

I think there are three important points here. Firstly, how is it that sociological work of the highest quality (and much else besides) can be eclipsed so quickly? Secondly, how has continental theory had the influence on British sociology that is has over the past few decades and what have its effects been? Thirdly, how have these two factors intersected to bring about the erosion of sociology as a cumulative enterprise? What else has been involved? The causality here is extremely complex and it’s Max’s crotchety simplification of it which has been winding me up . On this view, there was a sociological enterprise in rude health (oddly concurrent with Max’s entry into the discipline, almost as if there was an element of retrospective idealisation at work here….) until an invasion of fashionable french intellectualism, cheered on by modish young sociologists in generations following Max’s own, soon desecrated this intellectual arcadia and left a rudderless sociology being pushed and pulled by the tides of narrow minded fashion.

Clearly, I’m exaggerating for rhetorical effect but the point I want to make is about the kind of logic implied by Max’s arguments: everything was working, something external was involved in stopping it working therefore this external factor was the causal agent. Whereas I think there’s something much more complex going on here. For instance the emergence of an audit culture incentivised academic over-production (ever more books, journals and papers being ever less read) while squeezing out reading that isn’t instrumentally attached to the exigencies of present work. In this way, the speeding up of intellectual culture tends to be self-reinforcing and it’s a hugely negative trend. The more that is published, the faster debates move on and, given the underlying mechanisms driving the over-production, the limited time and space this allows for reading will tend to be subjugated to the demands of keeping on top of an ever-growing literature in order to contribute to the debate thus intensifying the process which is causing the underlying problem! This is part of what brings about the eternal sunshine of the spotless sociologist.

The same structure of incentives which drives this over-production also valorises novelty: in the contemporary academy, rewards go to those who can combine existing elements in new and exciting ways, capturing the intellectual attention of others and shaping the direction of future scholarship. However this process by its nature is something of an arms race, as the same incentives which drive X to propose Y also create the climate in which Z will soon come along and propose a radically new programme. I agree with Max both that sociology should be a cumulative discipline and that continental theory is implicated in the contemporary climate where it is anything but cumulative. Nonetheless I think his understanding of the causality is straight forwardly incorrect: these trends are structural not cultural. I suspect there are particular properties of continental theory which leave it ripe for appropriation by purveyors of sociological novelty seeking to make a name for themselves but I think this is a very different claim. Furthermore, it seems to me that part of the reason this can happen is because of the relative weakness of sociological theory as an enterprise. My suggestion is that Max’s attitude is the negative face of a common orientation towards sociological theory which, in its positive moment, seeks integration of a sort which ultimately produces the very fragmentation it abhors:

Sociology seems to produce a number of co-existing and mutually exclusive (semi) paradigms which continually split and re-form in different combinations. Those who are committed to the idea of the necessity of a ‘theoretical core’ frequently argue that such a situation represents a moment of synthesis, a moment that requires the development of a unified frame of reference representing structure and agency as presuppositional categories (as argued, for example, by Parsons,Alexander Habermas, Giddens,Archer, Scott, etc.). The fact that an accepted synthesis never comes and that each new attempt gives rise to further critique suggests that ‘synthesis’ is one of the moves that gives rise to new splits and forms and is not, therefore, a resolution.

Holmwood, J. (2010) Sociology’s misfortune: disciplines, interdisciplinary and the impact of audit culture. The British Journal of Sociology. 61:4, 639-658

As someone who only discovered sociology after four years of getting pissed off by philosophy, it was its promiscuity which drew me in and its relevance to the world around me which kept me there. As a statement about my own intellectual biography, the constant change in the ‘core concerns’ of sociology is precisely what made the discipline so gloriously fascinating for me. But I agree with Max that it poses problems. However I see these as practical problems to be addressed through constructive and cumulative work in sociological theory; building the infrastructure and tools to allow sociology to engage with new concerns while also working progressively to relate this novelty to those more established objects of sociological inquiry.

16 thoughts on “The Sociology of Intellectual Faddishness or, Why it’s unfair to blame everything on Foucault

  1. I can’t comment on intra-European borrowing and discarding, but I can concerning one well-known and well-respected sociologist in Europe who seems (or seemed) relatively unknown (or at least uncited) in the US: namely, Margaret Archer. Circa 1998,

    I came across a positive evaluation of her work in the 1995 book “Social Theory and Education” by Morrow and Torres. They characterize her work as a “neo-functionalist” which, in light of her work after 1995, is a label that does not fit. The authors also note that her work (especially in the sociology of education) had been, oddly enough, under-appreciated.

    In the US, sociology of education seems largely the domain of quantitative, statistical, sociologists. In schools of education, there may be a course in the sociology of education but most of the work is done by persons who concerns are avowedly practical rather than theoretical. For such an audience, it may not seem worth the effort to come to grips with the the systematic character of Archer’s.

  2. I think “worth the effort” is an important phrase. I sometimes find it very frustrating that a lot (though by no means all) of the critique you can find of her work (most simply don’t engage) is based on engagement with one small aspect of it e.g. saying that Making Our Way Through The World is individualistic and ‘ignores class’ while ignoring Realist Social Theory and the broader project they fit together into. But it’s partly frustrating because people’s unwillingness to read 6 long and difficult books by her is entirely understandable.

    Neo-functionalist is an interesting description of that phase of her work. I can, at least least for 80s+90s, see the logic of it.

  3. You say: I can, at least least for 80s+90s, see the logic of it.

    I think the characterization of her work at that time as neo-functionalist may be a consequence of Giddens’ treatment of cybernetics and systems theory as (if I recall correctly) inherently functionalist. I may need correction on this. 🙂

  4. Audit culture, faddishness, fashion chasing etc are real concerns in sociology. At the same time, I think we would all agree that Sociology is also subject to dynamic change because we live in dynamic worlds where the nature of sociological problems change and can change quite dramatically. Let’s take one example here – the environment. Environmental problems from climate change to loss of biodiversity, urban air pollution to problems with food production are widely recognized now to be central issues of social concern in the 20th century. Now, whilst many of our classical thinkers did have important things to say on these matters (most obviously Marx, but also Simmel, traditions of human ecology etc) it’s also apparent that the Durkheim injunction to treat society as sui generis coupled with the broader influence of Parsons on the discipline made it very difficult indeed for much mid-20th century forms of sociology to address to any substantive degree whatsoever “the environment” let alone the full range of socio-natural hybrids that have exploded around us: from GM crops to the ozone layer. Conventional Sociology – as Ted Benton, Riley Dunlap, Fred Buttel, Beck, Latour and many others have long noted – simply could not address these issues. Let’s look at all the social theorists that have been mentioned in this discussion thus far: Holmwood, Lockwood, Archer. What do any of them have to say about these matters? How can their mostly quite dualist worldviews accomodate to worlds of exploding socio-natural hybrids? I think the short answer here is that they can’t really address these issues very expansively working out of the society centric ontologies that they defend. As such, whilst this neo-classic turn in sociology that berates the fragmentation and faddishness of the discipline is not without insights, it has to still be firmly acknowledged that a discipline that does not simply follow a straight forward cumulative path (eg: poor old neo-classical economics) may well have revisions and reversals for good intellectual reasons.

  5. I think Archer actually has quite a sophisticated theory of human relationships to their environment and has expanded more intellectual energy than most theorists on breaking out of a “society centric ontology”. The sympathy I would otherwise have for your line of argument is eroded by my frustration at how you subsume Lockwood, Archer and Holmwood (not really sure how the latter got into this) under the crude concept of “quite dualist world views’.

  6. Yep his reading of her work in that paper is absurdly bad though – he imputes views to her which she has literally spent hundreds of pages arguing against. Not got a problem with King in general though – he also had a really interesting debate with Dave Elder-Vass recently. I would argue any attempt at transcendence inevitably either ignores or redescribes structure and agency though. These are the features of the social world which exist independently of how sociologists conceptualise them – though importantly this doesn’t mean ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ are necessarily the best intellectual tools we for studying them.

  7. Cheers, Mark. I will look up the King-Elder-Vass debate. I guess transcendence would at the very least have to incorporate or redefine structure and agency, if we’re using the term in a Hegelian sense (rather than transcendence as simply a “going beyond” that discards previous categories). Coming from a philosophy background myself, it strikes me that agency and structure are irreducible to one another, with the inevitable consequence that it’s impossible by definition to generate a holistic theory or Theory of Everything that retains both. As you suggest, perhaps it’s the terms we use rather than the “objects” themselves that are the problem!

  8. Definitely agree re: theory of everything – it needs to be a modest tool building enterprise (for lack of a better phrase) in order to avoid the parallel risks of theoretical totalisation or simply ignoring emergent complexity.

  9. ha! no – as much as i’ve tried to disown my prior Rorty obsession, it clearly lives on in many ways!

  10. Yes of course sociology has to constantly change as society does. However, arguments of the disciplines founders remain core issues today, (inequalities, suicide, power distribution etc).
    as a mere undergraduate sociology student, it appears to me the sociology has been stifled by the intellectuals of higher universities that seem to write endless papers critiquing the work of others past and present. C W Mills challenged the leading sociologists of his day for doing nothing. Therefore, the promised revolution that never happened, needs to come from within the discipline itself. This will be a peaceful intellectual, revolution and should highlight those that are only looking to be quoted by their peers and focus the subject on helping society overcome our problems and maybe one day we might have a truly global egalitarian society.

  11. I think it’s important to recognise that this isn’t all about intellectual culture though – there’s much deeper issues about the higher education system and how this constrains the kind of culture which can emerge within it.

  12. Apropos of your phrases “given the underlying mechanisms driving the over-production”, and “I think his understanding of the causality is straight forwardly incorrect: these trends are structural not cultural.”

    I wonder if in the 5 or so years since you wrote this blog entry you’ve had any more thoughts about this distinction between “structural” and “cultural” as analytic centers of interpretation in sociology and social ontology.

    For example, it seems to me that structural analysis would tend to locate causal effects and influences within the particular institutional practices of a given discipline. On the other hand a cultural analysis seems able to track influences that cross those boundaries and transfer effects between disciplines. This is how I understand the idea of a more general “ethos”. In particular it would be able to link the ethos of “over-production” and acceleration within academic institutions to a more general analysis of over-production in the entire economic sphere, and to what I’d call the crisis of over-productivity in late stage capitalism. This links the causal analysis to the over-success (if there is such a thing) of technologically mediated means of production, and to a historical consideration of the shift from an ethos of material scarcity to an ethos of artificially constructed pseudo-scarcity needed to drive consumption up to the level that it matches over-production.

  13. That’s interesting, I’m instinctively cautious about subsuming the dynamics of a particular sector into the macro dynamics of capitalism though. It depends what you mean by ‘link’ I guess: a meso account is only really complete if it accounts for the macro context but there’s still a prevalent tendency to treat the macro as if it’s the real explanation and leave the meso unattended to. In this case I think the causal account can be entirely internal to the university so what is the relationship. Is it an instance of this broader trend? Is it an analogical relationship? As much as I’m not an ANT person, I share the concern that terms like capitalism can end up doing too much analytical work, even when they’re cashed out in terms of a specific tendency in the way you’re describing.

    In terms of structure and culture, I mean them in the critical realist sense: roughly roles and resources vs ideas and interactions. Though what you’re saying doesn’t map easily onto these terms and perhaps that suggests a limitation of CR.

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