What is ‘new’ about the new sociology of ideas?

Charles Camic :

“New” is, of course, a relative not an absolute term. For, if we take the agenda that we’ve associated with the “new sociology of ideas” and, from this vantage point, we then reconsider various other lines of work in and out of sociology, it is certainly true that some of this work does speak directly to that agenda. And it is true as well that we find the largest concentrations of this work within the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science, though intellectual history has obviously contributed its fair share as well.

Even so, one would be hard pressed to sustain the claim that the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science deal principally with the social processes by which the ideas of the men and women who produce ideas emerge, develop, and change. At best, the development of ideas has been one among a much larger range of topics that have occupied sociologists of knowledge and science. As such, it has had to compete for attention, and historically it has not generally fared well in this competition. Indeed, many influential programs for the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science have been largely silent on the social processes by which ideas develop, where such programs have not actually gone further and denied that the development of ideas was a legitimate topic of sociological study.

So what is “new,” in the first instance, about the new sociology of ideas is simply the fact that it locks ideas in as objects of sociological investigation, so that they no longer face elision or eradication as a topic, but acquire an established place of their own on the roster of subjects that merit analysis by sociologists. How many sociologists will actually take up this subject and conduct research on the social processes by which ideas emerge, develop, and change remains, obviously, an open question. But just as the study of economic, political, medical, familial, and legal institutions advanced more successfully after sociologists’ generic interest in institutions gave rise specifically to economic sociology, political sociology, medical sociology, the sociology of the family, and the sociology of law, so research on how ideas develop seems likely to make greater progress once an identifiable intellectual space upon which to do this work is demarcated. With academic subfields as with baseball fields, the same principle sometime applies : “If you build it, they will come.” At least that is the hope.

Admittedly, this is by no means the complete picture. Contrasted with previous work in sociology that has focused on the development of ideas, the new sociology of ideas exhibits several other comparatively distinctive features, two of which I would spotlight here. First, as mentioned in answer to question #1, it approaches the ideas whose development it tries to explain by first situating those ideas in their own historical contexts. Second, in seeking to identify the social processes by which ideas emerge and change, it looks beyond macro-social factors – e.g., broad economic, political, and religious conditions in the societies that the men and women of ideas under study inhabit – to a range of institutional factors, attending particularly to how these factors are locally configured.

In these two ways, the new sociology of ideas, as I have pursued it in my own research, stands under the influence of certain trends in the sociology of science and in intellectual history in recent decades and departs from dominant tendencies in the traditional sociology of knowledge. But my own preference for historically contextualizing ideas and for formulating more micro-level explanations is just that, a preference, not a covert attempt to restrict the sociology of ideas hereafter to a single approach and to prevent scholarship in the field from going in very different directions. Here, as elsewhere in sociology, the desideratum is a multi-vocal area of theory and research, whose practitioners freely pursue a diversity of approaches. In this instance, the only necessary point of accord would be a shared commitment to keep the sociological focus squarely on ideas and the processes by which they develop.


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