An Alternative History of Sociological Thought

This idea occurred to me earlier today when I read this great article on Harriet Martineau for a second time. I’d first heard of Martineau through a conversation on twitter, ultimately leading to this proposal by Steve Fuller. The longer I study sociology, the more I learn about these figures, whom for whatever reason did not make it into the sociological canon and yet made hugely original and important contributions to sociological thought. I’m thinking of people like Harriet Martineau, Patrick Geddes, William Du Bois and even Gabriel Tarde (though his championing by Nigel Thrift and Bruno Latour has contributed to a renewal of interest in his work). I’m assuming there are many others I’ve not encountered. Who else should figure in an alternative history of sociological thought?

While resisting the urge to commit myself to another project for the moment, it also occurs to me that such an alternative history would by its nature be something which benefited from a diverse range of contributions. Given what I assume to be a multiplicity of processes that can lead important and valuable figures to be historically marginalised and excluded from the canon, it stands to reason that attempting to sole author a history of these exclusions would be an unavoidably difficult task – the very fact of the exclusions means that first contact with particular thinkers would likely be accidental, with a continued engagement reflecting the value that the reader found in their work despite the relative lack of status accorded to the thinker in question. So the wider the range of perspectives that figured into this alternative history, the more likely it would be to serve the purpose I’m proposing for it.

Why does this matter? There are lots of ways to answer this question, some of which are more politically inclined than others. But the one that seems most immediate and obvious to me is the intellectual implications of how narrowly conceived the contemporary canon of sociological thought is. I recognise the likelihood of national differences, with this being an important issue that an alternative history could explore, but with regards to British sociology I agree with the assessment made by William Outhwaite:

The last 35 years or so in British sociology (by which I mean sociology written and taught in the UK) have been marked, I think, by two processes of ‘canonization’. The first is that of the holy trinity of Marx, Weber and Durkheim (sometimes including Simmel) as the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology as we know it. The second, more contentious, is the emergence of what seems at present like a fairly stable ‘canon’ of theorists ascribed a comparably prominent super-star role in contemporary sociology; my tentative list here (in alphabetical order) is Bauman, Beck, Bourdieu and Giddens.

In the five years since Outhwaite wrote this paper, we have approached a point where Latour could be added to this list (and we could conceive a point where Giddens might, rather unfairly, drop out of it). But it’s remarkably limited in many ways. It’s an empirical question whether these theorists do have the status which Outhwaite suggests they enjoy but, assuming he’s correct, I find it easy to see all sorts of deleterious consequences which are likely to flow from the narrowness with which this canon is constituted. These are probably the subject for another post. But I think there’s an obvious need for a broadening out of the sociological canon, not necessarily for an attack on canonisation as such but for a debate about what it means to have have made an important contribution to the development of sociology.

An interesting way to stimulate such a debate would be to allow people to argue for those figures who they believe to have been unfairly excluded from the sociological canon. The point would be to give an overview of their work, explain your own enthusiasm for it and make a case for the distinctive contribution that the sociologist in question has made to the development of the discipline. Each contribution would include an annotated bibliography in order to sign post a way for the interested reader to explore their work in greater depth. The point would not simply be to say ‘so and so is brilliant and should be more widely recognised’ but rather to elaborate upon what it is precisely about their work which is particularly valuable in virtue of wider trends (positive or negative) within the discipline.

Such a project would benefit from being as accessible and open-ended as possible. This is why I think a platform like PressBooks would be so useful for producing something like this. This is a WordPress like platform which can be used to collectively produce an electronic book – I could imagine this being an ongoing effort, resulting in successive volumes as more people make contributions to the project, with the intention being that the resulting book would be freely available in a variety of electronic formats.

The contributions would be:

  1. 1000-3000 words in length
  2. Include an additional annotated bibliography, providing full bibliographical details about notable texts and a brief description of their content
  3. Referenced in Harvard
  4. Making a case for the importance of the sociologist in question in terms of broader disciplinary themes

Does this appeal to you? If so then please get in touch ( – it’s going to be a few weeks before I have time to sit down and get the logistical side of this off the ground. But I think this is feasible and I’m serious about going ahead with it if there’s enough contributions. To be clear: the book would be self-published. But it would be freely available in Kindle, iBook, PDF and on the web – it will likely have a much broader reach than if it were issued by a publisher. I also imagine that this is something which could grow over time in a way that would potentially be hugely valuable, perhaps providing scope to systematically explore some of the broader issues which would be partially addressed by individual contributions.


6 responses to “An Alternative History of Sociological Thought”

  1. I really like the idea you are proposing here. It might be a first step at uncovering and possibly even systematizing the “long tail” of sociology. I haven’t got a specfic idea of an author I would like to add to this collection but will definitely be following the project.

    Just two additional ideas:

    – I know that sociology generally likes the idea of “books” as fixed and finished entities, but wouldn’t a more open and flexible publishing format better represent the idea of decanonization? A work in progress that can be expanded at any time, like some kind of blog or wiki combining sequential publication with internal structure and editing?

    – As a notoriously interdisciplinar scholar, I think adding “non-sociologists that have a lot to contribute to sociology” would be great. I am thinking of psychologists, geographers, ethnologists and so on…

    Thanks for taking the initiative on this!

  2. Hi Nils, I agree with (1) that’s why I think PressBooks will be so useful for this – I see where you’re coming from with the second point but I think this would end up being a very different project. I’m not so much after decanonization as recanonization 🙂

  3. A very good idea. I’d say that two areas come to mind. Firstly, if sociology can be called a reflexivity of the social for which Martineau’s work is rightly highlighted then we might acknowledge a broad range of work in the pre-history of sociology and indeed the Enlightenment. There were a number of key debates, for example, about ‘interpretive communities’ in the C12th that pre-figure Weber, and also Renaissance essayists. A stronger case might be made for John Dewey, possibly W James and certainly G Mead. The revival of Pragmatism in sociology would benefit from reclaiming those who have been overly identified with psychology.
    all the best

  4. Yes I’d love this – is this as true in the US as here though? My sense was there was a lot of interest in pragmatism within US sociology, though filtered through the prism of Rorty et al.

  5. I’m not so sure. Certainly Pragmatism in the US is very identified with Rorty now. And I suppose that might be one reason to reclaim early pragmatism for sociology! Obviously the descendents of pragmatism in US sociology (symbolic interactionism etc.) still carry a torch. But I think my view would be that US pragmatism developed more as a methodology with a number of theoretical ‘polarizations’ which don’t square with the early writers. So I think I see those resources now worth developing anew.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.