The pace of critique in a world of accelerating upheaval

There’s a pervasive idea that social critique must be slow, necessitating withdrawl from the world in order to carefully pierce through the veil of appearances. There’s a kernel of truth in this, in so far as that hasty analysis risks both superficiality and the reproduction of dominant frames of reference. 

A whole sequence of events have illustrated the necessity of moving beyond these faded frames. The financial crisis, the Arab Spring, Brexit, the rise of the far right in Europe and Trump have all been to various degrees unthinkable within the confines of established frames of reference. The dominant reaction in response to them has been, at least initially, “what on earth is going on?”

There’s a huge opportunity for critical intellectuals here to occupy the civil and political attention space when it is characterised by pervasive bewilderment. Taking it will involve abandoning slow critique and taking up the affordances of digital media to intervene at speed. There are intellectual*, practical, ethical and personal challenges involved in doing this. But it’s necessary we meet them because the pace of frame-breaking events is increasing and there’s a path dependency to their unfolding. There’s a unprecedented opportunity to establish a new salience for critical thought but it will not last for ever.

*To what extent do institutionalised practices of ‘critique’ merely reproduce the faded frames we need to move beyond?

4 Comments

  1. Indeed, this has been one of my pet peeves (and pet projects) in both Sociology and Economics. How do we know what we know, and why aren’t we thinking about how we know what we know?

    While there has been some slow evolution in methods, there has been little movement (for various reasons) in methodology – the study of methods. Methodology has either been qualitative or quantitative, and never shall the two meet (not even in the Mixed Methods arena).

    For example, I have often argued at conferences about how we can use quantitative methods as an EXPLORATORY tool. We can see a set of “social facts’ coalescing, and say: “This is something we need to look into more” – then use qualitative methods to find out what’s going on in the social world; how people are perceiving their social life which are generating a set of data. Instead, quantitative is used to “explain” things under a set of assumptions that have no basis in reality – and thus ends up not explaining much. The qualitative field uses its methods to explain things which often marginalizes, and relegates the quantitative as “unimportant.”

    Before I moved to Canada (as an American) a few years ago to work at a Canadian University, I did a lot of quantitative analysis on the Economics side in America – some for “think tank” or two. I’ve seen the movement of “social facts” in the data as indicative of something greater – indeed many things greater. Yet almost no one asked the Goffman-esque question: “what is going on here?” I saw GDP rising with unemployment falling, yet consumption dropping. I saw huge migrations of people from progressive norther states to anachronistic souther states post 2008. I saw 143 Million workers completely drop out of the labour force – after the “recovery.” There was a bumper crop of explanation – everything from a “skills mismatch” to “lower housing costs.” No one was asking: “What’s going on here?”

    John Myles out of the University of Toronto (Canada) has a great article in the Canadian Journal of Sociology titled (2003): “Where have all the sociologists gone?” (Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol 28(4)) He argues that economists are now doing the research that sociologists used to do, but now won’t touch because it involves “numbers.” Meanwhile (Myles argues), economists are coughing up incomplete explanations because 1) they’re not sociologists, and 2) because all econometrics are based on assumptions that do not hold to reality.

    I’m in agreement that we need to re-think the way that we think. We need to move beyond methods, and into “methodology.” Otherwise, we’ll be joining s social movement 30 years too late, and become irrelevant in the academy.

  2. I haven’t decided if this is a compliment or not. 🙂 I’m considering it a compliment.

    My thoughts on my blog posts – which I haven’t written on in a while, are that there is a crop of people (both inside and outside Sociology) that does not want to have a mirror held up to them. While I usually find it uncomfortable, I think it’s important for me as a Sociologist to “take inventory” – an accurate assessment of my strengths & weaknesses in the field. I also take time with a map of where I am based on where I’ve been, and to think about which direction I would like to go in.

    On the flip side, I could write more toward what everyday people would like to see. That for me however, does not stretch my sociological imagination nearly enough.

    So I am at a cross-roads with my own blog: between assessment of the field (including self-assessment) or something that people would actually want to read.

    But thank you!

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