Accounting for the distinctiveness of the contemporary age

My relationship with the work of Zygmunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, Richard Sennett and Ulrich Beck has been a complicated one. Discovering their work as an intellectually frustrated philosophy student led me to move sideways into a sociology department rather than starting a PhD in political philosophy. Their approach excited me, opening up the possibility that we could talk about the contemporary age in a way which captures the most intimate aspects of personal experience and connects them to sweeping accounts of historical change. However the further I went into sociology, the more sceptical I became about the capturing and the connecting these accounts claimed to do.

They have little empirical grounding in their own right, painting complex processes in seductively broad brush strokes, despite their pose of being attuned to the bleeding edge of social change. Much of my eventual PhD was animated by a conviction that the framework of ‘late modernity’ often doesn’t help social analysis, even sometimes hindering it, offering a series of intoxicating motifs for rendering empirical findings in thematic terms rather than offering any practical conceptual instruments for analysing them. This entire body of work has been persuasively diagnosed by Mike Savage as epochal theorising:

The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.

In an earlier article, Savage and Burrows describe this as a “kind of sociology which does not seek to define its expertise in terms of its empirical research skills, but in terms of its ability to provide an overview of a kind that is not intended to be tested by empirical research”.

The manner in which these accounts capture the intellectual attention space, at least under the peculiar epistemic condition of the accelerated academy, renders them much more problematic than would otherwise be the case. These bodies of work become crucial intellectual reference points which enjoy an influence that vastly exceeds their intellectual merit e.g the relatively recent Liquid Modernity has received 11,000+ citations, over four times more than the much older and vastly superior Legislators and Interpreters. They exercise a gravitational pull over the field of empirical research, even when they’re remarkably ill suited for this purpose.

But perhaps I’ve been too harsh. In this paper Simon Susen makes a casual remark that “One could hardly think of a more ambitious and timely challenge than the task of accounting for the distinctiveness of the contemporary age“. I realise that I agree with him, even if I continue to take issue with many of the attempts that have been made to do this. We deserve better accounts of the distinctiveness of the contemporary age, even if the conditions within which we work makes it difficult to develop them.

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