There once was a ‘sociology movement’: could there be one again?

Within contemporary British Sociology, it can seem like a strange question to ask if the discipline has a moral vision. There are moral commitments which animate much of the activity which takes place within it, manifested in a range of motives including revealing vested interests through critique of ideology, describing inequalities in order to facilitate their ameliorationgiving voice to those who are denied it, deploying expertise to support oppressed groups in exercising their agency and promoting democratic citizenship through the transmission of sociological understanding. However, we rarely talk about having a moral vision, possibly because the legacy of ‘value-neutrality’ still permeates throughout our self-understanding, conceptual frameworks and established practices. Morality is everywhere, constantly invoked and assumed, while rarely being a sustained object of reflective deliberation.

In a strange, flawed but thought-provoking book from a couple of years ago, Christian Smith argues that American Sociology has a sacred project. It is “an unstable amalgam of variously accumulated historical and contemporary ideas and movements” which he describes on pg 8 of the eponymous book:

American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realising the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favoured identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures.

His point concerns what Phil Gorski described as the ‘moral unconscious’ of the discipline: the influences that lurk beneath the surface, moving it along without ever being clearly articulated. The project of the book is to recover that moral unconscious, connecting sociologists with the moral sources they draw upon in motivating their work. I’m sceptical that the book is successful in this endeavour but it’s a project which caught my imagination. It stands uneasily with the tendency inherent in pursuing a professional career in sociology, reflected upon by Michael Burawoy in his famous address on public sociology:

The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading about classical British sociology after visiting the Foundations of British Sociology archive at Keele. One of the striking things about this era was how readily people spoke of a sociological movement, driven by a vision of the transformative implications of sociological science and the urgent need to institutionalise it within the universities (even though ironically this helped eviscerate this vision over time). This is how John Scott and Ray Bromley summarise it on loc 924 of their Envisioning Sociology:

The collaborative circle around Patrick Geddes and Victor Branford shared a vision, nurtured in the emerging strands of nineteenth-century thought and the Edwardian New Age, of a society reconstructed according to principles derived from social science. Pursuit of this vision solidified it in the developing social science disciplines and the educational and professional organizations and practices through which these disciplines were being established. In this chapter we will trace the intellectual origins of their vision and disciplinary concerns, and we will sketch the particular disciplinary practices and forms through which they attempted to organize that vision.

Could we imagine sociology having a moral vision today? Could the multitude of overlapping moral projects I mentioned at the start of this post ever coalesce into a unified ambition? Could there be a sociological movement today? What would it seek to achieve? In a number of recent disputes with people, I’ve been confronted with the argument that ‘political correctness’ is taking over sociology today. Could it be that there’s a grain of truth to what these critics say but they’re misconstruing as ‘political correctness’ what is actually the coalescence of a 21st-century sociological movement?

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2 Comments

  1. Sorry to keep harping on about Norbert Elias, but I think he said it well enough with his argument about the need to seek a *balance* between ‘involvement’ (moral vision) and ‘detachment’ (objectivity, science), not choosing one or the other. In at least one sense, it’s a false did dichotomy, even if it’s a real one in others.

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