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A renewed engagement with the past could be a powerful means through which the critical tradition in British sociology could fortify itself for a difficult future

In his magisterial A Secular Age, Charles Taylor introduces the notion of ‘subtraction stories’ to describe our dominant narratives of secularisation. This narrative structure is crucial to teleological thought, explaining our current situation in terms which preclude any backwards movement. As he explains on pg 22,

Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings have lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process – modernity or secularity – is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside.

It occurs to me that critical sociology, in the sense in which it used in this paper to refer to a dominant strand within British sociology, involves precisely such a subtraction story. Critical sociologists are prone to understanding themselves as locked into a fight against positivism, sometimes cast as a present day enemy to be found on all sides and at other times seen to have been vanquished but constantly at risk of making a return. These positivist horizons constrained sociological inquiry, turning sociologists away from everyday life and the meaning it holds for participants within it. Through struggle against positivist dominion, these confining illusions have been cast off, liberating a sociological impulse which was struggling to break free.

What interests me is how the intellectual culture of critical sociology is experienced and narrated by proponents of it. The aforementioned paper is not perfect by any means but I see it as starting an extremely important conversation at a time when British sociology finds itself at something of a cross-roads. As Malcolm Williams, Luke Sloan and Charlotte Brookfield write in the paper:

Many, if not most, sociologists in UK universities have themselves come from a culture of sociology that emphasises critique over analysis, theoretical positions, and qualitative over quantitative methods of enquiry that reflect the historical influences on the discipline, as described above. This culture exists at all levels of teaching, from pre-university A-level teaching through to postgraduate training. Their attitudes and practices incline them ideologically and practically to favour a humanistic and critical attitude towards the discipline, the selection of research questions that require interpretive methods, and often either an expertise in these methods or a preference for theoretical reasoning alone

What I’m suggesting is that this intellectual tradition should be taken seriously as a tradition. One which might lack clarity about its own moral sources, framing its emergence in a way which circumscribes the past resources upon which it can draw. The lost tradition of British classical sociology is foremost in my in here, as a result of my recent work with the Foundations of British Sociology archive but the point is a much broader one. A renewed engagement with the past could be a powerful means through which the critical tradition in British sociology could fortify itself for a difficult future.

Categories: social theory Thinking

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