What does it mean to claim a historical figure as a (proto)sociologist? What does it mean to claim people were ‘doing sociology’ under any rubric? Keneth MacDonald began this conference on the history of sociology in Britain by directing these questions towards Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, kicking off with consideration of recent papers from the REF panel tasked with assessing the discipline in its contemporary form, finding little in these to suggest a unified discipline. He went on to consider programmatic visions of sociology, ranging from a population science, through to a discipline intended to interpret the ‘social’ as an efficacious and modifiable social structure and an activity which is defeasible, capable of being discomfited. He considered its dependence on tools, changing throughout its history and exercising a similarly changing influence over the way in which sociology was conducted. He identified features we associate with sociology now that could be found in Ferguson and Smith: a concern for summary statistics and an ability to collect data, use of government statistics, an awareness of experimental designs and a concern for regularities, even if they were construed in individual rather than collective ways. He finds sociological insights in Ferguson which are nonetheless passing remarks, undeveloped into systematic accounts. He finds a sociological sensibility underlying Smith’s frustration with political arithmetic as it was practiced in his day, concerned as he was to grasp the facts of the issues under discussion.
It was a thought-provoking and informative talk. But it nonetheless didn’t address the underlying question as directly as I hoped: what is it to be a sociologist? What is it to do sociology? If we read disciplinarity in terms of professionalism, such that recognition by one’s professional peers is the sine qua non of being a disciplinary practioner, it becomes difficult to make sense of the origins of the discipline. Even in the most sophisticated account, we would be left with a vision of a discipline that wills itself into being through ever-expanding circles of reciprocal evaluation, evading the question of what it is to be a practitioner of that discipline. Making this claim isn’t a denial that professional custom plays a crucial part in disciplinary identity, it just insists there is inevitably much more to the question than this. It is interesting to consider this is the present context because the discipline is so professionalised, leaving its fortunes tethered its position within the university. My interest in clinical sociology, applied sociology, public sociology and civic sociology is animated by the belief that sociology will function most effectively as a plural discipline, distributed throughout sectors of society and learning from sociological work undertaken across them. Rather than search the past for sociologists in the sense in which we would recognise them in the present day, I’m interested in the exemplars we can find of what sociology could be today, as much as the circumstances in which they worked might differ from the present day. Many of the possibilities which excite me involve work outside the academy. For this reason, professionalism is an unhelpful criterion for looking for (proto)sociologists. This is why I found MacDonald’s talk so thought-provoking because he laid out so many other criteria which we might consider: the questions asked, the methods applied, the role of data and the technology used. But a more direct answer to the question still eludes me and it’s one which I’m keen to explore through my work in the Foundations of British Sociology archive.