The Sociological Review has just published a thought-provoking review of Doug Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach. It gives a lucid, though brief, overview of the book’s core arguments: seven myths which afflict American sociology and seven philosophical counter-points. But what caught my attention was the account of how theoretical work can increase the discipline’s capacity for impact:

Porpora shows how critical realism adjudicates across the plethora of sociological paradigms to create new consistency, which can strengthen the validity and usefulness of our discipline. Imagine governments redefining obesity or poor mental health from medical problems into social problems, to be tackled by wide-ranging interdisciplinary research coordinated through a coherent framework of sociology and covering, for example, the related economics and politics, industries and services, healthcare and urban planning, with studies of the complex everyday life of the groups and individuals concerned.

The point is overstated but it’s nonetheless important: the internal dissensus of sociology militates against policy impact. The meta-theoretical (dis)orderliness of disciplines underpins the inarguable reality that “economists and psychologists are introduced as self-evidently respected scientists, whereas sociologists, if they are included at all, seem more likely to evoke scepticism than respect”. Rather than theoretical work being a distraction from aspiring to this status, it is in actual fact a condition for it:

One defence of our discipline’s diversity is that its adaptable rich variety can embrace numerous theories, methods and topics. However, variety does not preclude coherence, and coherence does not demand narrow uniformity – like the neoclassical mantras that now monopolise economics. Medicine is a hugely varied discipline yet, fortunately for society’s healthcare, it is unified by powerful common values and theories about causal realities. By contrast, and unfortunately for society’s wellbeing, sociology is split not only by disagreements but, more seriously, by basic contradictions: positivism accepts pristine independent social facts and aims to discover general laws, whereas interpretivism sees only local contingent variety; statistics and experiments are set against ethnography; sociology is variously taken to be value-free, relativist or a moral endeavour.

Bringing meta-theoretical order to sociology doesn’t entail imposition of a unified paradigm on the discipline. It simply necessitates that we “position its many valuable insights and methods in relation to one another, showing how they connect and interact within larger relations, to be more like a coherent jigsaw puzzle in progress, rather than a heap of pieces”. Can we find unifying principles, providing standards by which we might draw out connections between otherwise isolated outputs of the discipline, which respect the intellectual diversity of the sociological enterprise? Can we begin to agree on standards about what constitutes ‘better’ and ‘worse’ sociology?

The problem is that disciplines most in need of such standards, in order to provide a centripetal mechanism, prove least able to establish them. Calling for such standards doesn’t entail a final resolution of theoretical questions, as if we all have to agree on the same answers in order to move forward as a collective project. But it does entail clarity about why we are asking the questions to which we are offering different answers.


This short exchange with Michael Burawoy offers some thought-provoking reflections on teaching social theory. He identifies the major traditions of teaching theory within American sociology, before outlining his own ethnographic approach:

  1. The Survey: surveying extracts from a comprehensive range of social theorists, each one treated as an instance of a broader category. Essentially disconnected and decontextualised. Teaching theory in an essentially general way.
  2. The Interpretative: placing theory and theorist in their life and times, seeing the specificity of their work as a response to equally specific circumstances. Teaching theory in a essentially particular way.
  3. The Synthesis: selecting extracts based on a distinctive theoretical vision, using those selections to articulate a theoretical approach which presents itself as grounded in the classics. Teaching theory in an closed but generative way.
  4. The Ethnographic: using shorter extracts from a selected range of limited texts in order to facilitate reconstructive critique. The students are gradually encouraged to situate themselves in relation to the theory, criticise it from the inside-out, learn to apply it to the world around them and relate it to other such theories.

There are interesting critiques that can be made of how this approach works in practice (see the response from Alan Sica in the attached article) but I love the exercise he uses:

Apart from the classroom discussion, there are also discussion sections, 20 students in size, led and organized by brilliant, devoted and above all creative teaching assistants who have collaborated with me in developing this approach to theory. Along with one-page reading memos due every week, each semester we assign a ‘‘theory in action’’ paper (no more than a thousand words) that requires students to choose current events or their own experiences to illustrate a theorist of their choice. In addition mid-term and final exams consist of three short 750-word take-home papers (once again less is more) that assume the form of an exegesis of a given theorist, a comparison of theorists, or an application of theory to real live situations as defined by an article from a newspaper or magazine.

The course culminates in a 20-minute oral examination with their teaching assistant in which each student has to reconstruct the entire course as a conversation among the theorists, again in answer to a specific question given ahead of time. They are encouraged to include images, pictures, drawings, in what essentially is a poster presentation. The posters they produce amply demonstrate to what extent the various theorists have become part of them, whether theorists have become different mindsets that they will take with them into their future lives



From pg 165 of Margaret Archer’s Realist Social Theory:

What is it that depends on human intentionality but never conforms to anyone’s intentions? 

What is it that relies upon people’s concepts but which they never fully know? 

What is it that depends upon human activity but never corresponds to the actions of even the most powerful? 

What is it that has no form without us, yet which forms us as we seek its transformation? 

What is it that never satisfies the precise designs of anyone yet because of this always motivates its reconstitution?

From How to become an internationally famous British social theorist by Stewart Clegg, 585-586:

“Giddens’s later concerns with structure and agency allow him to tap into many prestigious intellectual products as resources, such as linguistics, analytical philosophy and the Heideggerian tradition. These connections allow for far great consumption in more differentiated markets. The vague term ‘social theory’ gives freer scope, allowing Giddens to range freely and widely. The theoretical strategy has been to announce, from New Rules on, the deficiency of the orthodox consensus in some critical respect such as consideration of ‘war’, ‘space’, ‘time’, and then to borrow from cognate disciplines, such as international relations, history and geography, to remedy the defect. This gives Giddens a master key, wrapped up in the grammar of structuration, for addressing some important things that other theories omit. One can claim both transcendence of everything that has gone before and modesty in dialogue with friends and admirers who bring to attention other things not yet integrated into the system. Learn the Giddens system and you unlock the doors of greater perception by becoming acquainted with disciplines, ideas and figures whom one would not normally meet. If you are not familiar with a field, no worries – once you’ve read Giddens on ‘space-time’ distanciation you will appear as knowledgeable as the next human geographer – all the time you are doing social theory. The programme is ifnitely stretchable (although in practice it rarely addresses contemporary economics). Moreover, when specialists, offer corrections, that simply offers the opportunity for further debate, perhaps subsequent adjustment. It all keeps the product in the discerning public eye.

This review essay is fascinating for many reasons. But perhaps the most important is that it opens up the connections between what Nicos Mouzelis convincingly analyses as intellectual de-differentiation with the political economy of scholarly publishing. Crudely, blurring intellectual boundaries expands the market for social theorists.

This looks like it’ll be very interesting:

The International Origins of Social and Political Theory

What is the relationship between history and theory? Much of the time, theory is held to stand outside history. Theoretical systems are applied to, rather than drawn from, historical events. Structural functionalism in sociology, neorealism and neoliberalism in International Relations, and neo-classical economics work in this fashion. The promise of such ‘objective’ theorising is to construct schema that are abstracted from the minutiae of historical events and the agents who enact them.

This special issue of Political Power and Social Theory explores two commitments that stand in opposition to the view that theory inhabits a space distinct from history:

·       First, theory and theorists arise historically. History is an ‘archive’ of events and experiences that leads to theorising, often by practitioners caught up in those very events. Marx was a revolutionary, Clausewitz a soldier, and Freud an analyst. Rather than abstract theory from history, this special issue sees theory as necessarily constituted in and through history.

·      Second, international encounters are productive of theorizing: the discovery of the Americas helped to generate the idea of the ‘state of nature’; transnational practices of commercial capitalism fuelled Adam Smith’s theories of free trade; and Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave could not have been written without the Haitian revolution. Theory and theorists are always located somewhere – and that somewhere is history.

This special issue invites submissions on the various international encounters that have generated social and political theorizing. Although we welcome submissions in the fields of history of ideas/intellectual history, we are particularly interested in how historical events, experiences and practices have shaped theoretical developments.

Those interested in contributing to this special issue should send an abstract (maximum 200 words) to Tarak Barkawi ( and George Lawson ( by 1st July 2015.

We will host a workshop at LSE in Spring 2016 in which papers will be discussed. Those papers selected for the special issue will be sent for review in early Summer 2016. Final submissions will be made to Political Power and Social Theory in September 2016. Publication of the special issue will take place in early 2017.

Along with Cheryl Brumley, I’ve been producing ‘virtual dayschools’ for the Centre for Social Ontology. They’re intended to provide accessible introductions to difficult topics by mixing up text, image and video. They’re intended as a preliminary to engaging with what is often difficult literature rather than as a replacement for it.

The first draft of the first day school is now online: An Introduction to Social Ontology. Any feedback would be much appreciated! There’s another three in production that I’ll have finished by the end of this month. I’d like to add an interactive component to them but I’m not really sure how that would work. Perhaps a hashtag for each dayschool?

There’s an important way in which sociological theory is unavoidable. I mean this in the sense in which Alexander describes the problems of action and order as non-optional: “every theory takes some position on both” (Alexander 1987: 12). This is an empirical statement about sociological practice as much as anything else. Against those who dismiss ‘general theory’ as unnecessary, I’d argue that the sorts of questions encompassed by it inevitably emerge in any kind of sociological reasoning – to talk of a general problem of order is simply to affirm the (potential) value of our treating those questions we can’t avoid in a reflective and systematic way.

If we assume there are patterns to social life susceptible to explanation then we are necessarily committed, however inchoately, to a view of these patterns as having some ontological status. The possibility of a pattern presumes a distinction between identifiable regularities and some broader sum of activity in relation to which the regularity is (potentially) identifiable. This distinction in turn invites questions of the relationship between the former and the latter: how does (identifiable) order emerge out of (observable) activity? Once we ask this question, we’re effectively talking about structure and agency. This doesn’t commit us to any one understanding of ‘structure’, ‘agency’ or the relationship between them. But it does leave us within the space of questions which the discourse of structure and agency attempts to treat systematically. The notion of a ‘space of questions’ I’m invoking doesn’t imply deterministic constraints. It creates openings to escape the space of questions by seeking to transcend the dichotomies encountered e.g. both Bourdieu and Giddens seek to do this in different ways. We can find alternative ways to characterize the space of questions. What I think of as structure and agency seems to be seen by Jeffrey Alexander in the 1980s as two related questions: the problem of order and the problem of action.

On my understanding, sociological theory should be concerned with the systematic elaboration of this space of questions with a view to the amelioration of problems that impede empirical research and the construction of conceptual tools which contribute to it. This entails ‘translation’ work in order to bring divergent perspectives into dialogue with each other. It invites empirical work looking at how theoretical ideas are applied in practice and their contributions (or lack thereof) to empirical research. It invites conceptual work to establish meta-evaluative criteria upon which to establish what constitutes a contribution to sociological theory and what does not.

In essence I’m arguing for the unavoidability of sociological theory on praxeological grounds. I’m suggesting that certain presuppositional categories are intrinsic to sociological practice as a purposive activity orientated towards particular classes of objects. As Alexander puts it, “the real world puts terribly strict limits on our theorizing” (Alexander 1987: 5). We encounter these ‘limits’ through purposive activity of a very particular sort and I’m interested in how the activities which I’m subsuming under the category of ‘sociological practice’ mediate our encounter with these limits on theorizing. I share Alexander’s view that theoretical reasoning has “relative autonomy” in relation to the real world but I want to understand in a much more substantive way how relative it is. My underlying claim is that the theoretical constructs I’m invoking (‘structure and agency’, ‘the problem of order’, ‘ the problem of action’ etc) are systematic articulations of issues raised by a practical engagement with the social world motivated by specific purposes. We are drawn to take positions and/or make assumptions on these issues as a necessary condition of sociological practice. So why not try to do this systematically?

In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen argued that the intellectual axis of contemporary sociological theory has shifted from a concern with individualism and holism to what he terms dualism and anti-dualism. I’m not convinced as to the accuracy of this as a claim about the state of the field given the degree of sophistication which can be seen in some of the work analytical sociologists are doing. However I think it’s useful as an expression of a core distinction between those theorists who see ‘structure and agency’ as a dualism to be transcended and those who see it as reflecting the ontological reality of two relatively autonomous aspects of the social world. I also really like how he sets this up because it helps me locate both my PhD research on personal morphogenesis and my post-PhD research on the sociology of thinking in terms of wider trends within sociological theory:

This leads us to what I think is the main battleground between dualists and antidualists, the mind of the individual. The question is: how social is it?


No one could question that there are singular organisms we call members of the biological species Homo sapiens, but the antidualists wish to remind you that these are not distinctly human individuals, not to mention social scientifically interesting agents, until they are in sociocultural relations with other people and thus components in sociocultural wholes that contribute enormously to their being the kinds of individuals that they are (see e.g., Bourdieu 1977; Dewey [1920] 1988:187–94, [1922] 1983, [1927] 1988:351–53; Elias 1978; Fuchs 2001; Giddens 1984; King 2004; Mead 1934; also Kivinen and Piiroinen 2013). As John Dewey put it a hundred years ago:

The real difficulty is that the individual is regarded as something given, something already there. . . . [For, actually,] social arrangements, laws, institutions . . . are means of creating individuals. Only in the physical sense of physical bodies that to the senses are separate is individuality an original datum. Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out. (Dewey [1920] 1988:190–91)

For central conflationist antidualists like myself, indeed, the “micro” focus is not the individual so much as specific encounters and other small-scale situations involving specific kinds of people-in-relations and their interactions (see Collins 2004:3). In effect, “the stuff of the social is made of relations, not individuals” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:179). But Archer, in contrast, needs to keep individuals free from their social relations in order to pull those relations away from agency and turn them into the essence of structures. So relations and thus structures must be external to individuals and their beliefs and concepts, according to Archer, and relational roles, institutions, concepts, and ideas cannot be allowed to “invade” or “determine” individuals’ identities and decision-making processes. Basically Archer is saying that we must not stuff too much of the sociocultural world into people’s heads

(Piiroinen 2014:84-85)

I think he’s misunderstood Archer’s specific point slightly but he’s certainly correct about the general intention here. My PhD research on personal morphogenesis was intended to flesh out how people change in relation to social and cultural influences in a way that sustains the distinction between the personal changes and the social influences. We become ‘the kinds of individuals’ that we are in relation to others but if we cleave self and others too closely together, we obscure the variability in how these changes unfold. In essence I’ve argued that we understand relationships in terms of intersecting biographies and the changes brought about by them. So I’d insist on maintaining individual biography as a unit of analysis, with this representing a ‘chunk’ of one person’s biography in which we they undergo a change:

However we can’t understand the changes without analysing the intersection of biographies, as any number of other persons (Px) contribute to the unfolding of P1’s biography over this period of time. The interaction between P1 and Px contributes to the reproduction or transformation of the relations themselves but also the persons party to them:

I would accept that we are only “distinctly human individuals” when we are “in sociocultural relations with other people”: I just want to be specific about which sociocultural relations contribute to which aspects of our individuality and when they do so. I think this is important because actual biographies are messy. My empirical case study concerned undergraduate students. For instance I’m interested in understanding how interactions between a person and their new university friends can transform how they relate to their ‘home friends’. The personal changes emergent from one set of sociocultural relations can have a huge impact on another set of sociocultural relations and I think the central conflationists can’t (consistently) account for this because they have no concept of ‘outputs’ from relations. In other words: relations change people but people change relations and these processes are not concurrent. We are enmeshed within socio-cultural relations from birth but, as Laing once put it, while “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being … any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”.

So when we ask how social is the mind it connects us to a much wider network of questions, as Piiroinen adroitly illustrates. I see my project on the sociology of thinking as having an outward facing component (in the sense of what a sociological perspective can contribute to the study of thinking from other approaches) but also an inward facing one, in the sense that understanding thinking – as an activity but also the contents of thought – is integral to clarifying the dualisms upon which so much of sociological theory has tended to pivot: individual/relations, individual/society, agency/structure, micro/macro. I would like to critique what I see as a tendency towards disciplinary imperialism in how sociologists treat thinking and to critically engage with work in other fields with the intention of (cautiously) applying their insights to the clarification of these questions of social theory.

In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen suggests that “if we all just suddenly lost our memories and other relevant neural dispositions—if no one was able to remember his or her own name, let alone relatives, friends, possessions, occupation, place of residence, and so on—there would be nothing left of social relations and structures”. This is a science fiction scenario I actually find extremely interesting. Consider that one day, as a result of a natural disaster or fiendish scheme by an evil scientist, “memory and neural dispositions” were suddenly erased at one moment in time. What would the world look like afterwards? I think it would briefly look very similar to the world before the event. For instance the spatial positioning of people within a workplace would be structurally conditioned, likewise how they were co-located (or not), how they were dressed, the length of time they had been present at the workplace that day and what they had been doing up until the memory wipe. It’s certainly unlikely that these structural features of the workplace would be reproduced after the memory wipe but this simply reflects the activity-dependence of social structure i.e. they rely on agential doings for their reproduction or transformation. The enduring causal power of past structures is precisely the point that social realists are making against the central conflation that Piiroinen espouses. I’d maintain that you couldn’t explain the unfolding of events in this scenario without reference to the causal power of past structures i.e. the responses would be patterned rather than atomistically chaotic.

But a lot also depends upon precisely how many “relevant neural dispositions” have been lost in the mind wipe. In a workplace that has card based access systems, the physical possession of the card and its power to enable access to certain locations within the workplace would be unaffected by the mind wipe. People would still have credit cards, mobile phones and personal computers which with sufficient remaining ‘neural dispositions’ could be leveraged to make sense of the undoubtedly confusing situation in which they now found themselves. In fact if the memory wipe were not worldwide but rather something localised to a particular region, or even a workplace, it’s not difficult to imagine how aggregated individual actions of those subject to the mind wipe would provoke collective intervention by authorities that could in turn lead to the reproduction of those structures Piiroinen suggests would be ‘lost’. In short I think there would be something left of social relations and structures. We wouldn’t be able to see it directly but we would be able to see its effects. This obviously hinges upon the acceptance of the causal criterion but even so it seems that Piiroinen hasn’t grasped the point that’s being made here in an otherwise interesting and sophisticated critique of social realism.

9780199377138_140I approached this book with a certain degree of ambivalence, curious as to the hostility one of my favourite sociologists has seemingly provoked in many of its readers. As someone fascinated by the sociology of sociology, it was exciting to hear that Christian Smith had written a book of this sort, even if it sounded incongruously polemical and had led to some strongly critical reviews. For those not familiar with him, Smith has been a prolific sociologist in recent years, working on the sociology of religion and social theory: his recent work includes Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, What is a Person? and Lost In Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. He’s also become a leading advocate of critical realism in US sociology, alongside Phil Gorski, a position which came to the fore in a very public dispute on Org Theory last year.

His recent work represents an important and forceful contribution to the sociological dimension of critical realism, offering a philosophically sophisticated defence of the category of the person as integral to sociological inquiry. I found What is a Person? to be an inspiring work, both in terms of its arguments but also the scope and ambition of the book. One of the best aspects of the book was the way in which it situated his argument in terms of the dominant strands within US sociology, fairly but forcefully critiquing them in a way which showed Smith to be deeply conversant with intellectual tendencies within the discipline. So a book entirely about those tendencies was an appealing prospect for me. However it’s a very different sort of book and I feel much more ambivalent about it than his other work.

His argument in the book is that American sociology is dominated by a ‘sacred project’, in the Durkheimian sense of sacred, orientated towards the amelioration of social problems and the ultimate transformation of society. Many diverse strands have contributed to this project, in a cumulative and uneven way, eventually leading to what he claims dominates US sociology at present: a “liberal-Enlightenment-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-postructuralist/postmodernist” complex. This cumbersome phrase is intended to indicate that this ‘sacred project’ “does not embody one single ideology or program” but rather constitutes “an unstable amalgam of variously accumulated historical and contemporary ideas and movements” (p. 8) with conflicts and compatibilities obtaining between them. Broadly speaking his point concerns the ‘moral unconscious’ of American sociology, to use Phil Gorski’s phrase from an endorsement blurb. There’s a rich and diverse history of American sociology which has complex and, in Smith’s view ambivalent, consequences for the contemporary state of the discipline that are rarely acknowledged. These sources don’t figure into the self-definition of sociology or of sociologists. These identities usually relate to what sociology does or how sociologists do this rather than why this activity is pursued. It is the animating force of the sacred that Smith believes accounts for the ‘why’ and he’s interested in recovering this and framing it in terms of the intellectual politics of contemporary sociology. But what is the sacred project? This is the most direct statement Smith makes about it:

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. (p. 8)

Already the specificity of Smith’s claims about the sacred project seem to sit uneasily with his repeated caveats about the heterogeneity of both its origins and present condition. I found his argument most plausible when it takes a counter-factual form, asking what American sociology would be like in the absence of a sacred project: 

“Without this Durkheimian sacred project powerfully animating the soul of American sociology, the discipline would be a far smaller, drabber, less significant endeavour – perhaps it would not even have survived as an academic venture to this day.” (p. 8).

However I don’t think this establishes the character of the sacred project suggested by Smith. I think it highlights the existence of a moral unconscious, in the sense of animating purposes and commitments underlying the elaboration of a discipline, without which it would not and could not exhibit its developed characteristics. This is an important thing for us to discuss: why does sociology matter to people and how does this concern shape the discipline? But would anyone deny this category out of hand? It may be overlooked and there may be systematic social and intellectual factors accounting for this occlusion but I suspect most sociologists would accept the category of ‘personal motivation’ in principle, even if their methodological commitments lead them to circumscribe it in practice. Obviously Smith means much more than this in his invocation of the ‘sacred’ but I think you could minimally restate his core thesis without losing much of consequence: it’s about the structuring of personal concerns in the (re)production of disciplines, with the notion of a ‘moral unconscious’ (I think Gorski hit the nail on the head with this) being a potentially powerful way to make sense of both the motivation and the way it is structured.

Much criticism related to the alleged lack of rigour in the book, with one comment on this hostile review calling it “a 200 page blog post”. I think this is actually quite an apt description and, as I’m sure anyone who knows me can guess, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s a time and a place for broad brush strokes and that under certain circumstances impressionistic judgements shouldn’t be excluded a priori from discussions about ‘big’ issues of the sort that necessarily elude empirical resolution. But it’s more problematic when this gives rise to a tendency to overlook obvious objections, proceeding with such confidence and verve that the gaps in an argument  are not so much swept under the rug as left abandoned and forgotten  in the author’s wake. Furthermore, the book isn’t brief, at least not to the extent of the ‘mini-book’ format that is becoming increasingly popular amongst academic presses and that I’m enthusiastic about precisely because it provides a forum for the kinds of discussions that are too deep for a research paper but too diffuse for a research monograph. I couldn’t help but contrast The Sacred Project of American Sociology to Stephen Turner’s American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal that was recently released as a Palgrave Pivot, with the former being I think somewhat longer than the latter. My intellectual congruence with the theoretical thought of Smith contrasts to my continued inability to confidently ‘get’ where Turner is coming from (which I guess amounts to me saying I can’t pigeonhole him, surely a virtue now I think about it) but I nonetheless felt that the former’s book lacks the degree of rigour and detail we see in the latter’s, in spite of their arguably similar scope.

In an important way I think Smith is too defensive about his argument and this compounds the more contentious aspects of how he makes it. Consider this passage from Michael Burawoy’s 2004 Presidential Address for the American Sociological Association in which he talks of the normalising pressures encountered in the pursuit of an academic career and their implications for the ‘sociological spirit’:

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.

I may be wrong but I read ‘spirit’ here in largely the sense that Smith intends it. His defensiveness results perhaps from an awareness that a sociologist of religion who (correctly in my view) makes no effort to privatise his own Catholicism and exclude it from the scope of his professional activities might provoke misunderstanding by talking about ‘spirit’. So he over defines his terminology in a way that sets up the notion of ‘spirit’ as a point of contention in a way that it just isn’t in the sense in which Burawoy uses it. For all the points in the book where Smith falls short of his customary rigour, I don’t find his notion of the ‘sacred project’ conceptually problematic given the qualifications he attaches to it. He is not claiming the existence of a mono-thought clique but rather suggesting a dominant tendency within the discipline, constituted by a number of more or less conflictual intellectual strands, with the ‘sacred project’ being the underlying structure of feeling (Burawoy’s ‘sociological spirit’) which animates activity that contributes towards the enactment of the project. He recognises the “variance” with which “American sociologists” pursue it: unfortunately in doing so the “liberal-Enlightenment-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-postructuralist/postmodernist” complex comes to seem so comically diffuse that it’s hard not to wonder if we might be better off just saying the ‘sociological spirit’ and leaving it at that. Smith’s point though is that this quietism would contribute to a widespread inarticulacy in sociology about its own meaning and motivation – it’s a form of argument that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the work of Charles Taylor. In effect Smith is saying that sociology needs to retrieve its moral sources and, through doing so, we can strengthen the discipline. I think the most convincing argument is a thought-experiment:

Imagine this (if possible): What if sociology really and truly was nothing but a purely scientific, objectively neutral, spiritually disinterested, just-the-facts-and-theory study of society? Would most current-day sociologists really want to be a part of it? How would it be different than it is now? For one thing, sociology departments would have far fewer undergraduate majors and graduate students than they currently have. Sociology of that kind just wouldn’t be that attractive to as many students. For another thing, the undergraduate and graduate students that sociology would attract would be a very different bunch of people than they are now, ideologically, culturally, and politically. The composition of its practitioners would be more blandly mainstream, facts-orientated and technocratic. Furthermore, the subject matter of the journal articles and the content and tone of the books that such a spiritually blank sociology would produce would also be very different than they are now … Sociologists would generally be less impassioned about their work, and they would enter their classrooms with less of an agenda to convince and transform their students. (Pg 22)

I find this a compelling argument and I think one that can be detached from pretty much the rest of the book. If we accept the argument and sociology isn’t just a “purely scientific, objectively neutral, spiritually disinterested, just-the-facts-and-theory study of society” then what is the additional element? This is what Smith is suggesting we are inarticulate about and this is what The Sacred Project of American Sociology attempts to retrieve. The problem is that this immensely important question gets somewhat lost in the detail of his argument, as well as the rushed and polemical way it is made. This is compounded by the fact that Smith seemingly does have an axe to grind, further provoking the critics. The overriding impression this leaves me with is akin to watching two people you were having an interesting conversation with breaking into a tedious argument, seeing them talk past each other and wishing you could go back to the fascinating point you’d seen them hit upon just before the shouting started.

However I don’t think the book’s problems are purely rhetorical. Leaving aside the invocation of a ‘stroll’ through the ASA book displays (might it not have been better to just introduce this informally and not subsume it under the category of ‘evidence’?) and the similarly impressionistic perusal of book reviews and journal abstracts, what I found really problematic was his lack of attention to the way in which his own situation might shape his perspective on the ‘sacred project’. He begins his section laying out the evidence, in so far as it exists, with an appeal to first person experience. He has “learned and taught sociology in a small liberal arts college, at a major private Ivy League university, in a major public research university, and at another elite, private university” yet has also “always felt some distance from and marginality in relation to American sociology” (pg 28). I can only speculate based on familiarity with his more theoretical works as to what explains this feeling of distance and marginality (to be fair he qualifies it as ‘some’) and, in keeping with the broader tenants that draw me to his work, I’m reluctant to dissolve these feelings into third person sociological concepts. Even so, how marginal can he really think he is? As the hostile comment on the review I mentioned earlier points out, “The fact that Christian has a named chair at a research university and can publish a 200 page blog post on Oxford University Press belies his thesis that sociology is controlled by decadent communists.” I don’t think this is what Smith argues and I’m far from hostile to either the book or its author but this point still stands. What marginality Smith might experience is of a very particular sort, such that from the outside he can’t help but look like an enormously prolific, widely recognised, award winning tenured professor who has won over $15 million dollars worth of funding in his career. None of these factors constitute a reason to either dismiss his argument or affirm but it seems axiomatic to me that this positioning should be held in mind when meditating upon his arguments about the ‘dominant trends’ within American sociology.

This issue occurred to me again later in the book when Smith decries the ‘secret club’ at the heart of American Sociology, the invitation only Sociological Research Association which meets at the same time as the American Sociological Association. He invokes this to make a point about the tendency towards perpetuating inequity of those committed to the sacred project. But the existence of the SRA surely indicates something else: the centre of power in American sociology is hostile to the sacred project, if indeed such a project exists. Consider this extract from the after dinner speech made by Andrew Abbott at the SRA which Smith himself cites:

Many people in the SRA dissent from this strong politicization and indeed there has been talk about activating the SRA as a possible alternative organization to the ASA, an organization focused on sociology as an intellectual enterprise rather than a political one. I am of two minds about this project. I am also, as it happens, of two minds about after dinner speeches. It is one thing to give them, it is quite another to attempt to listen to them. Much, then, as I hate to disappoint those of you who have come to hear me say something blunt and outrageous about the follies of the ASA, and much, indeed, as I would like to say something blunt and outrageous about the follies of the ASA, I have chosen instead a milder course, and that is to argue that we have taken the ASA’s political shenanigans far too seriously.

We have therefore missed the fact that the spectacle of a bunch of reasonably well-heeled, sinecured academics parading around a pair of fancy hotels and talking about Oppression, domination, and liberation is fundamentally and delightfully silly. Here we are trading students and manuscripts like so many yard-sale fanatics while we bustle importantly from the oppression of women here to the oppression of Puerto Ricans there and the oppression of short people somewhere else. Can anyone in the world take this seriously as political action? Is it not the very epitome of absurdity? If we ask what would be the response of the oppressed masses to a typical sociological paper about oppression, a moment’s reflection gives the answer.The oppressed masses would tell us at once, that like them, the sociologists are just trying to get by and feel good. Getting by in a fancy hotel is great, if you can manage. Beats working…

Now if one recognizes that the ASA is, prima facie, an absurd organization, one can hardly then exonerate this august body before which I now appear. When I tell people I’m a member of the SRA, they say “whazzat?” — I should know I’m in trouble, right there….. Well, I tell them, it’s kind of a secret handshake society of the movers and shakers in sociology. They ask, “what does it do?” And I say, Well, it has a dinner once a year at which people drink and eat and sleep through a talk. When I look at people’s reaction to this explanation I begin realize that listing the SRA in the honors and awards section of my vita may not be too bright an idea. Maybe I should list it in the obscure achievements section, or even the why exactly do I do this section or even the administrative service section. Like the ASA, the SRA is, in fact, a largely silly organization.

I’ve included the third paragraph because it would seem disingenuous not to, as it manifestly qualifies the strident tone of the first two. However I was struck by recognition of the seemingly casual contempt of Abbott’s initial paragraphs (“look at those left-wing idiots! morons! who could take them seriously?”) and how closely it resembled Smith’s own at various points in the book. The latter, it goes without saying, makes little effort to qualify his hostility, though he does at one point reveal that he has heretofore in the book been showing ‘restraint’ in his comments upon others in the discipline. Leaving aside how little evidence of this I could see, it surely reveals something about the mindset with which Smith has written the book.

I’m focusing so much on the tone of the book because I think much of what’s wrong with it stems from this.  I think the book is flawed, particularly the ‘evidence’ section. So too though are many of the critiques  it has attracted and an awareness of this likely line of attack perhaps goes some way to explaining the odd tone that permeates the book, above and beyond it feeling rushed, which I found sharply in contrast to the confidently pleasant erudition I associate with his other writing. It was also jarring to realise that many bibliographical details seem to be missing from the book, with references like Smith (2015) – and nothing else – to be expected in a blog post but not in a book published by OUP. It feels like it wasn’t subject to any editorial feedback and I’d be interested to know the timescale of its publication. The near constant scare quotes, coupled with an attack on others for doing the same thing about “reality”, lend the text the feel of a rant at times. The fact that Smith repeatedly addresses the difficulty of “proving” his case with empirical data makes him seem defensive in a way that just wouldn’t be the case if he just used the word proving without the scare quotes.

There seem to be sections of the book that serve no purpose other than to antagonise those who will already be sceptical about the book’s argument, adding literally nothing to the substantive case Smith is trying to make. The four  page chapter on ‘spiritual practices’, an ill advised ‘comedy’ diversion, only adds to the sense of this being a 200 page blog post. This is a real shame because the subsequent chapter is probably the strongest in the book, a concise and panoramic thesis about the mechanisms driving change in the intellectual makeup of sociology. He makes a simple though compelling argument about the confluence of circumstances that led to an initial radicalisation of sociology (expansion of higher education in response to the demographic demands of the baby boomers, social and political upheaval in wider American society and the disintegration of the Parsonian consensus) later entrenched by self-selection mechanisms that lead those amenable to radicalism to be more likely to enter university and then more likely to choose sociology as an undergraduate major. The problem is that making this argument compels him to suggest that sociology undergraduates are often intellectually inferior to their peers (it might very well be true but the repeated assertions, irrelevant to his argument as far as I can see, have a nasty tone to them) and he again lapses into the argument that sociologists are effectively indoctrinating their students (with the graduate students representing indoctrinators-to-be). Unless I have completely misunderstood Smith’s theoretical work on personhood, which alongside Margaret Archer and Andrew Sayer has been a big influence on my own work, I don’t understand how he can support these at times quasi-conspiratorial claims reducing the emergence of a series of value commitments into a hierarchical power relationship within an institutional setting. Again, the way the book is written undermines what the book is arguing.

The following chapter is also much stronger than the early sections of the book, with Smith explaining how he sees the effective ‘peace treaty’ that emerged out of the ‘paradigm wars’ as engendering a sclerotic tendency, in some ways as destructive as the internecine intellectual warfare which proceeded it. Everyone is left to do as they wish, provided they respect the sacred project, with the consequence that:

In sum, most of American sociology has becoming [sic] disciplinarily isolated and parochial, sectarian, internally fragmented, boringly homogenous, reticently conflict-averse, philosophically ignorant, and intellectually torpid. Sociology lacks the kinds of sustained, fruitful, and intellectually meaningful clashes, struggles and clarifications needed for a discipline such as itself to regenerate important scholarship and education. (p. 144)

This might be correct. To address this in terms of the moral unconscious of the discipline is a line of inquiry I find intellectually exciting. It’s precisely what I’m interested in exploring in my upcoming project on the Social Life of Theory and I’ve taken illuminating ideas from Smith’s book which I intend to apply in this project. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of sociology, its contemporary circumstance or critical realist theory. But it’s a book to be read charitably and, even as someone with immense respect for Smith as a person and scholar, I had to read charitably to cut through the incivility which pervades the book. I’ve largely ignored the book’s ‘evidence’ section in this review and the personal anecdotes that seem to be as much about score settling as illustrating his underlying argument. I’ve ignored them because I simply couldn’t find any value in them, in spite of my inclination to read the book  as charitably as possible. However it’s provocative and thought-provoking in spite of its flaws. While I wish it had been produced as a 10,000 word paper rather than a diminutive 200 page book, it nonetheless has enough of intellectual value within it to be worth reading. Smith’s prolific writing shows no signs of slowing down and this represents an intriguing, if slightly confusing, precursor to his next big work of theory that will be released next year.

What is theory? Stefan Collini argues that “‘theory’ is what happens when common starting-points can no longer be taken for granted”. If there’s any truth to this suggestion, it points towards the irrevocably social nature of theory. The inclination to address a question in a theoretical way, the variability with which different parties will approach the same question, point in manifold ways towards the social context within which theory happens. However theory also takes on a life of its own, giving rise to theorists who elaborate upon theory, in the process rendering common starting points ever more elusive. These theorists often deny the social aspect of the theory they promulgate, abstracting what they do from the conditions in which they do it and contributing to its mystification.

The obvious response to this is to look to the theorists themselves. Theory is produced and this labour takes place under specific conditions that contribute to the character of the ensuing work. But so too are theorists. In fact the theory produced by their contemporaries and predecessors plays a large part in the constitution of theorists themselves. This raises the question of how we conceptualise this relationship – to do so deterministically risks obscuring the processes through which innovation occurs but conversely its untenable to suggest that the transmission of theory proceeds through a whole sequence of individual choices. I like how Peter Preston describes this specifically intellectual dimension to individual biography

If one stands back from the day-to-day demands of professional routine, it becomes clear that an intellectual trajectory is not organised in advance, we do not begin by surveying the intellectual ground before deciding upon a line of enquiry; rather, as Hans-Georg Gadamer might put it, we fall into conversation; our starting points are accidental, our early moves untutored, they are not informed by a systematic professional knowledge of the available territory, rather they flow from curiosity; we read what strikes us as interesting, we discard what seems dull. All this means that our early moves are quite idiosyncratic, shaped by our experiences of particular texts, teachers and debates with friends/colleagues. Thereafter matters might become more systematic, we might decide to follow a discipline, discover an absorbing area of work or find ourselves slowly unpacking hereto deep-seated concerns. It also means that we can bestow coherence only retrospectively. This idiosyncratic personal aspect of scholarly enquiry is part and parcel of the trade, not something to be regretted, denied or avoided; nonetheless systematic reflections offers a way of tacking stock, of presenting critical reflexive statements in regard to the formal commitments made in substantive work.

In this sense transmission can be seen less as a choice and instead as a more or less idiosyncratic path we negotiate through an intellectual environment, in the process contributing in partial ways to the reproduction or transformation of that environment. At each stage the circumstances of the theorist (or theorist to be) condition the pathways available to them, how these are understood and the costs/benefits attached to different options. We often don’t weigh up choices in these terms, or assess accurately when we do. However the benefits and the costs are still there. Moving towards social theory while studying in a philosophy department generates intellectual frustration even if you don’t yet understand why this is so. Those who pursue an academic career are forced to choose and compromise, balancing passion and expediency in an institutional setting which values some activities and denigrates others. What Preston describes as “the day-to-day demands of professional routine” discipline the paths that are chosen, as does the socialisation into disciplinarity which is usually a precondition for establishing a ‘professional routine’. The possibilities for exploration shift and so too does the kind of work that’s produced. Expediency takes a different form as positions within organisations shift and with paths of activity come interests in relation to things done in the past. Our dispositions towards what we have done and what we hope to do change, often in ways that are difficult to understand if we only focus on social factors and ignore the way our character changes in relation to them. This description of Leibniz’s changing orientation towards his philosophy is a vivid example of a kind of claim that I think can be made much more generally: 

With Leibniz, inevitably, as with almost all ageing philosophers, a certain amount of intellectual sclerosis set in, too. In his later years, the elements of the metaphysical system he first outlined in the Discourse became so self-evident to him that he often saw no need to argue for them. they became a fixed part of his reality, and his deepest philosophical pleasure came less from formulating his propositions than from seeing their truth reflected back to him in the statements and activities of others.

The Courtier and the Heretic, Pg 260

What I’d like to think of as the Social Life of Theory is an attempt to understand how theorists make theory but theory in turn makes theorists. This dialectic finds reflection at the level of social life as a whole: the social context shapes theory but theory in turn shapes the social context. I’m borrowing the terminology from the Social Life of Methods project pursued by CRESC. However I’m using it in a different way, albeit one that leads to questions not a million miles away from those they asked about methods. In effect I’m using it as an umbrella under which to explore the overlaps between my two overriding fascinations in social theory: the sociology of social theory and the sociology of intellectual faddishnessOver the next few months (years? decades?) I want to try and understand how (a) intellectual biography shapes theoretical work (b) how theoretical work shapes intellectual biography (c) how social context shapes a + b (d) how a + b shape c. It seems an immensely unsatisfying way to express the questions that interest me and it leaves me unfortunately aware of how unclear the questions are. I suspect I’m going to have to get far beyond 1.1 if I’m going to address these issues in a remotely satisfactory way. 

The notion of philosophical under labouring has been integral to the development of critical realism. It is, as Roy Bhaskar puts it, what critical realist philosophy most characteristically does. The metaphor comes from John Locke but it is deployed in a way that criticises Locke’s philosophical legacy, reframing it in terms of a much more substantive understanding of what under labouring entails as an activity. This concerns the relationship between theory and practice, something which philosophy has tended to violently misconstrue. Instead critical realist philosophy seeks to provide us with a deeper understanding of practices that are adequate and to contribute towards the transformation of practices which are inadequate. Doing this involves the development of a philosophical ontology but it is one which, at least in principle, should be orientated towards the practical activity of scientific investigation, with the caveat that being useful in this way necessitates a degree of congruence with the nature of things that means that truth cannot be collapsed into utility.

Given that ontological claims are continually secreted by statements about the social world, it seems obvious to me that there’s a value to be found in philosophical ontology. At the very least, this is a matter of rejecting quietism with regards to ontological matters – only by opening up the space of ontological questions can we serve to identify our assumptions and locate them within the range of logical possibilities in a way that facilitates critical distance. The problem is that ontological reasoning, with its complex relation to practice and reality, can sometimes spiral in a way that can ultimately lead to a scholastic abstraction that can prove deeply off putting to those with a less theoretical inclination. I think Jamie Morgan gives a really useful account of some of the dynamics that can take hold here:

Though realism in particular is sensitive to epistemic fallibility and to the potential for an epistemic fallacy – and ultimately ontology is theory so one is careful to never assert a definite identity between ontology and reality – the originating point of the exercise is to under-labour for more adequate accounts of reality. As such, one can ask in what sense the development has actually enhanced one’s understanding of or capacity to undertake further explanatory investigations of reality … ‘Adequacy’ can be directed towards internal projects of social theory addressing aspects of social theory for purposes other than demonstrated adequacy for accounts of reality. They can be about finding difference or reformulating what is actually similar, where both may perhaps be in some sense a non-problem. Furthermore, they can involve the pursuit of categorizations or taxonomies that are then justified as no more than ‘consistent with the existing realist ontology’. The development may then focus on placing an existing alternative framework over the same conceptual terrain – the matter of dispute can then become difference among the positions and where one set of potential weaknesses is traded for another in terms of conceptual critique. (116-117)

Morgan, J. (2014). What is Progress in Realism? An Issue Illustrated Using Norm Circles. journal of critical realism, 13(2), 115-138.

It occurs to me that part of the problem may be with the metaphor itself. Perhaps rather than under labouring we should think of optometry. This is how Wikipedia describes optometry:

Optometry is a healthcare profession concerned with the eyes and related structures, as well as vision, visual systems, and vision information processing in humans. Optometrists[1] (also known as ophthalmic opticians[2] outside the United States and Canada or optometric physicians in some states [3][4][5][6][7]) are trained to prescribe and fit lenses to improve vision, and in some countries are trained to diagnose and treat various eye diseases.

The term “optometry” comes from the Greek words ὄψις (opsis; “view”) and μέτρον (metron; “something used to measure”, “measure”, “rule”). The root word opto is a shortened form derived from the Greek word ophthalmos meaning, “eye.” Like most healthcare professions, the education and certification of optometrists is regulated in most countries. Optometrists and optometry-related organizations interact with governmental agencies, other healthcare professionals, and the community to deliver eye- and vision-care.

The history of optometry can be traced back to the early studies on optics and image formation by the eye. The origins of optometric science (optics, as taught in a basic physics class) date back a few thousand years BC as evidence of the existence of lenses for decoration has been found. It is unknown when the first spectacles were made. The British scientist and historian Sir Joseph Needham stated in his “Science and Civilization in China” vol 4.1, that although it sometimes has been claimed that spectacles were invented in China, that believe may have been based on uses of a source that had addition to them from the Ming dynasty (14th – 17th century) and that the original document had no references to eye glasses, and that the references that were there stated the eyeglasses were imported.

The optometrist assesses a person’s needs, drawing on elaborated diagnostic techniques to prescribe lenses which enhance vision. What counts as an enhancement is relative to a particular kind of need (e.g. close reading) and the success of the enhancement is dependent upon finding the right apparatus for that person, given the present state of their vision and the character of the aforementioned need. Needs are dynamic and the interventions facilitated by optometry need to be similarly dynamic if they are going to help rather than hinder the person in question. After all the intervention is intended to enhance or ameliorate, as opposed to creating a capacity where there was not one previously.

I’m being slightly factitious in suggesting that we see social theory as optometry. Though I do think there’s a usefully epistemological aspect to it (measuring perception) as well as an ontological one (an understanding of the nature of the perceptual system, the world being perceived and the process of perception). But I like the idea as a way of drawing out a few beliefs which I hold strongly.

  1. Social research is not dependent upon social theory and can proceed without it.
  2. Social research can be enhanced by social theory because at least tacit theoretical assumptions are unavoidable in the practice of social research.
  3. Social research often isn’t enhanced by social theory because the practical relationship between the two is generally quite poorly attended to.
  4. Social research could be enhanced by social theory if more attention were paid to the specific ways in which different aspects of social theory play a practical role in the practice of social research.

I’m reading Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory. It’s very good. However the vocabulary is frustrating me for the kind of reasons I discussed here. Take this example:

Conceived in terms of drive, networked communications circulate less as potentials for freedom than as the affective intensities produced through and amplifying our capture. (pg 31)

I’m fairly certain I understand what she means by ‘capture’. What I don’t understand is how ‘practices’ can be said to ‘capture’ us. Is there anything more to this concept than the claim that certain ways of using specific technologies will tend to inculcate a peculiar form of passivity that has important ramifications for the possibility of emancipatory politics? We could be said to become trapped, stuck or ensnared by such ‘practices’ but I don’t think we’re captured by them. Capture implies a captor but no such claim is being made. It may seem a pedantic point but this tendency to write as if “things just happen without anyone doing them” (to use Howard Becker’s phrase) really bothers me. It seems to shut down precisely the space of questions which I think critical theory should surely be trying to open up.

The title of this post comes from Ian Craib’s wonderful book The Importance of Disappointment, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. His concern is with a contemporary inability, pervasive to the point that we may regard it as epochal, to live with disappointment. We struggle to tolerate the failure of our plans or the frustration of our expectations, instead resolving to change our selves or our circumstances in order to evade these limitations on our next attempt. We are hyperactively concerned to fix things because, argues Craib, doing so allows us to avoid confrontations with our own limitations and the recalcitrance of our world. His point is not that deliberation or planning are intrinsically delusive but rather that we invest ourselves in them in a way which is. Unintended consequences, thwarted ambitions and unrealised hopes are an unavoidable aspect of the human condition and yet we repudiate this reality, in our manner of being even if not our reflective judgements, because doing so helps us avoid the ambivalence which unavoidably follows from it. We strive to do better next time, moving on to something new in the belief that we can arrange the pieces of our life in a way that provides the grounding which we are peripherally aware of lacking. The problem is not that we try to better ourselves but rather in what we avoid through ‘self-improvement’: displacing our confrontation with disappointment by orientating ourselves towards next time in such a manner that we foreclose the capacity to experience this time.

The themes from Craib’s book came back to me when I recently read Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I’ve attached a video below from a lecture in which he summarises the book’s argument. It’s a great read and I couldn’t help but think of it as basically being The Importance of Disappointment if you substitute experimental psychology and cultural commentary for psychoanalysis and social theory (though this is probably unfair to both authors by conflating the distinctive qualities of each book).

One of many admirable things about Burkeman’s book is the manner in which he reconciles a lacerating critique of the self-help industry with writing a book about the practical conditions for cultivating ‘happiness’ (given he’s much more nuanced than this, it’s hard not to wonder if the ‘h’ word in the title was insisted upon by the publisher). His target is not just the banality of these books but rather their tragically counter-productive character, with their inevitable tendency to provoke an attitude towards life which intensifies dissatisfaction and leads to the purchase of further books:

This is why, among themselves, some self-help publishers refer to the ‘eighteen-month rule’, which states that the person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book – one that evidently didn’t solve all their problems. When you look at the self-help shelves with a coldly impartial eye, this isn’t especially surprising. That we yearn for neat, book-sized solutions to the problem of being human is understandable, but strip away the packaging, and you’ll find that the messages of such works are frequently banal. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People essentially tells you to decide what matters most to you in life, and then do it; How to Win Friends and Influence People advises its readers to be pleasant rather than obnoxious, and to use people’s first names a lot. One of the most successful management manuals of the last few years, Fish!, which is intended to help foster happiness and productivity in the workplace, suggests handing out small toy fish to your hardest-working employees.

This is why I found myself so unwaveringly categorising The Antidote as a companion volume for The Importance of Disappointment. The self-help industry depends upon and contributes towards the widespread evasion of disappointment whereas, as Burkeman, rather succinctly puts it: “the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable”. Our desire to avoid mess, refuting disappointment by energetically seeking solutions to our perceived problems, intensifies our inability to cope with our circumstances. What worries me though is how to stop this critique, persuasive as I find it, from leading to passivity – either at the level of personal life or social change. Both authors are sensitive to this issue but didn’t seem to resolve it in any substantive fashion. Perhaps I’m expecting too much? After all, we do not need to live with this mess but mess in general. So the recognition that there are problems which need to be solved can co-exist with a rejection of problem solving as a general condition of life. But this is by definition something that’s hard to write about in the abstract and it’s our own tendency to think about it in abstract terms (generalising our dissatisfactions and projecting into the future rather than engaging with their particularity in the present) which is such a large part of the problem both authors diagnose in their different ways.

Looking back through my kindle highlights I realise I’m perhaps being unfair by saying that Burkeman’s approach to this issue was unsatisfying. The stoics were the aspect of the book I was least familiar with but also perhaps the most interesting, at least in this particular respect:

It is essential to grasp a distinction here between acceptance and resignation: using your powers of reason to stop being disturbed by a situation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change it. To take one very obvious example, a Stoic who finds herself in an abusive relationship would not be expected to put up with it, and would almost certainly be best advised to take action to leave it. Her Stoicism would oblige her only to confront the truth of her situation – to see it for what it was – and then to take whatever actions were within her power, instead of railing against her circumstances as if they ought not exist. ‘The cucumber is bitter? Put it down,’ Marcus advises. ‘There are brambles in the path? Step to one side. That is enough, without also asking: “How did these things come into the world at all?

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The Centre for Social Ontology (CSO) was established in 2011 at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. Now based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, its main focus is the Morphogenetic Project.

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At last year’s International Association for Critical Realism conference, I saw perhaps the most impressive conference presentation I’d witnessed in my five or six years of going to conferences regularly. Jamie Morgan demolished the notion of ‘norm circles’ offered by Dave Elder-Vass and he did so in a way which made a whole host of important meta-theoretical points about the purposes of social theory (while also avoiding making the whole exercise feel at all personal, despite the fact he was kicking down something Elder-Vass had spent the last five or six years building up).The overarching purpose of the exercise was to ask what constitutes progress in social theory. As Morgan says in his write-up of this paper, “it is an issue that becomes significant for any social theory that survives long enough to become a general and recognized position with a range of proponents” (115). As a theoretical position becomes entrenched, internally differentiated into multiple strands with varying degrees of complementarity, it becomes increasingly important to ask what constitutes a progressive development in that position.

On this sort of meta-theoretical level, I’m not sure critical realism is in particularly good health (even if there are events taking place at an institutional level which could leave it stronger than ever). The internal differentiation has become quite pronounced. There’s the obvious distinction between ‘basic’ critical realism*, dialectical critical realism and the meta-reality stuff. But we might also distinguish between systems theoretical strands, relational realism, Marxist orientated realism. Or even perhaps in terms of disciplinary divisions which express themselves in divergent interests, sensitivities, proclivities etc (e.g. sociology, human geography, economics, philosophy). Only the first set of distinctions are ones that are established sites for explicit identification (e.g. I have pretty much zero interest in anything other than ‘basic’ critical realism) but this doesn’t mean the other distinctions aren’t real. They are differences and fault lines within the theoretical corpus, encountered in unpredictable ways through engagement with critical realist thought. Furthermore, there are explicit identities and social networks which emerge, unfold and change across these fault lines (and in turn contribute to the restructuring of this internal differentiation). Some of these stem from supervisory arrangements or recurrent face-to-face meetings (e.g. there’s a definite network connected to Tony Lawson and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group) to the other end of the spectrum, with networks which might be ‘virtual’ or even in some cases ‘imagined’, constituted through textual engagements with real effects but nonetheless in the absence of personal relations.

This multi-dimensional complexity is something likely to grow with an intellectual movement (which I think is a more accurate term than ‘position’) that is sufficiently entrenched, intellectually and institutionally, to avoid gradual dissipation. But very particular risks inhere in security of this sort, as an intellectual movement becomes sufficiently settled to give rise to successive generations of theorists. These are amplified by the necessity for individual scholars to establish a career, with the attendant pressures to publish widely, find some novel framing of an existing issue and generally to capture the attention space within an environment where a publications arms race mitigates against holding anyone’s attention for long. These broader circumstances can tend to distort what counts as ‘progress’, making it ever more important to be explicitly clear about this as a guiding norm on a meta-theoretical level. Jamie Morgan’s argument is very helpful in understanding the intellectual implications of this:

This then is considered progress – lacks, inconsistencies, tensions and contradictions are highlighted and some development then follows. This development is typically inferred to be, by virtue of the very process, more ‘adequate’. However, the meaning frame of adequate here can gradually become ambiguous. Though realism in particular is sensitive to epistemic fallibility and to the potential for an epistemic fallacy – and ultimately ontology is theory so one is careful to never assert a definite identity between ontology and reality – the originating point of the exercise is to under-labour for more adequate accounts of reality. As such, one can ask in what sense the development has actually enhanced one’s understanding of or capacity to undertake further explanatory investigations of reality … ‘Adequacy’ can be directed towards internal projects of social theory addressing aspects of social theory for purposes other than demonstrated adequacy for accounts of reality. They can be about finding difference or reformulating what is actually similar, where both may perhaps be in some sense a non-problem. Furthermore, they can involve the pursuit of categorizations or taxonomies that are then justified as no more than ‘consistent with the existing realist ontology’. The development may then focus on placing an existing alternative framework over the same conceptual terrain – the matter of dispute can then become difference among the positions and where one set of potential weaknesses is traded for another in terms of conceptual critique. (116-117)

This is an extremely clear and succinct formulation of what I was struggling to say here. I take Morgan to be saying that a criterion of ‘progress’ is necessary because of the worrying tendency for intellectual movements to tilt towards discursive elaboration, as elaboration comes to hinge on internal points of agreement and disagreement in a way that contributes to the ideational density of the theoretical corpus. It becomes an arcane world, with its own taken for granted axioms, obscure vocabulary and in group / out group distinctions. Sound familiar? This is why the link between theoretical research and empirical research is so important (I say as someone who’s clearly a much better theorist than I am a social researcher but pursues the latter nonetheless). Realist theorists have a tendency to make pronouncements about the ontological regulation of empirical research, which I largely agree with though the point can be overstated. However I think a much more important (and interesting) issue is the empirical regulation of ontological research. 

So an important question to ask is: what is ontology for? What is social theory for? What is sociological theory for? These are the questions I’m naturally drawn to, though they’re also ones which tend to be suppressed by structural and cultural tendencies towards growing ideational density in any established theoretical position. As a body of ideas becomes ever denser, more rife with internal distinctions and specialised vocabulary, it’s very easy to lose sight of the underlying question: what is the point of this body of ideas? 

*The term ‘basic critical realism’ rather irritates me.