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  • Mark 1:32 pm on March 18, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Gillian Rose, meta-theory, , sociology, ,   

    The Hegelian sociology of Gillian Rose 

    My notes on Latz, A. B. (2015). Gillian Rose and Social Theory. Telos, 173, 37-54. and Fuller, B. W. (2018). Back to Hegel? On Gillian Rose’s critique of sociological reason. The British journal of sociology, 69(2), 265-285

    The figure of Gillian Rose was a continual presence in the Sociology department at Warwick in the time I was there, from 2007 to 2014, with the main seminar room named after her and many staff members who had been close to her. However I’d never really engaged with her work until now so I’m pleased I’m finally got round to reading these two papers. The first by Andrew Brower Latz explores her relationship to social theory, situating her in terms of her the Frankfurt school which she identified herself as a student of. Her work emerged in a context where “a focused search to develop a better grasp and articulation of sociology and its logic” (38) was mitigating the failure of classical sociology to identify its own methodological specificity. Latz takes critical realism, structuration theory and Bourdieu’s sociology as constructive responses to this underlying problem.

    It is this context that Rose’s Hegelian work was so significant, providing a means to address “perennial issues in social theory, namely:the relationship of logic to the sociology of knowledge; contradictions and antinomies; emergence; and the possibility of a totality” (38). She engaged with Hegel’s speculative philosophy as a radicalisation of the Kantian critique of reason (theory) by reason (meta-theory). In doing so, it provides a way to approach the social character of knowledge which takes us beyond the post-Kantians, for whom objectivity (“the applicability of our concepts to the external world, which creates the possibility of true or false judgments about the world”, 39) is grounded in sense data received through intuition. If I remember this correctly, our sensory apparatus is receptive to the world and we know that world through the representations that receptivity provokes in our mind. We do not encounter the object but only this (involuntary) representation of it. The transcendental form of inquiry was retained by neo-Kantians but the transcendental idealism was rejected, leaving the subject locked within thought without the (indirect) escape which the latter provided. As Latz puts it, “The touchstone for a system of thought was thought itself, in a way that tended to insulate thought from receptivity to thought’s other” (40).

    For Rose the recurrence of positivism within sociology has one of its source in the lack of appreciation by sociologists of the transcendental form of their reasoning. If I understand correctly, this manifests itself as an evasion of the relationships between theory and meta-theory, mind and world, theory and evidence (to use Latz’s terms): the world is either collapsed into our experience of it or our experience is imputed to a world deemed to be devoid of intrinsic meaning. As Latz says later, drawing on a reading of Rose by Simon Jarvis, “Sociology’s danger is twofold: on the one hand, imposing a grid or pre-theorized schema on society instead of allowing experience to speak; on the other, imagining that simply pointing to experience will do” (53). For Rose speculative philosophy provides a way out of this impasse as “transcendental philosophy performed with maximum awareness of its own workings, which is gained through a historical perspective” (42). It entails a grappling with the absolute – “the unity of finite and infinite, of law and ethics, the full achievement of ethical life” (42) – but as a regulative ideal which established the unattainable horizon of our thought. This goes hand-in-hand with her “emphasizing the moments of incompleteness, provisionality, tension, and even fragmentation within thought and society” (43).

    Latz considers the significance of her work in relation to logic & the sociology of knowledge, contradictions & antinomies, emergence and totality. He does this through considering sociological studies which either repudiate or embody key features of her approach, namely thinking “in terms of contradictions and determinate negation, must use increasingly comprehensive levels of explanation and historically informed analyses, and be aware of its own role within its object of study” (47). Perhaps the key point in this discussion is the relationship between theory and meta-theory: how theorising in pursuit of social explanation is itself theorised and the practical implications of this. How do we tie  substantive and meta-theoretical considerations together in the same undertaking? If I understand correctly, the point is we are always doing this regardless of whether we are aware of it. If we’re not aware of it, we’re going to do it in a way that impedes our mode of explanation. So Rose’s approach is about how to do this in a way which is adequate to the character of social reality. It is a form of theoretical reflexivity, for lack of a better term. That at least is how I understand the gist of Latz’s discussion.

    I was particularly interested in her conception of totality: “Since for Rose no single view of the totality is adequate to it, various perspectives on it are required” (52). It always evades us while remaining the horizon of what we are doing and why. A further point this left me reflecting on is how invoking experience can itself render that experience abstract by cutting it from the world in relation to which that experience emerges and which accounts for the meaning and content of it. It emerges from the failure to link theory and meta-theory, facing the challenge of for instance linking mind and world rather than simply allowing that to fade into the background in a way that dichotomises lived experience and brute facts. As Latz puts it, “Rather than an abstruse methodological pedantry, issues of meta-theory can often have theoretical effects, including philosophical conclusions drawn from sociological studies, the nature of the explanations given, or the status afforded to those explanations and the theories whence they derive” (54).

    The second paper by Brian W. Fuller is more explicitly concerned with the subdued reception of Rose’s work and its relationship to the wider neglect of Hegel within the social sciences. He highlights how “Rose argues that we sociologists have been systematically misunderstanding ourselves, and allowing this to happen – taking refuge, either implicitly or explicitly, in the notion of Kantian limits to our understanding” (266). If we remain locked within the Kantian problematic then we are confined to the “social investigation of unknowable objects” (266). This entails recognising the brokenness of modern thought, which a thematic I’m fascinated by without really understanding and want to return to. I assume it relates to the post-Kantian estrangement of thought from world, cutting it off from what it is, but I’m far from certain based on what I’ve read so far. What Fuller later calls ‘the strict dichotomy between cognition and its objects” which begins in Kant and is preserved in post-Kantian philosophy (268). Rose’s concern is to acknowledge this and to begin with it in the sociological enterprise. Its failure can be seen in a dichotomisation which pervades sociological thought. From 269: 

    Her Hegelian move is to grasp the two paradigms as aspects of one whole. Sociology has repeated the mistakes of neo-Kantian philosophy by bifurcating into two contradictory theoretical paths, each of which represents one-half of a linked pair, and which consequently cannot be comprehended in isolation. Durkheim’s structural approach and Weber’s interpretivism each postulates a precondition and a conditioned; though their perspectives are opposite, neither can grasp the transition between spheres. Employing Hegel directly, Rose declares the former approach ‘empty’, while the latter is ‘blind’ (1981: 214). In sum, Rose’s complaint is that sociology is trapped within dichotomies which it can never overcome, because they are products of its own mode of thinking.

    The confrontation with the relationship between theory and meta-theory opens up  the possibility of transcending dichotomies in their application. I’m trying to understand how this relates to the approach of Margaret Archer, whose precondition of analytical dualism entails thinking with dichotomies as ways in which we can unpick the relationship between heterogenous elements in the explanation of social outcomes. But what Archer calls explanatory methodology as a site for leaving these dichotomies behind would presumably be to effectively reproduce them from Rose’s point of view. As Fuller puts it, “the ‘speculative’ direction she suggests is designed to help uncover the meaning and significance of such recurring problems and limitations, opening up potential for transformative practice” (270). This I would argue is what Archer actually does, I’d be interested to encounter any sustained engagement between these two sets of ideas. It certainly falls short of Rose’s lofty, somewhat existential, approach to theoretical inquiry. From 270:

    A second difficulty of explication is that – according to Rose’s interpretation – there is no way to adequately present the Hegelian speculative position in an abstract and concise fashion, without misunderstanding it. Hegel’s approach to philosophy intends to teach a new (speculative) way of thinking and experiencing, which requires continual ‘re-cognizing’ of one’s current position. Rose takes Hegel’s philosophy seriously as a ‘way of despair’, and the process of educating consciousness necessarily appears difficult, aporetic, or else impossible. This is not an illusion to be overcome, nor a dead end, but a process that will require failure. Accordingly, for Rose, abstract explication is out of the question, and the reader must learn through failure.

    Incidentally, could this not be a meta-theory of what Daniel Little calls being an open-source philosopher? This could provide a profound intellectual-existential rationale for the virtues of thinking out loud, rather than thinking being an internal process contained until moments of careful and purified expression. More generally, Rose’s project involved a move beyond reflective thought, in the process recognising the dichotomies it creates as both its own creation and “part of a larger whole, a conceptual and social-historical whole” (271). This move has its origins in the Hegelian turn beyond Kant’s restriction to the boundaries of the finite, “insisting that the whole point of philosophical thought is to be speculative, to attempt to think the infinite, to embrace the contradictions produced by reflection” (271). Philosophical reflection merely analyses, categorises and schematises its contents, ordering the finite rather than understanding its coming to existence and totality within which it happens.

    The possibility for overcoming it rests on a self awareness of the reflective position, understanding its own activity as the origin reflective understanding. In this sense, it involves taking Kant further than recognising the dependence of objectivity upon the subject. We typically see appearances as grounded in essences but the Hegelian project was about recognising this as a posited dichotomy, in order to grasp the unity of the appearance and the essence. My crude understanding of this, which I’m not very confident about, sees it as a vast multilayered mess of becoming which is parcelled out into discrete terms by the activity of cognition. Speculative philosophy involves tracing out how these discrete terms and their static relations have been created through reflective activity, moving upwards towards a totality we can never reach because our striving is part of the whole we are trying to apprehend from inside the mess. This has implications for ethical life. From 274:

    In his practical philosophy, Kant derived a set of universal principles to gov- ern the moral subject, arguing that moral action must be guided by the univer- salizability of a potential action. Hegel’s critique of Kantian moral philosophy is similar to his account of speculation above. He claims that Kant’s practical philosophy cannot adequately comprehend humanity nor society in its historical concreteness, since it deals only in abstractions and universals. The critique emphasizes two points. First, he objects to the abstract separation of theoretical and practical reason, and consequently, of the realms of necessity and freedom. For Kant, for example, the human will exists in the sphere of noumena, inde- pendent of the natural, empirical world in which human subjects reason and act. Second, Hegel criticizes Kantian practical philosophy for being too ‘formal’. The formality of the moral law means that it cannot be derived from the con- crete, historical world, but only transcendentally from reason. From a Kantian view, we can only understand ethical life abstractly.

    I think this is akin to the understanding Alisdair Macintyre expresses in his focus on moral particularism. We are always already inside ethical community and abstracting the individual from that community in the Kantian manner will capture nothing of the concrete reality of moral existence. It ties to Rose’s reading of Hegel’s phenomenological method, which unites thinkers I’ve been drawn to who in different sorts of ways seek to concretise subjectivity without reducing it to the dominion of first person experience. From 277:   

    The phenomenological method is then a way of presenting speculative expe- rience. It treats experience concretely, in its social-historical particularity, and hence allows ‘us’ to recognize our own ‘determination’. In other words, it affords a conception of consciousness not simply in its mode of being or exis- tence, but in ‘actuality’ – consciousness at work in the social world.

    Fuller’s discussion of the relationship between philosophy and sociology is extremely interesting. From 278:

    Sociology has long had a difficult relationship with philosophy, beginning with the attempts of the most promi- nent classical theorists (Marx, Weber, Durkheim) to articulate a vision of soci- ology which goes beyond philosophy in some important aspects. Although perhaps the more common claim remains that sociology has in some sense tran- scended philosophy or made it obsolete, there are periodic calls to reintroduce philosophical perspectives into social science.

    This ends with a really interesting critique of Daniel Chernilo’s project of philosophical sociology, arguing it merely reiterates the dichotomies it takes as its starting point while remaining with the horizons of existent sociological reason. Counter-poising the philosophical and sociological doesn’t help us better understand the relationship between them, as much as inviting this dialogue might in itself help enrich the practice of each. His final discussion of the horizons of Rose’s thought are fascinating. From 280:

    Likewise we cannot use Rose to overcome the contra- dictions of structure and agency that so many have struggled with for so long. Rose did not succeed where contemporary theorists failed, any more than Hegel ‘solved’ the problems of Kantian philosophy. We need to tell the story of the conceptual oppositions and antinomies as they came to be, to structure our current social theoretical world. These antinomies are not just distractions, but have their own particular social history, which needs to be comprehended and presented phenomenologically, in order to not result in reification.

    In this he departs from Latz who he frames, unfairly I think, as claiming that Rose’s speculative approach be used to avoid social theory’s missteps and contradictions. I read this instead as Latz be concerned about the practical application of Rose’s approach by working sociologists and Turner being concerned by the integrity of Rose’s approach as speculative philosophy.

  • Mark 8:32 am on January 31, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , sociology   

    Sociology and anarchism 

    What a fascinating resource this is: Sociologists’ Knowledge of Anarchism Project. Thanks to Martyn Everett for passing it on.

    To explore sociologists’ knowledge about an alternate theoretical paradigm also concerned with society: anarchism. Sociologists tend to have an extremely variable familiarity with anarchist ideas—some who know a lot and others who know very little beyond crude, popular caricatures. This project engages with those sociologists who have substantial familiarity with, knowledge of, or experience with anarchism. The interviews will hopefully constitute discussion fodder for communities interested in sociology, anarchist studies, and anarchist movements.

    • juliegosling 9:22 am on January 31, 2019 Permalink

      immense reads  thank you Mark Julie 

      Sent from Samsung Mobile on O2

    • Mark 10:03 am on January 31, 2019 Permalink

      still not read it fully myself yet! looking forward to it

    • TheSociologicalMail 1:23 pm on June 21, 2019 Permalink

      Very interesting, I’ll have to look into it more!

  • Mark 10:58 am on August 16, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , sociology   

    Workshop: The Foundations of British Sociology 

    This one-day event intends to raise awareness of the Foundations of British Sociology archive maintained by Keele University. This remarkable resource collects a diverse array of materials from the 1880s to the 1950s, gifted to the university when the Institute of Sociology was dissolved in 1955.

    ‘Members of the societies founded The Sociological Review, contributed to early University teaching of Sociology, published many books and papers and collected survey material from the UK and Europe. The archive comprises personal papers, business records, newspaper cuttings, lectures, reports, plans, surveys, lantern slides and an extensive collection of books from the LePlay House Library. It includes material relating to key activists and opinion-shapers such as Victor Branford, Francis Galton, Patrick Geddes, H. G. Wells, Lewis Mumford and Alexander Farquharson on themes such as the responsibilities of the state and the citizen, planning urban development, the position of women, the role of technical education, local government reform, regionalism, the co-operative movement, rural society and the family. Researchers will find valuable materials on the origins of modern British sociology, and related social sciences such as social psychology, cultural geography, town planning and demography’ (Source, Keele University).

    We look forward to welcoming delegates to Keele University where they will have a chance to explore this rich resource and discuss the enduring cultural, historical and evidentiary value of this archive for British Sociology.

    Confirmed Speakers:

    David Amigoni (Keele University), Helen Burton (Keele University), Gordon Fyfe (Keele University), Rachel Hurdley (Cardiff University), Rebecca Leach (Keele University), Chantelle Lewis (Goldsmiths).

    Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

    Application to Attend

    TSRF have 20 places available to attend this workshop. As places are limited they will be allocated through a competitive application process. Applications will close 17th August, 17.00 BST. Decisions will be communicated early September 2018.

    The application form can be found here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1r8RhiHsBI-vR4s-XHgxpJA28pD08Sos1MHsejdUT724/edit

    Applications will be peer reviewed by Sociological Review editorial board members. Consideration will be given to research interests as related to the event, as well as distribution of career trajectory and institutions.

    This event is free and lunch and refreshments will be provided. Places are limited and allocated via the application process. There are also a number of bursaries available for unfunded PGRs and ECRs.

    *Please note, TSRF will not accept late applications under any circumstances.

    Room Location and Accessibility Information

    The event will take place in the Campus Library Training Room located on the top floor of Keele University library, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG

    Visitors can report to the Library counter on arrival and staff will direct you to the room. The main entrance to the Library is on the second floor, up an external staircase. The accessible entrance is on ground level. Non Keele card holders should press the intercom and a Library porter will give assistance. The library has an accessible lift to all three floors of the Library and the training room is wheelchair accessible.

    All toilets, including the wheelchair accessible toilet, are on the ground floor.

    For more details on accessibility to the library, please see here https://www.disabledgo.com/access-guide/keele-university/library-and-information-services-building

    There are a number of disabled parking bays in front of the Library. If these aren’t available, any other space outside or near the Library can be used as long as a valid badge is displayed. A campus map and guide can be found here: https://www.keele.ac.uk/connect/howtofindus/maps/keele-campus-guide-colour.pdf


    We have a limited number of bursaries for this workshop – including childcare bursaries. You can apply for a bursary if you meet TSRF criteria for funding. I.e. (1) unfunded postgraduate research students, (2) Early Career Researchers (ECR) within 3 years of completion of PhD and not in receipt of a full-time wage, and (3) others on the grounds of need (e.g. those in casual employment and not in receipt of a full-time wage).

    Travel bursaries are limited at £100.00, childcare bursaries are limited to £50.00 per day of the event and day before if needing to travel and stay overnight. Accommodation will be organised by TSRF.

    Please note, that if you have been awarded a place at The Sociological Review’s ECR writing retreat this year (2018) or a full bursary (travel and accommodation) at the Undisciplining conference or the ECR day, then you are not eligible to apply for event bursaries until next year (2019).

    Contact Details

    For academic enquiries related to this workshop, please contact Mark Carrigan: mark@markcarrigan.net

    For enquiries related to applications, please contact Jenny Thatcher

  • Mark 1:56 pm on November 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , sociology,   

    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?

    • Robert van Krieken 8:37 pm on January 1, 2018 Permalink

      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.

    • Mark 10:50 pm on January 1, 2018 Permalink

      Where’s a good starting point to read about his take on this?

  • Mark 12:24 pm on October 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , sociology, ,   

    How can Sociology be inspired by its own archive? 

    What can sociology learn from its archive? In asking this question, I mean archive in the broadest sense, far beyond the formal outputs of the discipline. I spent much of yesterday in the Foundations of British Sociology archive at Keele University, gifted to the university by the Institute of Sociology when it dissolved in 1955. This was the precursor organisation to The Sociological Review, founded at LePlay House in 1930, when the original editor of the journal Victor Branford and his partner Sybella Gurney gifted their estate to the earlier Sociological Society. There’s a vast array of material in the archive and I’ve only reached the vaguest understanding of this institutional history. It contains papers from the following organisations and people:

    • Sociological Society
    • Regional Association
    • Civic Education League
    • LePlay House
    • Institute of Sociology
    • The Sociological Trust
    • LePlay House Press
    • The Sociological Review
    • LePlay Society
    • Victor Branford
    • Sybella Branford
    • Alexander and Dorothea Farquharson

    The archive is filled with historical curiosities which shed light on the history of the discipline, revealing the many changes but also the startling continuities. While the co-operation with the Eugenics Society seems startling from a contemporary point of view, it’s even more jarring to encounter concerned discussions about the style of the journal (insufficiently empirical and with literary pretensions that detract from sociological science) which could be encountered almost verbatim a century later.

    However what really fascinates me is the question of how Sociology can be inspired by its own archive: what practical initiatives have been undertaken in the past which we can learn from in the present? To give one example, the Memorandum on Tours summarises the public interest in the many regional surveys which were undertaken. These strange hybrid explorations of geography, anthropology and sociology apparently proved popular with a certain subset of the broader public:

    These Tours have aroused considerable interest amongst people to whom the ordinary Tourist Agencies offer no particular attraction. Quite a number of travellers have repeatedly joined the different parties setting forth from LePlay House during the past four years. Each Tour is accompanied by one or more persons distinguished for their knowledge of the history, ethnography, etc. of the particular country to be visited; also an unusual and pleasing feature of these Tours has been the cordial manner in which the University Authorities and other eminent men and women in the different Continental Cities have received the visitors and afforded them facilities for studying social life, customs and places of interest usually closed to the ordinary

    It struck me when reading this how the sociological walks organised for The Sociological Review’s conference next year could be seen as a tentative recovery of this tradition. What else can we find in there? What can we learn from it now? What practical projects might it inspire? These questions have been circling in my mind since visiting the archive yesterday and it has left me pondering something between cultural entrepreneurship and action research inspired by this archive. The undisciplining of Sociology, at least in the UK, proves eerily familiar when we read about the context within which the Sociological Society and the Institute of Sociology operated. The same is true of the sense of social and political urgency which motivated their work:

    But in the present disturbed state of the public mind there would seem to be open to the Society, two wider opportunities of public service. One is to promote an impartial and detached habit of mind in regard to current movements. The other is bring to bear on the manifold problems of Reconstruction, Civic, National and International such established truths as the present state of the psychological and social sciences affords. Hence an endeavour is being made to extend the Review to a wider circle of readers.

    I am convinced that Sociology can find inspiration in its archive. Get in touch if you’re interested in looking for it with me.

  • Mark 8:49 pm on October 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , computational skills, , , quantitative methods, sociology,   

    The sociology of quantitative methods in the U.K.  

    Some tweets about this blog post worry me because it appears as if people think this is my analysis. It’s not. These are my notes on the excellent paper below which I’d strongly recommend reading in full. 

    This thought-provoking article by Malcolm Williams, Luke Sloan and Charlotte Brookfield offers a new spin on the familiar problem of the quantitative deficit within U.K. sociology. Many accounts of this sort are concerned with the explanatory implications of this deficit (the phenomena that defy explanation without quantitative terms) while digital sociology is concerned with its implications for computational skills. However, the authors look to a deeper level: the tradition within British sociology which defines itself against quantitative methods. They explore this possibly by drawing a contrast between analytical sociology and critical sociology:

    Analytic sociology is the term often used to describe a quite specific version of scientific sociology that combines theories and empirical data to produce sociological explanations (Bunge, 1997; Coleman, 1986; Hedström, 2005; Hedström and Swedberg, 1998). It mostly employs mechanistic explanation and variants on middle range theory. Our use of the term ‘analytic’ encompasses this specific use, but is also broader and meant solely to indicate a sociology that aims to produce descriptions and explanations of social phenomena. It does not exclude ‘understanding’ as methodological virtue, nor does it deny the role of ‘critique’ as an element in the methodological toolkit. It certainly does not exclude qualitative methods and indeed the research described here has qualitative elements


    Their distinction tracks familiar oppositions between explanation/ understanding and positivism/hermeneutics. Their interest is in how the latter term in each pair was advantaged by the dynamics of expansion in U.K. universities, where (non-quantitative) sociology was a cheap route to expanded student numbers with little to no necessary capital investment. It was during this period of expansion during the 1960s that ‘scientific method’ began to be tied to militarism by the burgeoning anti-war movement. They argue that successive intellectual movements (postmodernism, the linguistic turn, the cultural turn) accentuated this antipathy, such that progressive thought came to be instinctively cautious about quantitative methods. This trend played out within the discipline, its students and teacher, rather than simply being located ‘out there’.

    They see this hostility as being dampened by the methodological pluralism encouraged by critical realism and mixed methods pragmatism. But for reasons I don’t understand, which seem to misread the motivations and methods of the critical realist project, incorporate them to analytical sociology:

    While there are important differences in the analytic approach (say between realism, post-positivism, and positivism), there is a common core as treating social phenomena as real (or a proxy for real) (Kincaid, 1996) that can be caused, or can cause other social phenomena. The analytic approach shares the common foundations of science: description, explanation, and theory testing and, more specifically, that through the use of appropriate sampling we can generalise from sample to population or from one time or place to another.


    These are precisely the features which what they call critical sociology rejects as “either methodologically impossible to achieve, in the social world, or ethically undesirable”. More positively, it is concerned with situated meaning and the possibility of emancipation. Their characterisation here is much vaguer but they admit there is an element of strawman to each. Their concern is with how these sociological stereotypes enter into the understanding of students, as extreme versions of actually existing tendencies take hold in the imagination of those who are the next generation of sociologists and the cohorts which the discipline sets loose upon the world.

    This is an important possibility because evidence suggests that sociology students are not driven by a fear of number in choosing their degree. Or at least that other mechanisms are at work in bringing about the quantitative deficit within U.K. sociology. The evidence they present suggests a humanistic understanding of sociology is dominant within the student body:

    Table 2 clearly shows that the majority of students scored the discipline as closer to the arts/humanities than science/maths. It has been speculated that students taking a prior A-levels in art might be inclined to see sociology as closer to the arts and those taking a mathematics A-Level as closer to science. In fact, though there was some variation at the different measurement points, more students in both groups still thought sociology nearer to the arts/humanities than the sciences.

    All but one of subsequent focus groups revealed a “proclivity towards the qualitative involving the theoretical and critique with scepticism about statistics and a clear preference from the students for doing discursive work”. The BSA survey, asking more nuanced questions than the aforementioned survey, produced a more cautious endorsement of sociology’s status:

    Table 4 shows that the majority of participants viewed the subject content (64.3%) and status (66.9%) of sociological research as closer to the arts and humanities. In terms of methodology, analytical tools, and public utility, sociology was seen as mid-way between the arts and humanities and the natural sciences

    Their overarching argument, supported by intriguing comparative data concerning sociology in Netherlands and New Zealand, concerns how a cultural antipathy to quantitative methods gets reproduced across successive professional cohorts (compounded by the marginalisation of quantitative methods teaching within the broader curriculum):

    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

    The result is an absence of methodological pluralism within U.K. sociology, held it seems as a point of principle. They suggest this might also be coupled with a vague sense of persecution, as critical sociology perceives itself as being under threat in a discipline it in fact dominates.

    The ensuing ‘split personality’ might be a source of strength for the discipline in troubled times:

    In the UK, quite apart from sociology ceding many of its former areas of interest to other disciplines, what sociology is depends on who you ask. The appearance is one of fragmentation. Nevertheless, a counterfactual argument may go something like this: a fragmented discipline might also be described as a diverse one, whose survivability does not depend on the adherence to any particular paradigm. Psychology, for example, which has long been largely associated with experimental method, faces something of a crisis as the statistical reasoning that underpin the experiment have been increasingly challenged in the last two decades (see, for example, Krueger, 2001). Sociology, in the UK, may actually be more agile as a result of its analytic/critique split personality

    But crucially there is a risk of the quantitative practitioners exporting themselves from the discipline, even as its capacity to generate them increases:

    One might further speculate that those graduate sociologists, from universities with Q-Step centres or other more quantitatively inclined courses, will not necessarily work in sociology or identify as sociologists because they too see it as a primarily humanistic discipline based upon critique, but rather go to other disciplines or become generic ‘social researchers’ with a consequent continuation of the present situation where analytic sociology continues to be a minority pursuit within the UK discipline.

  • Mark 12:31 pm on October 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , sociology,   

    Erving Goffman: the rag-and-bone man of Sociology 

    There’s a wonderful essay by the playwright Alan Bennet in the London Review of Books, written 35+ years ago, reflecting on his fascination with Erving Goffman’s micro-sociology. His preoccupation was with the minutiae of everyday conduct, identified and described so astutely in Goffman’s work. Sociological observations in this register highlight our commonality, helping us see that individual experiences we assumed to be idiosyncratic are in fact shared by others.

    But while sociology itself remains arcane, this power is mere latency, standing as “a secret between me and the author” with the incidents in question “our private joke”. As Bennett puts it, “Individuals knew they behaved in this way, but Goffman knew everybody behaved like this and so did I”. There is a pleasure to be taken in such private jokes, so easily guarded through insular vocabularies within peripheral publications. Even if, as Bennett observes, “the books I once thought so private are piled promiscuously on any campus counter at the start of every term”, the power of these observations remains limited to a small subset of those within the walls of the university campus.

    If the work of any sociologist could breach these boundaries, it surely was Goffman’s. Much as Sociology is a scavenger discipline, Goffman himself was a scavenger intellectual, producing texts strewn with ephemera collected from beyond the rarefied boundaries of the ivory tower:

    Sociology begins in the dustbin and sociologists have always been licensed rag-and-bone men trundling their carts round the backyards of the posher academic establishments. The Benjamin Franklin Professor has done the rounds of more backyards than most, scavenging in anthropology, psychology and social administration, besides picking up a lot of useful jumble ‘on the knocker’: his books are larded with strips of personal experience, enlivened with items from newspapers, the annals of crime and the dustbins of showbiz. It’s this (and the look of so many quotations on the page) that makes his work initially inviting and accessible to a general reader like me. He writes with grace and wit and raises the odd eyebrow at those in his profession who don’t, though he can’t be too censorious of jargon, having invented a lot himself.


    He writes in a “vivid, impressionistic way” which often remains “tentative and exploratory”. It is this mode of expression which ensures that he “so regularly startles one into self-recognition”, as his predominately descriptive analysis proves able to make the familiar strange. Bennett cites Goffman’s own statement of ambitions in Frame analysis:

    I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.

    I’ve often wondered about the impulse beyond reality television. I recognise this is a complex topic that has produced a vast and multifaceted literature. But I sometimes suspect there’s a sociological impulse at work in its popularity, alongside many other factors shaping ‘supply’ and ‘demand’. Do many of us share a fascination with watching how people snore?  This curiosity about others, what we share with them and how they differ, provides a foundation for interest in sociological observation which is predominately met from outside the academy. Goffman’s was an unusually descriptive sociological imagination, prone to making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, but it was a superlative example of this pole of the sensibility that invited others with a more explanatory disposition to build upon his work. As Bennett goes on to write:

    I go to sociology, not for analysis or explication, but for access to experience I do not have and often do not want (prison, mental illness, birthmarks). Goffman treats these closed areas as lying alongside normal experience (or the experience of ‘normals’) in a way that makes them familiar and accessible. The approach is robust, humane and, despite his disclaimer, moral. ‘The normal and the stigmatised are not persons but perspectives,’ he writes in Stigma, ‘and it should come as no surprise that in many cases he who is stigmatised in one regard nicely exhibits all the normal prejudices held towards those who are stigmatised in another regard.’


    He goes on to explain how Goffman’s concepts come to form part of individual experience, as the possibility of categorising changes our relationship to that which we categorise:

    One of the pleasures of reading Goffman is in taxonomy: items that one has had lying around in one’s mind for ages can be filed neatly away. Like a caption I saw years ago and am delighted now to dignify as a leaky utterance: a newspaper picture of a drama group headed ‘Blackburn Amateurs examine each other’s parts.’ And another (which ought to be in Goffman’s book if only because the reasoning behind the remedial work is so complex and ultimately futile). Dorothy Killgallan, an American columnist, began a radio talk: ‘Tonight I am going to consider the films of Alfred Hitchcack … cock! … CACK!’ I wouldn’t like to see Mr Schegloff et al. let loose on that one.


    Reading Bennett’s account renews my confidence that there’s a public interest in Sociology of the sort I’ve always been drawn to, far beyond any instrumental concern for application. It can illuminate the human condition, enriching individual experience, if it is written and presented in a way which facilitates the exercise of this power. Unfortunately, the academy militates against this but social media offers opportunities to circumvent these constraints.

    • Martha Bell 9:27 pm on October 14, 2017 Permalink

      Lovely post Mark.

    • Mark 6:00 pm on October 16, 2017 Permalink

      Thanks, it’s a wonderful essay it responds to. Possibly one of my favourite ones by a non-sociologist about sociology.

  • Mark 1:37 pm on January 13, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , sociology,   

    The (un)productive chaos of disciplines 

    An interesting extract from Conflict In The Academy, by Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert. From loc 556-569:

    As Wyn Grant has noted in reference to the history of the discipline of Political Science in the United Kingdom, ‘intellectual openness and tolerance of eclecticism has its merits, but if it is allowed to become too uncontrolled it can lead to a lack of rigour in the deployment of methodologies and techniques, which undermines the systematic comparison that the subject has to offer if it is to be distinguished from polemic or idle speculation’ (2010: 24). Similarly, English Studies appears to have been attempting to maintain this precarious balance between pluralism and innovation on the one hand, and coherence and continuity on the other. In reference to John Beer’s suggestion in the Senate House (SHD: 355) that five separate strands of scholarship had emerged in the Cambridge English Faculty (traditional, international, close reading, analysis of literature in social and cultural contexts and an alignment of the study of literature with more popular media), Bergonzi writes that In one sense such pluralism is admirable, a fine instance of the multiplicity of interests and the free play of minds which one expects in a great university. Yet not all approaches can easily coexist; choices may have to be made, and voices imply exclusions … What looks like desirable diversity from inside a subject can seem mere fragmentation and incoherence to those outside it, or not very securely within it. (1990: 16) Institutionalising and sustaining the coherence of disciplines within the humanities, which are by their very nature ‘fissiparous disciplines’ – inherently prone towards internal division, may involve far more selfconscious ‘disciplining’, in Leavis’s sense, than is necessary in the more commonly mono-paradigmatic sciences. Secondly, even though many of the theoretical

    Does this adequately describe contemporary sociology? I think it does, at least in the UK. But the question that really interests me is how a changing infrastructure of scholarly communication, in which interventions happen across a variety of platforms with all the temporal multiplicity that entails, might change this picture. How does self-conscious disciplining happen? What are new ways for it to be enacted? What determines the efficacy of such attempts? These are all changing in ways which raise complex empirical and conceptual issues.

  • Mark 1:30 pm on November 28, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , sociology, ,   

    Why are there 3 philosophy magazines but no sociology one? 

    I just spotted New Philosopher for the first time, in an airport newsagents. I’ve occasionally bought or subscribed to Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now in the past. That makes three popular magazines about philosophy aimed at a general audience. Why such an abundance of philosophy magazines and yet no comparable sociology publications? Is it because the public appetite couldn’t support a sociology magazine? Or is it because sociologists haven’t tried since New Society folded? Is it time for Discover Society to launch a print edition? Or something else entirely?

  • Mark 1:13 pm on May 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , social science fiction, , sociology   

    Sociology and Fiction: a @thesocreview Special Feature 

    I think this is come out really well. Get in touch if you’d like to contribute something further:


  • Mark 6:43 pm on April 15, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , sociology,   

    Re-orienting Sociological Thought: May 11th at @CardiffSOCSI 

    Re-orienting Sociological Thought?                               

    Glamorgan Council Chamber, Glamorgan Building,

    Cardiff University, School of Social Sciences

    Cardiff University
    2pm to 4pm, Wednesday, May 11th 2016

    In recent years, we’ve seen the proliferation of calls to reorientate sociological thought around new concerns, methodologies and approaches that can ground the discipline in changing times. This symposium brings together advocates of prominent approaches with the hope of a dialogue concerning these calls. What do they have in common? How do they differ? Are their proliferation a sign of the discipline’s weakness or of its vitality? Do we need to throw our energies into one, embrace the multitude or somehow synthesise them into a broader project of disciplinary renewal? 

    Mark Carrigan – Why Public Sociology is Becoming Digital Sociology (and vice versa)

    Des Fitzgerald – Lively sociology and the sociology of life

    William Housley – Disruptive Technologies and Socio-Digital Transformation

    Emilie Whitaker – Between Thanatos and Natality: considering sociological reorientations through trans/post humanist understandings of death

    Pre-booking is required by May 4th. Reserve a place via http://www.eventbrite.com/e/re orienting-sociological-thought-tickets-24594058491

  • Mark 4:53 pm on January 17, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , sociology   

    an interview with Christian Smith about the need for sociology to do ontology 

  • Mark 10:22 am on January 13, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , calais, sociology   

    Violent Abandonment: researching the Calais Refugee Camp – @SocioWarwick Seminar Wednesday 20 January 

    Violent Abandonment: researching the Calais refugee camp

    Dr Thom Davies (Sociology, University of Warwick), Dr Arshad Isakjee and Dr Surindar Dhesi (Geography, University of Birmingham)

    Abstract: Surviving in informal refugee camps is fast becoming the lived reality for thousands of refugees and migrants who are entering Europe. Abandoned and neglected, these spaces have become the de facto solution to European political inertia. The Calais camp in northern France has become a significant point of transit for refugees and migrants during the ongoing ‘refugee crisis’, many of whom intend to travel onwards to the UK.  In April 2015, 1500 migrants living throughout Calais were forced to re-locate to a new single site known as ‘The New Jungle’. Set on the periphery of the town, on a polluted area previously used as an informal dumping ground, this Zone is now home to over 6000 men, women, and children. Unlike formalised refugee camps, the ad hoc nature of the ‘New Jungle’ and the limited role of the state present significant public health challenges and a unique case study in Europe. This presentation draws upon findings from two recent ESRC funded research visits to the New Jungle, the first during the birth of the camp in April 2015 and the second in July 2015 during the height of the “#CalaisCrisis”. We present novel inter-disciplinary, mixed-methods research documenting living conditions in the Calais refugee camp. Having conducted a comprehensive environmental health survey of the site including collecting air, water, and food samples, observations and interviews with refugees (Dhesi et al 2015), as well as innovative visual methods – we uncover the substantial threats to the wellbeing of residents living in informal settlements as a consequence of state policies of de facto abandonment. We conclude that the impact of European and national policy in Northern France amounts to nothing less than a public health crisis. We frame this in terms of a violent abandonment, drawing upon the work of Galtung (1969) and Nixon (2014) and their conceptualisations of violence.

    You can see details of forthcoming speakers and download a poster here http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/news/seminarsandevents/seminarseries

  • Mark 10:29 am on November 20, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , sociology   

    BSA Sociology and Feminism Event 

    BSA Sociology and Feminism Event
    Wednesday 16 December 2015 4pm – 6pm
    Kings Place, 90 York Way London, N1 9AG (near Kings Cross)

    Gender Struggles? Feminism? Sociology?

    This event provides a brief introduction and update on how analysing gender inequality in sociology contributes to challenging everyday sexism and gender troubles. It also provides an opportunity for you to raise your own experience and views.

    This is a chance to participate in a two hour engagement with feminism and Sociology introduced by leading feminist researchers within sociology and chaired by Lynn Jamieson the President of the British Sociological Association. The event is for all – with or without prior knowledge – from school-pupil to retired academic. All you need is some stake in, interest in or desire to know more about feminism or sociology or to do something about gender inequality. Come and hear some brief contributions offering informed views on sociologists´ and feminists´ analysis of gender inequality and take the opportunity to question, challenge or tell your own stories.

    Stevi Jackson, University of York, is a sociologist who has written extensively about sexuality, gender and personal life.

    Finn MacKay, University of the West of England, researches feminism as a social movement and works to combine feminism, activist and doing sociology in her own life.

    BSA members and students in full time education – FREE
    Others – £5
    To book, please visit our website:
    Kings Place, 90 York Way London, N1 9AG Please direct
    any enquires to: E: events@britsoc.org.uk

  • Mark 10:39 pm on November 18, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , , sociology   

    funding call: @thesocreview seminar competition 2016/2017 

    The Board of The Sociological Review are pleased to announce that the journal is sponsoring a single-themed Research Seminar Series (which may consist of three or more research seminars) as well as three One Day Symposia events.  The Board hopes to make this funding available on an annual basis.

    Guidelines for Applicants

    The proposed Research Seminar Series and each of the three Symposia should have clear goals, bring together established and new researchers in any area of sociology and focus upon producing imaginative cutting-edge work of sociological and social significance.  We seek proposals that involve collaborations across institutions and disciplines and welcome those that connect sociology to wider communities and the arts.

    An important aim of the series and symposia, is to produce papers that will result in innovative publications of interest to the readership of SR (the journal and/or the Monograph series) as well as an on-line Special Issue, the journal would have first refusal on all papers.  Papers would need to go through the usual reviewing procedures and there is no guarantee of publication.

    As part of The SR’s mission to serve and enhance the future sociological community, seminars and symposia should be open to members of sociological teaching  groups in colleges and schools.  For example, a number of places could either be made available to local colleges/6th forms. or sessions could be video recorded and offered to these audiences. 



    a)    a single-themed Research Seminar Series (eg three seminars each with four – six speakers presenting papers).

    One grant of up to £6000 is available.


    b)   a single Symposia event lasting one day.

    Three separate grants of up to £2000 each are available. 

    It is expected that funding will provide for room and equipment hire, consumables, hospitality, travel and accommodation expenses for speakers. It is expected that delegates will not be charged a fee for attending.

    NB The funding from The Sociological Review could be match funded with other sources. For instance funding from elsewhere might facilitate and enable connections  and scholarly exchange with artists and sociologists  working with and for communities  and/or  to  support the presentation  and development of new /ongoing research projects. 

    How to apply

    Further details and an application form are available from The Sociological Review. Contact Mark Carrigan at mark@markcarrigan.net

    Deadline for applications: 

    2015-6   Open 1st November, 2015 – Close 20th December, 2015


    (i)        Organizers would consist of the nominated grant-holder (Principal Organizer) plus two additional named participants (co-applicants).  The principal organizer will liaise with a named colleague from The Sociological Review.  The Principal Organizer will organize, promote and manage all aspects of the programme (organizing seminars, dealing with expense forms, submitting claims to the office of The Sociological Review, etc).

    (ii)       Topics may include any area within the field of sociology, or topics that engage with key social/sociological issues either through other disciplines or through inter-disciplinary work.

    (iii)      Reasonable travel and subsistence expenses for speakers are permitted but not for delegates. Secretarial costs, consumables, hire of room and presentation facilities may also be included.

    Fees will not be paid to speakers.

    Delegates will not be paid expenses, but there will be no charge for attendance.

    NB – Value for money will be one of the criteria used to evaluate proposals.

    (iv)      The events will be promoted by the grant-holder/core members through their research networks and through their own departments and institutions. All communications with participants and publicity of events will acknowledge sponsorship by The Sociological Review (eg The University of X in association with The Sociological Review) and the seminars will be promoted as The Sociological Review Seminar Series with the Programme and Abstracts circulated in advance. The help of Wiley-Blackwell will be sought in matters of ‘branding’. Events should be advertised on the websites of participating institutions. The Programme would also be advertised by The Sociological Review and Wiley Blackwell.

    (v) Applications will be assessed by a Committee drawn from the Board of The Sociological Review.  The criteria for assessment will include:

    1. Sociological innovation.

    2. Relevance to The Sociological Review journal

    3. Relevance as appropriate topics for Monographs

    4. General contribution to sociological analysis.

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