It is quite interesting that, no the heels of my post on the selection of Francois Dubet as my sociologist of the semester, I have just received my copy of Raewyn Connell’s latest book, Confronting Equality: Gender, Knowledge and Global Change, which deals with exactly the topic of my Dubet post: why we need the social sciences, and especially sociology.
Having just read the introduction to Connell’s book (edited version here, thanks, Mark Bahnisch), the convergence with Dubet’s “manifesto” for sociology is striking, especially considering how different their respective trajectories are:
“We have a global social problem. Ecological crisis and injustice can only be solved by social action and institutional change.
Across a broad range of other issues, people grappling with practical dilemmas need to understand large-scale social processes. Women in organizations facing the ‘glass ceiling’, teachers troubled about over-surveillance of their work, activists dealing with domestic violence, knowledge workers grappling with marginality, all are stronger if they have reliable knowledge about how the problems arose and why they are intractable.
We need social science because social processes shape human destinies. If we are to to take control of our future, we need to understand society as much as we need to understand the atmosphere, the earth, and men and women’s bodies.
There are many dubious interpretations of the social world on offer. There is market ideology, where every problem has the same solution – private property and unrestrained markets. There is ‘virtual sociology’ (skewered by Judith Stacey in her recent book Unhitched) where pressure-groups select the research results they like, ignore the ones they don’t, and so present their own prejudices as scientific findings. The most enjoyable pseudoscience is the pop sociology of market research firms: Generation X, Generation Y, the creative class, the mommy track, the metrosexuals, the sensitive new-age guy, the new traditionals, the aspirationals, the sea-changers… The names usually define faintly recognizable types, or at any rate marketing strategies, and the audience in wealthy countries fill in the details for themselves.
Social science is harder. It is slower. Knowledge grows by a collective process of exploration that is complex and uncertain.
Social practices – including labour, care, and struggle – are endlessly bringing new realities into existence. This is easily said, difficult to keep in mind. It is easier to think of the world as composed of things that we bump against like rocks – a family, a bank, a population, capitalism, patriarchy.
But the storm of time keeps blowing: not only destroying what previously appeared solid, but creating and destroying and creating again. (…) Our collective actions, shaped by social structures precipitated from the past, make the social world we are moving into. And this social world is not a performative illusion, it becomes new fact. Social practice is generative, fecund, rich in real consequences.
This is frightening, as many of the consequences are dire. The last hundred years have generated the most intense moments of violence (Kursk, Hiroshima) and the worst famines in human history, as well as the deepening disaster of climate change. Yet, the same century has seen the greatest-ever increase in literacy and the greatest increase in expectations of life. Huge empires have been dismantled; there has been an unprecedented struggle towards gender equality; there is tremendous cultural inventiveness, even in very poor and disrupted communities.” (2-5)
And like Dubet, Connell equally celebrates the empirical and methodologically-diverse nature of the social sciences.
And Connell, again, mirrors Dubet’s argument:
“For some years sociologists have been debating Michael Burawoy’s (2005) idea of ‘public sociology’. In that debate, public sociology figures as a choice for the social scientists (Clawson et al. 2007). I would put the emphasis the other way around: social science is a necessity for the public. In a world where massive social institutions and social structures shape the fate of huge populations, participatory democracy needs powerful and accurate knowledge about society. Only with this knowledge can collective decisions be made that steer our societies on the dangerous grounds of the future.
I am not suggesting that social science can be a political movement. It is a type of intellectual work, nothing more. But nothing less. It is work which produces a kind of knowledge that has become vital. Clarity and depth of understanding on social issues matter more than ever.” (6)
Otherwise, as the old saying goes, societies: γνώθι σαυτόν.
And let’s all make good use of the Durkheimian injunction to explain the social by the social.
Also: read every Connell book you can get your hands on. Seriously.