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Where Are The Sociologists?

April 21, 2012 by and tagged

That is the question asked by Aditya Chakrabortty in this Guardian piece:

“At the start of the banking crisis, the air was thick with the sound of lachrymose economists. How did they miss the biggest crash since 1929? Professors at the LSE were asked that very question by the Queen – and were too tongue-tied to reply. A better answer came from Alan Greenspan, until recently the most powerful economist on the planet, who went to Capitol Hill and confessed to a “flaw” in his model of the world. Clearly, the economic crisis was also a crisis of economics.

With the all-powerful dismal-ists temporarily discredited, an opportunity opened up for the sociologists, the political scientists and the rest to charge in, have their say – and change the way public policy is shaped.”

I would argue that political scientists already have enjoyed media access to express their views and that the ideological consensus is that economics is outside of the realm of democratic governance. There is one way to do it right – the Washington Consensus – and it should therefore left to experts (especially those who can do maths and understand complex models). If you need further explanations for behavior, you can always rely on psychologists for some mixed form of rational action theory and individualistic trends.

Then, Chakrabortty gets snarky with sociology:

“Perhaps you have more faith in the sociologists. Take a peek at the website for the British Sociological Association. Scroll through the press-released research, and you will not come across anything that deals with the banking crash. Instead in April 2010, amid the biggest sociological event in decades, the BSA put out a notice titled: “Older bodybuilders can change young people’s view of the over-60s, research says.”

Or why not do the experiment I tried this weekend: go to three of the main academic journals in sociology, where the most noteworthy research is collected, and search the abstracts for the terms “finance” or “economy” or “markets” since the start of the last decade.

Comb through the results for articles dealing with the financial crisis in even the most tangential sense. I found nine in the American Sociological Review, three in Sociology (“the UK’s premier sociology journal”), and one in the British Journal of Sociology. Look at those numbers, and remember that the BSA has 2,500 members – yet this is the best they could do.

Sociologists are reliably good at analysing the fallout from crises: the recessions, the cuts, the dispossessed, the repossessed. I’d expect them to be in for a busy few years. But on the upstream stuff, the causes of this crisis, they are practically silent. Indeed, leave aside three remarkable books from Karen HoDavid Graeber and Alexandra Ouroussoff, all of whom are anthropologists (and all discussed here previously), and the bigger picture is still in the hands of those formerly shamefaced, but now rather assertive, economists. One promising initiative has just begun on the Open Democracy website called Uneconomics, where non-economists do chip in on the upstream causes of the crisis. But that’s it: a cheap and cheerful internet forum. The Second International it ain’t.”

Now wait a minute. This is shifting the goalposts. you can’t deplore on the one hand the lack of purely academic research on a topic because you expected it, and then, on the other hand, snark that you found no revolutionary writing. Those are two different things.

Also, sociology is obviously not economics or political science. The topics under study are much more far-reaching and diverse. Individuals may be working for specific institutions on specific topics and receive funding based on their conducting research in these sub-fields (such as medical sociology, for instance). It is not up to them to drop everything and get to some “sociology of the crisis”. Institutional realities are simply not like that and do not necessarily permit that kind of flexibility.

And not every sociologist is an economic sociologist.

Then, there is the publication calendar. What gets published now is what was researched years ago and went through the peer-review process, which can take quite a bit of time. I remember, years ago, fresh from my dissertation, discussing with active researchers the fact that one may very well have moved on to a very different research topic when an article gets finally published. That time lag is also outside of the control of the researchers.

It is also quite unfair to completely ignore the extensive, really extensive work done by sociologists on rising inequalities over the past thirty years, something that played a significant part on the impact of the economic collapse on individuals, households and communities. For decades, sociologists have tried to raise awareness and sound the alarm on rising inequalities, but largely in vain. Their warnings were ignored as coming from the usual lefty crowds from protected sinecures in academia, frustrated Marxists trying to generate class warfare. In the dominant ideological discourse, sociologists were easy to dismiss, ignore and marginalize as not really scientific (since they don’t really do hard maths). As such, as a dominated discipline in the field of social sciences, their influence was quite small and their access to the media close to non-existent except for a few individuals, mostly on family issues.

And that is also ignoring how other disciplines such as management may use sociological research on economic and organizations in their own publications.

If Chakrabortty had looked for papers and books on inequalities, poverty, marginalization, etc. (all socio-economic phenomena), he would have found a treasure trove of work to use. Add labor sociology and the body of work would have been quite extensive.

Then, Chakrabortty waxes nostalgic:

“It wasn’t always like this. One way of characterising what has happened in America and Britain over the past three decades is that people at the top have skimmed off increasing amounts of the money made by their corporations and societies. That’s a phenomenon well covered by earlier generations of sociologists, whether it’s Marx with his study of primitive accumulation, or the American C Wright Mills and his classic The Power Elite, or France’s Pierre Bourdieu.

But those sociologists were public academics, unafraid to stray outside their disciplines. Compare that with the picture of today’s teacher in a modern degree-factory, forever churning out publications for their discipline’s top-rated journals. Not much scope there to try out a speculative research project that might not fly, or to collaborate with specialists in other subjects.

Nor is there much encouragement to engage with public life. Because that’s what’s really missing from the other social sciences. When an entire discipline does what the sociologists did at their conference last week and devotes as much time to discussing the holistic massage industry (“using a Foucauldian lens”) as to analysing financiers, they’re never going to challenge the dominance of mainstream economics. And it’s hard to believe they really want to.”

Haha, very funny. Nice jab at sociology of the body. Yes, sir, sociology covers pretty much every topic that you can think of, because that is what the discipline is about. How come he is not snarking on religion? Now, maybe one would consider one sub-field more important than the other, but again, as Chakrabortty himself notes, researchers can’t just drop everything and work on topics he has deemed essential. They are indeed required to continue meeting their research and publication requirements. Blame the institution, not the individuals who have to meet these institutional obligations.

Also blame the institutional demands for more and more specialization so that it is harder to get a Mills or Bourdieu. Their public sociology was made possible by an institutional model that was radically different than what we have today, as well as, in the case of Bourdieu, cohorts of doctoral students and research assistants working on different topics that provided him with new data.

Blame institutional closure when interdisciplinary work is not rewarded within academia, especially at times of dwindling resources (and that trend started even before the recession). If you want to find public sociologists, look to the blogosphere but even there, people tend to blog about their speciality, of course.

And finally, blame an ideological climate and reactionary social movements where sociologists are viewed with suspicion and where the slightest foray into the public sphere is met with accusations of brainwashing students, of bias that invalidate academic perspective and where these groups have successfully manage to limit academic speech. If your job is threatened every time you take a public position based on your expertise, then, very quickly, one will be tempted to retreat to the academic sphere and limit one’s intervention to professional journals and conferences.

The condescending attitude that Chakrabortty adopts here is certainly part of the problem. Pointing and snarking does not really help solve it.

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