In the October issue of Teaching Sociology, Steven Buechler has an interesting article on the nature of critical thinking in sociology and its impact of the teaching of sociology, especially at the undergraduate level. It is a very clear article on what we mean by "critical" at several levels and offers an alternative conceptualization of sociological approaches that, he thinks, is more fruitful than the usual Holy Trinity that we find in the major textbooks (Structural-functionalist, Social Conflict, Symbolic Interactionism). It is a remarkably clear article that deserves wide distribution.
Critical thinking is, as we all know, the buzz word of academia. We all claim to be teaching our students to be critical thinkers. As Buechler notes, there is a whole "critical thinking" industry dedicated to this. But there are problems with the way critical thinking tends to be conceptualized:
"It presents critical thinking as a decontextualized, generic skill applicable to virtually any issue. As important as such a skill may be, this is a truncated version of critique that reduces it to a free-floating technique." (318)
In this sense, critical thinking becomes akin to a form of instrumental rationality: a means to unspecified goals. This is where the sociological contribution comes in, according to Buechler:
"By anchoring the notion of critique in the discipline of sociology, it becomes possible to move from a broad but shallow conception of critical thinking as a technique to a narrower but deeper understanding of critical sociology as a discipline." (319)
To outline what critical sociology as a discipline might look like and how it would fit in the overall sociological field, Buechler uses the typology Michael Burawoy designed in his advocacy of public sociology. Burawoy conceptualized four types of sociology based on two criteria: the type of audience reached (academic versus non-academic) and the type of knowledge produced by sociological discourse (instrumental versus reflexive). This typology is summarized in the table below.
|TYPE OF KNOWLEDGE||Academic||Non-Academic|
|Instrumental||Professional Sociology||Political Sociology|
|Reflexive||Critical Sociology||Public Sociology|
Burawoy, of course, pushed for the promotion of public sociology during his tenure as President of the American Sociological Association. He is not hostile to critical sociology but sees its audience (academic) as a limitation.
Buechler considers that the audience for critical sociology should go beyond academia. In diverging from Burawoy’s typology, Buechler outlines three ways in which critique is th essence of sociology:
The sociological perspective is critical to our ability to define, analyze, and respond to pressing social issues and problems.
"In a world of increasing complexity and risk, the holistic approach of sociology is increasingly critical if we are to understand clearly, decide rationally and act wisely. It is simply the best angle of vision we have to capture life’s complexity, interpret its history, anticipate its future, and guide reasoned action." (319) [My emphasis]
Thinking sociologically is thinking critically. Period. Everything we know and take for granted comes under systematic scrutiny. "That’s the way things are and have always been" is always the wrong answer in sociology. Any type of social configuration has a history and causes, and we can usually trace them back to power dynamics and social struggles for certain social benefits. Sociologists pull back the curtain to examine the underlying mechanisms that produce social arrangements (whether it’s the health care system, gender roles or the rise and spread of global imaginaries) and reveal the hidden interests, not just how the different pieces fit together. In this sense, "critical sociology" is redundant… ain’t no sociology without the critiquin’ part.
There is a type of sociology that deliberately explicitly critical based on its underlying values of equality and justice.
"This sociology examines how social structures create relations of domination between social groups. It is committed to exposing and undermining their operation. This type of sociology is dedicated to progressive social change." (319)
Buechler then goes on to list the basic principles of sociology that relate to its critical nature. This should be first day lecture in an introduction to sociology course.
- Society is a social construction
"Social order is not God-given, biologically determined, or naturally predestined. (…) Society is a human product. Society may arise from goal-driven actions, but the resulting institutions take on a life of their own. They appear to exist independently of the people who create and sustain them. They are experienced by people as a powerful external force that weighs down on them." (320)
This is reminiscent, of course, of Durkheim’s ideas of social facts and society as reality sui generis. But what is important to understand in this respect is the dual nature of society: a product of subjective actions based on social actors’ intentions and an objective reality (social facts) that persists over time and shapes people’s intentions and actions.
- Society is an emergent reality
"Sociology examines social ties and emergent processes rather than individual elements. Emergentism recognizes that important social facts (Durkheim 1895) only appear when individual elements are combined in particular ways to create qualitatively new realities. (…) The parts derive their meaning from their relationship with other parts, and the sociological perspective is fundamentally attuned to such relationships." (320)
- Society is an historical product
This one is easy and goes back to Mills’s definition of the sociological imagination: we need to examine the history of social arrangements if we wish to understand their current structure and also engage in comparative analysis and understand mechanisms of social change.
- Society consists of social structures
"Consider how physical structures like buildings shape our action. (…) Social structures are less visible and more flexible than buildings, but they also channel people’s actions because they make some actions routine and expected, others possible but unlikely, and still others all but impossible." (321)
Here again, as mentioned above, social structures may have originated in purposeful actions by groups, but they gain a life of their own and a constraining objectivity that shape social action. Social structures also allow us to not reinvent the wheel at every generation.
- Society consists of reflexive actors
"People in society are aware of themselves, of others, and of their relationships with others. As reflexive actors, we monitor our action and its effects on others. We continue, modify or halt actions depending on whether they are achieving their intended effects." (321)
This is part of the whole Cooley / Mead / Goffman (dramaturgy) school of sociological analysis.
- Society is an interaction of agency and structure
Society is ultimately the product of the interaction between reflexive actors (with subjective intentions) and social structures (with objective and constraining existence). These dynamic interactions shape society.
- Society has multiple levels
Sociological analysis traditionally distinguishes between the macro-level (the big picture, the view from above) where attention is paid to large societal structures, institutions and large-scale patterns, and micro-level (the view from within) where more analytical attention is paid to actors and their interactions, small-group settings and how actors perform their social roles. Of course, such a division is analytical and sociological analysis constantly makes the link between macro and micro. The different levels are interdependent.
- Society involves unintended consequences
This one refers to the idea that actors engage in actions for their own reasons, and expect certain consequences for such actions. However, intended consequences are not the only type of consequences. Because we always act within a given set of social constraints that we do not control, some of the consequences of our actions are outside of our control as well. This also goes to Merton’s idea of manifest versus latent consequences. The role of sociological analysis, and a critical dimension of it too, is to pay attention to both types and not be content with manifest functions or intended consequences, but to dig up the latent ones as well.
Based on these essential characteristics of society, the critical outlook of sociology is both implicit in that sociological analysis – mainstream sociology as Buechler refers to it – strives to unpack and highlight the social and historical dimensions of social arrangements rather than take them for granted, this is part of what Peter Berger calls the "debunking" aspect of sociology: pull back the curtain to reveal the mechanisms at work in any social phenomenon.
But sociology also has schools of thought and analysis that are explicitly critical, that is, focused more specifically on unveiling the mechanisms of power, domination and privilege that pervades the social structure. This is critical sociology (hence the difference with Burawoy’s typology). Critical sociology is explicitly committed to the elimination of social mechanisms that produce inequalities in economic, social and political circumstances and opportunities in the name of social justice. From this perspective, oppression and domination are detrimental to a harmonious society and should be fought against.
Where mainstream sociology holds onto scientific detachment, critical sociology steps into the activist sphere to promote and effect progressive social change. Here again, each approach needs the other, mainstream sociology needs the humanization brought about by critical sociology whereas critical sociology needs the analytical rigor of mainstream sociology.
Based on this, Buechler proposes to replace the tradition triade of sociological approach usually taught in undergraduate courses (structural-functionalism, social conflict and symbolic interactionism) with a different triade:
Scientific sociology (from Comte, to Durkheim, to Parsons, to the conflict side of scientific sociology with Collins and Dahrendorf, to the rational approach of Blau or Granovetter… all unified by a commitment to the strictest scientific standards… translation: lots of maths and stats)
Humanistic sociology (where the founding father is Max Weber down to symbolic interactionism and other interpretive approaches, such as Alfred Schutz’s phenomenological sociology) where the focus is on intersubjective dynamics.
Critical sociology (Marx, of course, but also the more contemporary approaches of the Frankfurt school, Habermas, feminist sociology and Foucault) with a focus on mechanisms of domination. And here is a quote just because I am such a Foucault fan:
"Foucault’s studies of modern psychiatry, medicine and corrections reveal how each claimed to be more humane than its predecessors but nonetheless created new forms of domination. This domination derived from new discourses about madness, disease or deviance. While couched in the language of scientific objectivity, these discourses created new power relations between privileged experts and dependent clients, patients, and prisoners. Foucault (1980) speaks of "power/knowledge" to suggest that every quest for knowledge is shaped by power and that new knowledge systems routinely reinvent domination." (327)
I love this typology even though there are some glaring omissions, especially on the contemporary side (Bourdieu, Bauman, that is, theorists who tried to provide "social theories of everything" or at least create conceptual links between the different levels and approaches, such as Saskia Sassen or Richard Sennett). That being said, this is a great article.