Sociology: Italian Demise and German De-Academization and Professionalization?

A while back, Italian sociologist and fellow soc blogger Agnese Vardanega sent me the link to this article by Guido Martinotti on the sad state of Italian sociology (although she is obviously a powerful counter-example of that). The article questions whether the death of Italian sociology is a murder or a suicide. My Italian is not that great  but here is what I could get from the article (Agnese can correct me if I misinterpret it).

One of the points that Martinotti makes is that if a sociologist had fallen into a coma in the 1960s and woke up now, she would not have missed much in terms of intellectual debates in the discipline. He is not referring to specific individuals. As he notes, brilliant sociologists can be found in academic niches. But he identifies the lack of institutional recognition of the discipline as a larger problem. Institutional weakness combined with lack of leadership has produced a discipline without a voice. A final weakness of sociology, not unique to Italy or to sociology, is the uncertain nature of its scientific status.

For Martinotti, based on his own work, the acknowledgment of such weaknesses in European sociology has been the impetus for recognition of the social sciences within European institutions. But, in the case of Italy, a specific problem is that many graduates tend to be methodologically very weak and incapable of designing research protocols. At the same time, the discipline, although the source of much knowledge on the Italian society, is often accused of not delivering. Moreover, in Italy, the only recognizable applications of sociology, opinion polls, have a really bad reputation.

To remedy this, the European Science Foundation (through its Standing Committee for the Social Sciences) has promoted high quality opinion surveys, such as the European Social Survey. But in Italy, the involvement of politics into social scientific research has been pretty disastrous (I am missing some of the context on this).

While I was reading this article, I was wondering whether Italian sociology’s institutional weakness had partly to do with a phenomenon described by Diego Gambetta‘s Code of the Underworld: the prevalence of incompetence and mediocrity as institutional advancement strategy both in academia and in organized criminal organizations:

“The [advancement] system relies on a “credit” market. Positions in the selected committees rotate. The barons serving on the committees in any one competition agree to give some of the jobs to the pupils of those professors who are not on the committees, in the expectation that these professors will reciprocate in the next round.  The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for credits are repaid years later. (..) Professors who have accumulated credit, therefore, even if they have an opportunity to pull the rug from under the feet of their debtors by, say, criticizing their work or that of their protégés, are afraid of doing so, for in future rounds their acolytes would suffer retaliation.

Here is the puzzling fact: many among the barons who wield power in the Italian academic system display not only low academic standards but lower than the average standards of their field in Italy. They have a poor publication record and show little interest in substantive academic discussion or research. (…) Not only do they work less at their research, as tenured scholars may be tempted to do everywhere, but whatever little they do is of shoddy quality. Also, and this is what is most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.


While weakness at research can motivate agents to become more involved in power politics in the first place, it also makes them eminently suitable for it. There is a difference between wanting a position and having the right features to manage it effectively. Being incompetent and displaying conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else.  In a corrupt academic market, being good at, and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for developing one’s career independent of corrupt reciprocity. This makes one feared. In the Italian academic world, the kakistocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts. They and their pupils could not make it by the mere quality of their research.” (43-4)

In contrast, in their article Que savent faire les sociologues que les autres ne savent pas faire? La sociologie professionnelle en Allemagne (Sociologies Pratiques, n0 20/2010, pp. 148-58), Bernhard Mann and Wolfgang Petran argue that German sociologists have had a different approach to counter the idea that sociology does not deliver: professionalization outside of academia through networking, mainly through the Professional Association of German Sociologists (Berufsverbandes der Deutschen Soziologinnen und Soziologen or BDS, whereas the German Sociological Association is more similar to the ASA).

Here again, the authors start with the idea of the dominated status of sociology within the social sciences. The issues are somewhat similar to that mentioned by Martinotti: lack of good communication with the public as to what the specific contribution of sociology is, as well a lack of identification of such contributions as sociological.

The institutional system of universities is different than the Italian system and German sociology can still claim some big names (Habermas) which might help with institutional recognition. At the same time, the BDS has been active in the promotion and application of sociology through consulting, as non-academic profession for sociologists in a variety of fields, as sociology is not limited to one sector of activity but, through its concepts, methodologies and theories, is more a set of portable skills that can be used, well, pretty much in any domain of social life. In this sense, the BDS provides a forum for social networking along with opportunities for specific continuing education so that non-academic sociologists can specialize in specific professional branches (health, social work, criminology) beyond generic sociological training.

Such professional, non-academic and applied sociology stand a good chance of highlighting what sociologists can do in terms of organizational interventions, for instance, and other forms of consulting and can equally contribute, according to the authors, to the processes of social change through increased participation and confrontation with the market.