R.I.P. Sociology

Sociology RIP

It’s the holidays and I’m feeling nostalgic, thinking about this time 14 years ago when I was just finishing up my first semester at CSU, Chico. I was a 34-year old college junior and a first generation college student. Today I was looking for a beef stew recipe in the Joy of Cooking and I came across a relic of some old school notes for a final exam that first semester I was back in school. On the bottom of the page is a handwritten list of words from the book I had to write about. I was an older, working class student—I wasn’t worrying about fitting in but I knew I didn’t belong. Not because I didn’t have the right clothes and such but because I wasn’t well spoken and I had dodgy manners. The hard part for me was these words, so many unfamiliar, BIG words.

Old Notes

That first semester was tough because I’d been a part-time student off and on for about nine years before I (finally!) got my shit together and transferred. What strikes me most when I look at my list of words is that they mark the beginning of me studying sociology. Sociology is the thing that set me free and gave me agency, showed me who I am and my place in the world and how life worked; I got to peek behind the curtain. I love sociology and I say that with all of my heart. But I’m worried about my discipline; it feels stuffy and very specific, heavy on statistics and light on meaning.

Last week I read this piece by Les Back: “Are we seeing the closing of sociology’s mind?” You can read it at this link, but the main thing he’s talking about—the reason I’m blogging about it here—is because he highlights sociology’s narrowing vision in the age of the “audit culture” so popular in the U.S. and currently invading the U.K. In his essay, Back talks of sociology in crisis at the same time he makes a case for why sociology matters. There is no shortage of moral crises and Back says these events awaken sociology’s public mission. Moreover, troubled events are what sociology is and was made of, whom else but sociologists to make sense and meaning of broad events like war and conflicts over immigration.

Back goes on to discuss the influence of digital media in allowing for an inventive sociology, but the problem he says, is neoliberalism (of course!). Those sociologists interested in “theoretical work, inventive, or collaborative research” need not apply, the audit-centric university he says, want evidence and measurable outcomes. How does one measure an ethnographic video about a student’s search for her Hmong heritage? That is my kind of sociology but it’s the kind of thing that the university suits shrug at. Les Back says, “In simple terms it is easier to evidence a small claim.” So, instead of the big picture, sociology is good for answering small, easily solved problems, things that can be measured and proven, that is what make the suits happy.

I noticed this when I was teaching. My tenured colleagues would send out an email asking us what we had done of value (as sociologists) in the last year, they needed it for a report they were writing for the suits. They asked, had we given any conference presentations, published research, or participated in meaningful professional development activities—mind you, this was asked of a bunch of adjuncts at a community college. The report was thick and possibly meaningless except for the boxes its physical presence allowed to be checked off. Back talks about this, he refers to it as the “metrics of auditing and measuring intellectual value and worth.” Reminds me of another word I learned that first semester: legitimacy.

Can sociology seek institutional legitimacy and stay interesting? Can it be measurable without a “lessening of intellectual diversity within the discipline?” I get why Back is crying Cassandra, while some other disciplines are embracing interdisciplinary pursuits, sociology does seem to be “hardening” its disciplinary boundaries. But I can only wonder and reminisce about those early days when sociology was new to me and not in danger of suffocating itself. I like what Back says though, that sociology works best when it’s combined with other crafts such as computer science and photography, the blending of the theoretical and the applied, now there’s something interesting!

10 thoughts on “R.I.P. Sociology

  1. Sorry about all the big words from Alfred Crosby–they intimidate everyone, not just you. But as you’ve concluded, words are often an important marker of social statuses of various sorts, and therefore an initiation ritual into our club.

  2. Julie- I had to take an incomplete for Population when I was in Tony’s class due to Ecological Imperialism. I hadn’t learned yet to skim and not read every word. I spent weeks dissecting that book, but loved every word of it.

  3. Those big words toughened me up way back when, it was good to read slow and be challenged, I hadn’t been up until then. It’s so fun to come across old schoolwork, I’m still looking for my paper on Crosby and the demographic transition, Tony. That’t the one with the Led Zeppelin comment I loved so much.

    Yeah Marianne, Ecological Imperialism was a toughie, I studied it in ways I never had a school book before and I loved it too. I can see it sitting on my bookcase of old textbooks right now, a fond memory in my nostalgic mind.

  4. Two “really hard” books I use in class are “Ecological Imperialism” by Crosby, and “Imagined Communities” about the emergence of nationalism by Benedict Anderson. These are fantastic books which are rarely used in sociology classes because the authors do not qualify as “sociologists,” or “anthropolgists” for that matter.

    Still, I think that both books are exemplars of the sociological method because they involved cross-national comparisons which permit the author to make generalizations about social processes which are engaging, interesting, and explain the modern world in unexpected ways. Ecological Imperialism explains how Europeans suddenly came to be “found everywhere” only in the last 500 years. “Imagined Communities” explains how the world has organized itself into abstract nation-states for which people are willing to die duringthe last 200 years or so.

    Both authors have a good/bad habit of using really complicated words. In Anderson’s case he makes the assumption that his readers can catch words in about six languages including Indonesian. Part of my classes involve asking students to “read over” such nonsense, or at least not to be intimidated by it. Julie apparently did not completely take in that lesson, which is why all those words are scribbled on her old notes!

  5. Julie,
    Where do you think what you call “sociology” is most likely to be found in academia? Sociology?

  6. Hey Tony, I think it used to be found in interdisciplinary studies (before it was nixed from CSUC and likely other universities), multi-cultural gender studies, and possibly grad level social science programs like I created for myself. I was able to combine psy, soc, and anth in that program, maybe even some micro economics. That is what felt like sociology to me.

  7. It’s odd, but some of the faculty I have the best conversations with are from Comparative Relgion, Anthropology, and Communications. Communications in particular seems to have similar approaches to theory, and methods. Dee also made her film in the context of her degree in Communications/Media Arts. I really wonder if Sociology has something in common with them? To a large degreee, this is the “field” that your article about Marc Thompson’s murder http://synthesisweekly.com/season-homicides-murder-marc-thompson/ was from, even though it had a sociological edge.

  8. I had coffee with my Comparative Religious studies friend the other day, it was marvelous. Same for Anthropology and Comm Studies, they are also “my people.” I used Comm Studies text books when I was teaching Sociology of Mass Media, they were much more sociological in nature than the soc texts, which were overrun with statistics and lacked the edge the other books had. I think you’re right, my piece about Marc is much better suited to Comm Studies/Media Arts, they’re doing creative things with ideas and theory in that field, it’s not just “speech” anymore. Will sociology ever get hip?

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