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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The history of sociology - as told in the UK

I'm an intermittent reader of Herb Gintis' Amazon book reviews which are interesting because  he ranges right across the social sciences and beyond. I'm not in a position to make terribly informed judgments about his take on a number of subjects -  economics, evolutionary psychology, physics - but in areas closer to my heart he is sometimes spot on and sometimes infuriatingly perverse. On the general state of sociological theory he  can be pretty sharp - ie most of it is waffle little of which can genuinely be called sociological theory - and that some fashionable attempts to remedy that situation, for example agent-based modelling, can't fill the gap (the proponents of it more often than not stand accused of mistaking a methodology  - which is undoubtedly useful - for a theory).
His admiration for Talcott Parsons, at least the early Parsons, is something I find difficult to understand. The Structure of Social Action, led nowhere theoretically - in fact Parsons went off in another direction and into an equally fruitless blind alley - and treated as an account of the genesis of theoretical thinking in sociology - as it often is  (though this is as much the fault of Parsons' readers as of Parsons himself) - it is extremely misleading. The version of Durkheim, Weber, Pareto and Marshall we get from Parsons are really accounts of what they should have  written if they had been able to foresee his  grand synthesis.
One common way in university departments of dealing with the lack of genuine sociological theory but the  need to have a course with the title "sociological theory" is to get somebody to give a course of lectures on the "classics" which in the British context tends to be interpreted as Marx, Weber and Durkheim with perhaps a nod in the direction of demi-gods like Simmel, Tocqueville, Pareto and so forth. It's easy for this sort of thing to become a sort of ersatz history of social thought and when it does it is often tempting to present it as a series of "debates" between the leading protagonists. In as far as these are understood as setting out the actual course of intellectual history - as opposed to a highly selective and post-hoc reconstruction - they are cloth eared misrepresentations.
Marx and Weber did not think of themselves as sociologists and Weber had far more corporeal  partners to debate with than das grosse Gespenst. Weber and Durkheim appear to have had little cognizance or at least little serious interest in each other's work (cf their very different understandings of the sociology of religion). Marx may have been important for the history of social thought in some continental European countries, especially Germany, but his impact on British academic sociological thought - until he was taken up by sixties radicals - was minor. What is especially interesting in the British case is what has been written out of the indigenous tradition. When I took my undergraduate course in "sociological theory" the first lecture was about Nineteenth Century evolutionism (my eternal thanks go to Anthony Smith for giving one of the best set of lectures I ever attended) but who now reads Spencer, Tyler and  Maine? Not many sociologists to be sure - and probably quite rightly - but you can't understand the intellectual origins of sociology in Britain without understanding that some of the roots lie in that relatively stony soil rather than in the apparently richer earth of the Continent on the other side of La Manche.
Stefan Collini does a brilliant job of making this point in his Liberalism and Sociology: L.T. Hobhouse and Political  Argument in England. That Hobhouse should have held the first British  endowed chair in sociology could be considered a bit of a puzzle - though being related by marriage to Beatrice Webb probably did his cause no harm. But Collini makes it clear that in the political context of the time a connection between the New Liberalism espoused, amongst others, by Hobhouse and the type of Fabian "progressive" social thought being explored at the London School of Economics seemed entirely natural. Of course this was, to some degree a marriage of convenience, and didn't last, but nobody in 1906 could foresee that after one more great flourishing Liberalism in its English sense would be dead.
There is a sense in which the first world war destroyed the intellectual foundations of Hobhouse's world - never glad confident morning again. But his influence lived on through his disciple Morris Ginsberg who was still active and influential right up to the early sixties. And their sociological ideas, now long neglected - perhaps the last influence was on Leslie Sklair whose doctoral thesis was published as The Sociology of Progress - are not inherently silly. The question of whether systems of normative ideas have an inherent tendency to develop over time along certain lines and according to a certain logic is capable of empirical investigation. As is the question of whether the normative systems of different societies tend to converge. That the process of investigation was and is  hard - not least because of the Galton problem of cultural diffusion - should not lead us to tell stories about the national origins of our discipline that are little more than the myths of the ignorant.

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