Something I've been meaning to blog about for a while. The Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty has been putting the boot into sociology for some time. With the cocksure confidence that only a degree in Modern History from Oxford University can produce he pronounces (seeming to share something of the level of scientific insight of the Italian courts): "economics has failed us" and it is up to sociology (political science seems to have got lost on the way) to explain what has gone wrong. He then has a right royal laugh at the flim flam served up at the annual buffoon's convention known as the British Sociological Association conference. It's easy to laugh at what goes on at that dreary affair. Few of any serious standing in the discipline attend or give papers and many of the titles and abstracts do indeed read like submissions to a particularly humourless pseud's corner.
I hold no brief for the type of sociology purveyed by the average BSA conference delegate, often a distressingly earnest postgraduate student fretting about identity politics, body image or reflexive modernity (whatever that is) . What has been surprising to me though is the feebleness of the response by grown up sociologists to the absurd premises of Chakrabortty's assault. It is not self-evident - as Chakrabortty seems to think it is - that economics (as an intellectual discipline) has failed. At least as a non-economist I'm humble enough to acknowledge that though it seems to me unlikely I'm actually not in a position to venture a particularly cogent opinion (as opposed to a rent-a-mouth sound bite). I also don't see any special reasons to expect numerous startling insights into the origins of the financial crisis from sociologists, anthropologists or indeed historians for that matter. Because something is important - as the financial crisis undoubtedly is - it doesn't necessarily mean that sociologists have the requisite intellectual tools to make a serious contribution to elucidating the problems and solutions. Sociologists may contribute a lot of hot air to global warming but we don't expect them to be key intellectual players in climate science. That's not a sign of failure: it's called the intellectual division of labour. Which is not to say that the odd sociologist might not have interesting and important things to say about the matter - we should for heaven's sake keep an open mind. But most of us are doing other things which we don't want to drop, some of which I acknowledge are (in my and apparently Chakrabortty's opinion) silly, while others are intellectually serious and useful - but not about topics which Chakrabortty finds fashionable or of journalistic interest.
Unfortunately those sociologists that have seen fit to comment have fallen into the trap that Chakrabortty either wittingly or unwittingly has laid for them. They appear desperate to demonstrate "relevance" and "impact" and only succeed, to my mind, in making themselves and the discipline look as absurd as Chakrabortty evidently believes it is. Don't take my word for it. You can judge for yourself from the information contained here about a debate to be held today at the University of Lancaster. My prediction for chuckle time is the one that "...argues that the current crisis is the delayed result of the failure of capitalism after the 1970s to make a socio-technical transition away from fossil-fuel technologies". Come on Dr Szerszynski, you need to go much further back in the causal chain. How about the Big Bang?