Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Inadequacy of Sociology Alpha

I want to make Sociology more popular. I wonder how I should do this? One way might be this, to gather up some of the headline findings from Sociology in the past and make slogans of each, each one memorisable and as simple and clear as possible.

Let me try two possible slogans of an issue:

  • Marx says all ideas serve the existing economic interest represented by the ruling class over the working class and uphold the present economic arrangements.
  • Weber says whilst most ideas serve the existing economic interest represented by the ruling class, some ideas might be independent enough to challenge the ideas of the economic system and bring change to the present economic arrangements.

A couple of slogans there that might help the understanding of this end of Sociology, but clearly there is more depth to this. There was a rise of a capitalist class to the feudal class, revolutionary in its time, but for all kinds of complex historical and cultural reasons, so we must go into more depth about the Marxist view of history working itself out. We ought to go into some depth about Weber and his pessimism about rationality and economic bureaucracy, and the disenchantment of society involved that has no way out - at least Marx goes on to have a liberating working class. But then we can criticise Marx's determinism and really a fantasy view of history and then we can criticise Weber's pyramidal view of bureaucracy as challenged by contemporary management studies.

It can go on, this, until we have subtle views of the economy and its sociological dynamics today, probably far from Marx and Weber, getting into complex dynamics of groups and interests and ideologies upholding interests and seeing challenge, but owing something to them as means of getting to where we are today. We might today be talking about consumerism as ideology, advertising, postmodern ideas, absence of overarching narratives, just in time economics, the differences between and yet combinations of managerialism and shareholding, and so on regarding a modern complex economy. We ought to draw from various disciplines to add to all these arguments.

However, let's go back to those initial slogan sentences. They might have instant reach to an unknowing public. So what we'd need perhaps is to spread those around and perhaps invite groups and give them a meal and even end up with them committing themselves to revising and repeating the slogans. I'll call the package the Sociology Alpha Course.

The problem is then calling these slogans the answers. They are not adequate, don't go far enough and do not attend to their own problems.

We'd hope many who might learn such slogans do move on. But we notice something. First of all, they do not, because it suits some people in Sociology power to hide the compexities and keep people in relative ignorance - not to address the problems and new theories too which, for some, come to question Sociology itself as a highly complex and contradictory subject. As the main aim is to bump up the numbers attending, it is seen as better to keep the subject simple and slogan based. Those who parade the complexities are seen as letting the side down - they might inhabit universities and research but keep them out of the classrooms.

One problem is that a set of rules of doing Sociology were set up in the period when the subject had just become established. Then the Marxist and Weberian projects were still open to completion, and the slogans seemed to be once delivered and adequate. So the people who are now more complex lack integrity in relationship to the old rule list of membership. Those who inhabit the complexities can only reply "tough" as regards the rule list: the rules were of their time and place. All sorts of literalists for these rules and textbooks of the time demand that all should obey, as if the world has not moved on. The trouble is that the world has moved on.

Now there is something else disturbing about the Sociology Alpha Course. It's that people who learnt the slogans before keep coming back, and, in addition, some people who were listening and sometimes thinking about a more complex presentation of the subject have given up on it and gone to the happy fellowship and meal of those who inhabit the taught slogans. A great weight is lifted from them as learners and contributors, because the Sociology Alpha Course is easy enough to do and is enough in content contrasted with the uncertain mental effort that existed before that seemed to cover a vast, unending canvas.

After all, with such mental effort, how can one celebrate the subject when you come to lessons every day? Much easier with the slogans, and so it's a case of bash the electric guitar and bang the rhythm and do the song. Peculiarly, the music and poetry that had responded to the slogans when they were not used like slogans, and drawn from the less complex period of thought seems no longer to be enough. What is odder, perhaps, is that the people inhabiting uncertainty with the subject celebrate the subject they do draw from these earlier thought forms in words and music. It's like a division between olde worlde indigenous folk music and the pop music that gets more and more vacuous and repetitive in beat.

Of course we know it is more complex than this, in that some people are perhaps rather stranger still. They place themselves somewhere inside the subject's glory days. They become historians of Sociology, in effect, referring to the vast literature that used to exist and has brought us to where we are - or, usually, a little before where we are, because where we are seems to be such an uncomfortable place. So these folks know the complexities and will even talk about them, but they wallow in something past and something once seeming secure. They go on and on about the Fathers of Sociology and all sorts of saintly researchers: people who broke through decades past. It's a constant tour around the Sociology Intellectual Museum, which is all very informative but little about the complex present. The Sociology Alpha people regard them with some suspicion but always mark them as valid according to the extent that their expressions coincide with the slogans.

Here is a peculiar thing. The people who do develop the sometimes peculiar and bizarre theories of contemporary academic Sociology, including ideas about non-objective postmodern narratives, and hyper-critical approaches to regular and valid research methods (but use them in the critical even potentially self-defeating way that they must), find that they are being raided. One of these types wallowing in the history of the subject has pinched the non-objective fact-fiction postmodern idea. They produce their own narrative fact-like bubble, and, living-in-the-fiction, set out to view the rest of the world from this detached lens. They seem so conservative! And yet they are not! They are complex in their lack of foundationalism, like sawing on the branch they are sat on, but yet they seem like sociologists of old and draw the approval and even admiration of a number who, if they thought beyond their own slogans, or were a little more searching, might realise that all is not as it appears.

How complex and how orthodox is the detail of this historical Sociology, and yet its vast volume of ever closer nuances sits on rice paper.

Meanwhile, as those who go around and around the Sociology Alpha system and as those who escape complexity fall into the bosom of the friends with food seem to show greater numbers, there comes a claim that Sociology Alpha means success. Here is a transformation! This is Sociology because here are the numbers!

This, of course, is rubbish, but then the numbers say they will no longer fund the universities unless the universities support the slogans. Now some with their wallowing in the history of Sociology can seem to fit in, just about, and sometimes put on quite an effort at fitting in. So they might be funded from the classroom admission rolls. But the rest, who have done much research, and yet are critical of methods, who have done the subject in open depth, but realise just how deep some of these issues go, are being told to shut up shop, they they are the enemy of the subject.

The question becomes what the historians of the subject will do. In the end, it turns out that most cannot stand the poverty of the sloganisers. They cannot share their celebrations of the subject either. They would rather not have the classroom money.

It comes down to who distributes the finances of the university endowments. It comes to it whether the sloganisers have enough access to power the old, rusty levers. We already know how they have got into controlling the lower educational system with its tick-box mentality of league tables, so this is a close run thing. In the end, though, the sloganisers are the most impatient and the ones who think they can go it alone and make the running. They often pluck failure out of apparent success.

In choosing separation from the researchers and uncompromising lecturers they make another crucial mistake. They believe their own propaganda. They don't realise to what extent the numbers who stick with the slogans are recycled. They don't realise just how limited is their leadership base. For so long, too many others were also performing as if consistent with the slogans when they knew differently, but when forced to really declare for the slogans it's suddenly not so simple. They canot stand the idea that they must follow the slogans, or (more to the point) the teachers who advance the slogans.

The sloganisers, impatient as they are, infiltrating as they are, in the end break off in order to compete. Suddenly, for them, it's not quite the same, not even getting the limited success as when attached to the greater body. Yes they might attach with some compatible institutions abroad, but for how long? In the end cutting the rope with their historical bodies is the beginning of them drifting away, drifting from actual continuing communities, which is why it took even the impatient ones so long to actually do it. But once they've gone they've gone, drifting off into their own fantasy land of the slogans that mean increasingly little.

Suddenly there is a sense of relief. People start asking: can we please get rid of the league tables and all this nonsense that is called education when it is not? Can Sociology stop being this out of date subject, dumbed down for consumption in some classrooms, and start to develop more widely again. Can we at last revise the rules?

Of course the historical wallowers can continue on in their museums. It is very important to know how a subject came to arrive where it is. They may still be the source of material for celebrations too - there is a real crisis of contemporary celebration material. But let's also discuss where the subject is moving, and try and open up some of the thinking on these lines. Let's stop hiding. Yes, some of those who had been close to the sloganisers but stayed on ship are disturbed, but this was the deal when they decided which way to jump. Clearly there is an institution at play again, but it is no longer displaying the incompatible, restrictive, paradody that passed for Sociology.

Let's be honest. Sociology in this complex world it discusses is not going to be for everyone, but those who do the subject can do so to serve the others - in communities and for communities as it opens out the issues of those communities.

Here is how it might be done for Theology (from back in the 1990s; scanned to image - click each to increase size):

No comments: