Dr. Nasar Meer and Dr. Katherine Smith write:
The late Isaiah Berlin once distinguished between two types of political animal: the first was a prickly hedgehog (who views the world through the lens of a single defining idea), and the other a cunning fox (for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea). Sociologists have traditionally aspired to be neither. Motivated less by ‘normative’ positions and arguments, it is with some bemusement that many of us have encountered Aditya Chakrabortty’s recent admonishments.
Like Bill Jordan (see previous blog post), we agree that the study of economics has been found wanting, and that Chakrabortty certainly catches something of a deeper conversation amongst academics, with the important proviso that Chakrabortty’s piece on occasion conflates those who study markets with those who feverishly endorse them. True, economics has in places been stripped of its critical and holist features, but there are political economists who continue, often persuasively, to take a more direct route (see for example David Harvey’s RSA lecture on the financial crisis). We do not wish to intrude on private grief however and so will leave economists to speak for themselves and focus instead on those who have disappointed Chakrabortty most.
A prevailing strand of sociological inquiry in Britain has long sought to make our social world more knowable through a methodology of verstehen; a term employed by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). While this can incorporate quantitative and comparative perspectives, Weber’s task was to ‘empathetically understand’ the ways in which the actions of people and groups in society are inscribed with ‘meaning’. Through the study of this meaning, he maintained, we could observe intentional or unintentional social outcomes, as shown in his study of early capitalism in Northern Europe, and specifically the role of a Calvinist-Protestant work ethic in encouraging capital accumulation and investment.
Much has changed in sociology, and we have past many ‘post-’s, but these approaches remain familiar to students and teachers of the discipline whose research spans the seemingly banal to the most contested; the most intimate to the most innocuous topics. That is to say that there is perhaps a consensus that whatever else sociological inquiry resembles, it must necessarily be motivated by a concern with something greater than political debate. It is here that Chakrabortty’s lament that a ‘Focauladian lens’ or studying ‘the holistic massage industry’ is a distraction from what really matters comes up short; not least because he repeats the error he is critiquing by giving primacy to all that is seemingly ‘economic’. Another way of putting this is to say that economics is not the only sphere of the social world and, to reverse the problem, it is short-sighted to uncouple economics from the study of culture, gender, ethnicity, and so forth, and so miss the intersectionalities of social phenomena.
This means it is not for sociologists to ‘defeat’ economists but to engage in sociologically valid inquiry that incorporates more than economics. This does not mean ignoring the economic crisis rather to take it in the round. Hence the core theme of the 2010 British Sociological Conference (BSA) was ‘Inequalities and Social Justice’, while ‘Sociology in the Age of Austerity’ was the core theme for our 2012 meeting. Each of these showcased important arguments that are yet to find their way into press, partly because the rigours of peer-review can entail a lag of around eighteen months between article submission and publication (we have elsewhere discussed what the implications of increased auditing of scholarship might entail) http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=419128. Nonetheless, there is a diverse range of sociological scholarship on the economic crisis that offers more than the sum of its parts and so deals with the big questions too http://tinyurl.com/6wy6jrb
In many ways Chakrabortty’s concern strikes at the heart of what has been debated widely – indeed on the pages of the journals he says ignore the economic crisis – as Public Sociology. An important point here is that there is more than one ‘public’. So when sociologists engage in the mass media, as is easily observed in the mediatised letters and campaigns against the NHS and Social Care Bill or the hike in tuition fees, Michael Gove’s ‘free’ schools, or the Government’s targeting of the most vulnerable, this is just one kind of public. Sociologists also engage with other ‘publics’, many of which may be less visible to journalists such as local communities, prisons, virtual communities, and students (of various kinds, both inside and outside universities), as well as conventional academic publics. These too are sociological terrains of political economy.
It may be easy for Chakrabortty to dismiss a few (purposively selected) niche research topics as irrelevant but it is equally important to ensure that those with a public voice do not presume to know what is, and what is not, of interest to different kinds of publics. In the context of the economic crisis and its fall out, debates that take place between broadsheet commentators, academics and policymakers are just one kind of conversation (and, if we are honest, a rather elite and limited kind).
*Dr. Nasar Meer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Northumbria University www.nasarmeer.com, and author of The impact of European Equality Directives upon British Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Policy & Politics, 38(2). Dr. Katherine Smith is a Lecturer in the Global Public Health Unit at Edinburgh University http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_policy/katherine_smith