Hedgehogs, Foxes and Sociologists*

Dr. Katherine Smith                        Dr. Nasar Meer


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

6 Responses to “Hedgehogs, Foxes and Sociologists*”

  1. 1 Tom Wengraf May 16, 2012 at 9:53 am

    As usual, I have sympathy with most parties in most disputes.

    1.To “engage in sociologically valid inquiry that incorporates more than economics” (or even political economy) seems right for sociology. On the other hand, many sociologists in their research often do not incorporate “more than” economics, they don’t incorporate any economics at all. This is not to be right, but to be as one-sided as most economics is one-sided.

    2. Given the nature of the contemporary world, it may not just be “easy” to dismiss some “selected niche topics” as irrelevant (and this is as true for mathemetised economics as for sociology), it might even be “right” to dismiss some research topics as being irrelevant (or of at least less or minimal concern) compared to other topics. Indeed, if one has any values at all (see Max Weber), then one can’t and shouldn’t avoid doing so. [One does this implicitly, whether or not one does this explicitly or not, or knows one is doing it or not. Max Weber again].

    3. To “not presume to know what is, and what is not, of interest to different kinds of publics” is a good thing. However, to find out (empirically) what is of interest (a good thing) to various kind of publics and then to have one’s own set of values (and declare one’s value-position and valuations) about all that is also a good thing.

    Many happy dialectics of the day, despite the meaning-laden causes and effects of manmade global warming and intensifying planetary and species destruction (I must remember to identify my personal public concerns next time!).


  2. 2 David Byrne May 16, 2012 at 10:30 am

    I agree that Chakraborrty’s comments were very selective and completely sympathize with the view that debate beyond the magic charmed circle of a Westminster centred elite matters, but I do think that UK Sociology has been weak in an area which matters a great deal in relation to the crisis. In other words we have not done the important work that needs doing on the actual lived experience of class in a post-industrial society which is now in a state of crisis. There are exceptions although almost all have focused on groups which are at the bottom or otherwise marginalized, partly because funding has been directed at them as ‘social problems’ and party because of a kind of journalistic voyeurism e.g. Chavs (which is not that bad but is very limited). The kind of wider exploration of lived experience which characterised the better 60s community studies is singularly lacking. Of course those studies, almost or maybe entirely deliberately, did not make class the central frame of their account but the nature of sociological inquiry was such that they could not ignore it. If we conceive of class in any kind of marxist or even Weberian sense, then the great majority of people are of course working class even if no longer industrial working class. How do they live? How do they articulate their lives? What is their condition – after Engels perhaps? Where is the missing middle mass in our work?

    Political economy matters and its complete marginalization from sterile and utterly inadequate neo-classical formalism is now coming back to bite Economics as a UK discipline very hard in the bum, but so does the actual account of how people live because that is the source of agency beyond structures.

  3. 3 Tom Wengraf May 16, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Agreeing with David, but wanting to stress that sociologists havnot systematically connfronted the lives, lived experience, and practices of the power elites at local planetary and intervening levels. A radical US sociologist whose name I can’t remember said — sometime after CW Mills’ ‘The Power Elite’ — that the eyes of the sociologists are on the down people and their hands are lifted to get their money from the up-people.

    Even if we raise our yes to the middle people — which is where most sociologists are — the realities of practical societal power will remain not studied by sociologists. The difficulties of studying up-people if you are not an up-person yourself are extreme, but sociologists and their funding sources are — understandably — shy of causing trouble for themselves by even thinking of studying the increasingly powerful and increasingly destructive up-people. Where is even a description of the interlocking elites and the revolving doors between people profiting by switching and exploiting ‘state’ and ‘the private sector’ in the elite of ‘mass privatisation’ (read stealing) of public proiperty? I rely on ‘Private Eye’ which documents realities that most sociologists don’t even indicate as existing, sociologically that is.

  4. 4 Sasha Roseneil May 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    @Tom: have a look at Shamus Khan’s recent book Privilege, and follow his forthcoming work on US elites… But, otherwise, agreed that sociologists have really neglected this…

  5. 6 mel bartley May 18, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    To my mind, the ‘dissident’ school of economics that takes into account the importance of elites and corruption is vital. These commentators do not throw out the commitment of economics to empiricism and rigorous thinking, but just widen the scope of what social science needs to be looking at. Their answer to the failure of economics to predict or explain the current crisis it to say: there are central phenomena that have not been taken into account.

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