The Sociology We Want?
Sociologists want change. Sociologists are against inequalities, against boundaries and full of sympathy for those social movements that struggle “for a better world”. In practice, they are the champions for the poor and the weak, and, in theory, sociologists often claim to take the point of view of the marginalized and oppressed, such as a gender view or the view from the South. When we outlined the topic of the 2013 meeting of the European Sociological Association (ESA) under the heading of “Crisis & Critique”, the committee demanded the addition “and Change”; and when recently we decided the ESA 2017 conference topic, the new committee demanded the inclusion of “solidarities” into the proposed title of “(Un)Making Europe: Capitalism, Solidarities, Subjectivities”.
The Sociology We Claim
It is obvious that the bulk of sociologists and the average sociologist clearly want to consider and build sociology as a kind of public good. It has been neither “career” nor the “Hirsch-index” that attracted young minds to the discipline but the prospects and their will to conduct a meaningful life that includes commitment for others. I do not think that “hard” sociology on the big screen, as produced by publishing houses, SSCI journals and the hierarchic pyramid worlds of national sociologies, goes hand in hand with that. On the contrary, “soft” sociology, as offered by all paper presentation meetings for the 99% (of sociology), such as at world congresses of the International Sociological Association, always seems to attract critically minded and socially committed scholars (see program & abstracts). The sociology we claim should be non-exclusive, open to everybody and, at least in principle, it should be also relevant and supportive for all. Thinking that matters. Possibly produced in the ivory tower but finally embedded in society. It should offer particular or technical results, universal or theoretical knowledge, whatever, but knowledge that is either relevant for policy, politicians and administrators or the public sphere, social movements and agents for change toward a better world. Men make history, and next time, thanks to sociology, we hope, with a better plan!
The Sociology We Do
Of course, it is not this easy. Sociologists know very well about all obstacles to it. Since its origin in the 19th century in opposition to other disciplines such as history and philosophy, it is even one of the basics of the sociological mode of thought to consider the production of knowledge being subjected to the restraints of history, that is “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. Instead of returning to Marx’s 18th Brumaire, we can also take the same from Pierre Bourdieu’s more recent emphasis that our capacity to perceive reality has to be understood as being socially constructed (habitus). It strikes me that sociology, although it is always prepared to analyse context, seems to neglect the latter when we consider one of its basic background objectives as outlined above. I will therefore try to apply a kind of Foucauldian look not so much at the beliefs and hopes and content of what we say but to the “external conditions” of our knowledge production and their consequences for our thought.
I will leave aside other forces that harm the discipline, such as fragmentation, the language divide and all forms of paywalls that prevent “open” access to scientific knowledge but focus just on the following two new “diseases”, (i) Austeritis and (ii) Evaluitis.
(i) The worldwide cutting of resources fosters the need to apply for them. It is obvious that researchers who apply for funding are under an enormous pressure to outline project proposals that fit into a research design that more or less stems from the natural sciences, that is, they need a “method” and offer a “test” to any self-chosen small part of reality.
(ii) Since the logic of the “entrepreneurial university” has been introduced to the field of universities in many countries, many of them are victims of the externally steered numeric “research assessment”. It is no longer a circle of peers that determines the relevance of the research questions. It is the assessment scheme that makes us searching for a narrow but beautiful specialization, for instance, a specific part of one out of several dozens of subfields of the discipline. It is the assessment scheme that motivates us to modify just one of our previously tested variables for preparing a quick and promising next paper etc.
Austeritis and Evaluitis do not only foster the replacement of content-driven reflections of broadly educated scholars by externally stipulated, funding-oriented academic self-entrepreneurs. In my view, the conditions of our discourse are even worse. They affect the heart of the discipline. In a hidden alliance with the neoliberal power-shift from welfare institutions to individual responsibility, Foucault’s neoliberal governmentality, they support the fracture of previously basic sociological categories, such as collective institutions, groups and “the social”, by motivating methods and specialization that let us focus on choices, taste, agents, differences and identities, agents ex nihilo that also underlie the microeconomic understanding of the Great Recession and its consequences and finally fuel the political ontology of a Hobbesian war of all against all.
In stark contrast to the widely enthusiastic motivation and commitment for a better world of all those thousands of scholars coming together for a sociological conference such as the ISA Forum, because of sociological reasons the “circumstances existing already” under which we pursue our research are currently much less promising. None the less, even that is a good reason for discussing the “Futures we want”.
Prof. Frank Welz teaches sociology and social theory at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Currently he presides the European Sociological Association (europeansociology.org). His strategic aim is to increase thinking about and slightly to improve the conditions of and for sociology as a public good.
Banner Image: Protest for Education (Bildungsprotest) in front of the University of Innsbruck’s Social- and Economic-Scientific Institute in Austria (Photo courtesy of Magdalena Fink, 2009).
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