Sunday, 22 June 2014

How sociology was destroyed in the 1980s

I have had some interesting twitter exchange about why sociology has split into the 'qual' and 'quant' camps, and also lost a lot of its theoretical strengths. I do have a theory about this but no idea if anyone else agrees, or even remember that long ago.

My memory of the 1980s is that people I knew who were sophisticated social theorists felt themselves to be under attack. The writings of Durkheim on the importance of social solidarity, and of Marx on how economy and society are related, became increasingly criticised. These ideas, at least in the version my colleagues taught them, were not obscure or hard to understand if well described. They were highly relevant to helping students and other understand the world they were living in. But somehow we got pressurized into teaching more obscure versions such as Althusser and Foucault. The other side of that deal was that we no longer had to be able to test the ideas empirically so the skills of data analysis atrophied. Everything then became more and more a matter of opinion or debate (but debate with astonishingly little demand for scholarship such as actually knowing what was happening in society). I believe this was called 'post-modernism'. Then there was the rejection of 'grand theory', so we all lost the idea that sociology could try to explain anything at all.

I should say here that I never actually managed to get a teaching job as a sociologist, and went from being a printworker, to a computing assistant, to being a kind of epidemiology researcher. So none of this actually happened to me and I am reliant on other people's accounts. But in the middle of all this I did a PhD on the sociology of science and technology and witnessed one of the most exciting new social theories, Actor-Network Theory, being totally crucified by American Big-Science interests. I mention this partly so that people don't just think  am a 'quantophrenic' or whatever Robert Dingwall might fear! My dismay is not about the disappearance of statistics but about the decline of the kind of scholarship that brings theory together with data, quantitative or qualitative. And weakness in theory is just as important here as weakness in methods.

And to return to the beginning, my guess is that this all began in the 1980s attack on sociology which produced a kind of stand-off in which sociologists (implicitly) promised not to say anything important in return for getting away with being obscure and vague. That original generation realized what was happening but felt powerless to change it. Problem is that their students really don't know any different.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are pretty much on the button Mel. I'd date it a little earlier - mid 70s is when Althusser & co really got traction in the UK but the diagnosis is spot on. Another ingredient was the "no enemies to the left" idea that eventually destroyed institutes like the Race Relations unit at Warwick. Left leaning liberals who believed that empirics actually mattered were just politically out manoeuvred by the activists who succeeded in branding them as at best dinosaurs and at worst crypto fascists. Look what happened to John Rex. The History Man isn't satire, it's a pretty accurate portrait of the times!