too much sociology…?

The magazine n+1 recently published an article about the rise and inefficacy of critical sociology. It’s a strange piece which, i think, accords sociology way too much influence. but it does have some salient points, particularly relating to the balance between structure and agency in sociological writing. The editors write:  “In spite of the strenuous attempts by sociologists to preserve some autonomy for the acting subject — Bourdieu’s “habitus,” Latour’s “actor-network” theory — popularization has inevitably resulted in more weight being thrown on the structuring side of things, the network over the actor.” I teach at Lehman College in the Bronx where the majority of students are working class. To put it simply, they are fed up with the overemphasis on structure, they find it deeply tiresome and profoundly disempowering. As one African-American student remarked during a discussion of a piece by WJ Wilson and Loic Wacquant, “I’m sick of reading about how fucked up we are, even if we’re discussing the reasons why things are like this.” Our students know too well the limits of freedom and the structuring power of class and racism and sexism. The overemphasis on structure may be because much scholarly work is addressed to the middle and upper classes and tries in none-too-subtle ways to guilt its readers into caring. (And because of this I don’t think it’s all that surprising that it’s been appropriated by the chattering classes, as the editors allege). It rarely discusses how we might enhance our constrained freedom in concrete and practical ways. In any event, I just wanted to bring this (admittedly scattered) piece to people’s attention. Oh, and Shamus’ work is referenced approvingly.

11 thoughts on “too much sociology…?”

  1. I agree with the point that the basic lesson of highlighting the influence of structure is best suited for the privileged class. Kids who have felt the weight of oppressive structures have learned this lesson already. The kids who need to hear it the most are the ones who were born on third base but think they’ve hit a triple.

    Bus as for the N+1 article, not a fan. We’ve got “too much” influence in the public square? Really? Why? Because David Brooks says the word “sociology” every third column.


    1. agreed. but there’s an important issue here. many of our students — especially in evening classes — are not “kids.” and more generally, the “non-traditional student” — admittedly, a vague and almost meaningless category — is now considered something of the norm. to many students, overly structural critique becomes a kind of functionalism (if that makes sense), a system from which there’s no escape.

      i think one of the piece’s larger arguments is that sociology is bourgeois or that it’s been appropriated in such a way that it might as well be bourgeois. but the claims are so confused and poorly supported and meandering that it’s hard to figure out the point of the whole thing. what i think they’re trying say is that critical sociology has been appropriated (much like new left critique) and that academics have unwittingly colluded in this. not sure at all where this is coming from.


  2. I ignored the culture stuff (though I may try and write a reply). I took offense to the other part of the article (which isn’t free online). It claimed:

    “If no American minority but Jews is as powerful, surely no minority is as smug [as south asians].”


    “crimes are sources of unctuous pride for south asians”

    The editors have been replying to me about it on twitter, claiming it was “inflammatory” but an attempt to discuss south asian elites. My response was that it’s disappoint to see peddling in ethnic stereotypes to inflame, and this was not so much critical engagement as provocation for the sake of attention.

    That’s a longer way of saying I agree with Jenn. It’s linkbait.


  3. So I’m not going to take the link bait to the original article, but I would like to suggest that a healthy dose of social movements research and theory is an antidote to excessive structuralism. Maybe I’ll post my graphical introduction to sociology if I can ever finish this pile of grading. The short version is that structure constrains but does not determine action and collective action can change structure. I think of social movement theory as a theory of collective agency. It’s a multi-actor game so the powerful often win, but this does not mean that agency by the oppressed has no impact.


  4. The N+1 article really is crap, but that doesn’t invalidate the point Shehzad is making: that a core “debunking” claim of standard intro sociology falls on different ears depending on students’ class backgrounds. A working-class student in my class once said sociology was a “downer” discipline because of its emphasis on structure. I don’t know that this calls for a change in content (presumably we ought to teach what we think is true, not what students want to hear), but it’s an important point.


    1. I imagine it all depends on how it is taught. When I was an undergraduate and took my first sociology classes I was nowhere close to being in the middle class. I found the emphasis on structure to be empowering. I have found that to be true with my students, as well (those who are not from privileged backgrounds). Hard to know how to change things if you can’t diagnose what it is that you are up against.


      1. agreed. i’m not taking issue with structural analyses; it’s what we all do. but the claim is about an overemphasis on structure, about beating the same drum over and over again to the exclusion of meaningful discussions of agency. there’s a point at which demystification becomes its own kind of mystification.


    2. on andrew’s comment: i’ve had more than a few people wince slightly when i told them i was a sociologist. i don’t think we should comfort ourselves with the fiction that this is entirely because we’re telling people uncomfortable truths and things they don’t want to hear. part of it has to do with sociologists not being creative enough.


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