it’s time for sociology to lose its way

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the chance to read a pair of articles from totally different subfields that focus on the same theoretical device: loss.

First, from the world of stratification and inequality, Jackson & Grusky argue that we must replace optimistic, progress-assuming theories with ones that foreground the ubiquity of loss:

The starting point for our account is that a staple of the contemporary stratification world is widespread loss and decline. This loss takes many forms. It is experienced by children as a dramatic decline in their chances of achieving a standard of living as high as that of their parents (Chetty et al. 2017). It is experienced by men as a decline in the gender pay gap, occupational segregation, and other types of loss relative to women (e.g., Blau and Kahn 2016). It is experienced by manufacturing workers as a sharp loss in the number of high‐paying union jobs (e.g., Rosenfeld 2010). It is experienced by ‘rustbelt’ families as a loss of employment and earnings to China and other countries (Autor, Dorn and Hanson 2016). The late‐industrial experience is, in short, increasingly one of omnipresent loss and decline. Among workers who continue to do well, it is still likely that they will be exposed to stories of loss in the media or have children, parents, friends, or neighbours who have experienced loss. This omnipresent loss, whether it is experienced directly or indirectly, must be at the front‐and‐centre of any viable theory of late industrialism.

Second, from the intersections of environmental sociology and economic sociology, Rebecca Elliott argues that we ought to attend to climate change through the analytic of the “sociology of loss” rather than that of sustainability:

This article outlines the sociology of loss as a project for sociological engagement with climate change, one that breaks out of environmental sociology as the conventional silo of research and bridges to other subfields. I address four interrelated dimensions of loss that climate change presents: the materiality of loss; the politics of loss; knowledge of loss; and practices of loss. Unlike “sustainability”—the more dominant framing in the social sciences of climate change—the sociology of loss examines what does, will, or must disappear rather than what can or should be sustained. Though the sociology of loss requires a confrontation with the melancholia of suffering people and places, it also speaks to new solidarities and positive transformations.

Both articles are well worth your time. More generally, I wonder if these articles are part of a pattern. Sociologists have long been accused of being focused on social “bads” (see, e.g. Fabio Rojas’ take on sociology as a “grievance discipline“). And yet, while sociologists have focused on social problems, grievances, inequalities, etc., they have often done so through lenses of progress and optimism (from the liberal theory of stratification, to environmental sustainability, to the narrative of racial progress that Louise Seamster and Victor Ray document and critique here). Sociologists have packaged together unhappy empirics with happy theories. What Jackson & Grusky, Elliott, and Seamster & Ray are all pointing to is the need to get past existing teleologies and confront issues of loss head on, to center loss as an empirical phenomenon and a starting point for theorizing. Perhaps it’s time for sociology to lose its way.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

2 thoughts on “it’s time for sociology to lose its way”

  1. This seems to parallel a recent shift among a few economists that technological improvements may not be labor-enhancing (net of lost jobs), to such an extent that it may have exacerbated inequality. That might not sound crazy to a sociologist, but it’s anathema to standard economic theory. NYT article with links to a couple relevant papers from Acemoglu & Restrepo and Autor & Salomons:

    Liked by 1 person

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