A call to arms
Why, during a period of transformative social change, is sociology not back at the forefront of intellectual life and public debate?
Anthony Giddens. November 26, 2006.
All you sociologists out there! All you ex-students of sociology! All of you (if there are such people) who are simply interested in sociology and its future! I'd like to hear from you. We live in a world of extraordinary change, in everyday life, family relationships, politics, communications and in global society. We are witnessing, among other things, a return of the gods, as religion re-emerges as a major force in our societies, locally and on a worldwide level.
All grist to the sociological mill, one would have thought. Sociology was born at a period of transformative social change, during the early part of the 19th century. It was a time of the "three great revolutions" - secular political revolution, the industrial revolution, and the emergence of a predominantly urban society, replacing a predominantly rural one. It would be very difficult to say whether developments today are as far-reaching as those of 150 years ago. But we can probably all agree that this is a time of very large-scale change, for the first time happening on a truly worldwide level.
My question is: in such circumstances, why isn't sociology again right at the forefront of intellectual life and public debate? In universities, sociology used to be much more popular than psychology; today it is the other way around. Media studies is as, or more, popular than sociology in universities where it is taught. No one doubts the importance of the media in the contemporary world, but they are only one part of a much more complex set of social institutions that it is the object of sociology to study.
A possible response might be to doubt the diagnosis. Perhaps it is a mistake to think that sociology isn't in the intellectual forefront any longer. Take the debate about globalisation, a debate which is an example of itself, because it is going on all over the world. Haven't sociologists contributed significantly to this discussion? Indeed they have, but it has been driven far more by economists - such as Joseph Stiglitz - or those in the field of international relations. What about the impact of the communications revolution? Sociologists - notably the Spanish author, Manuel Castells, have written important works on the issue. But I don't believe sociology has been the main source of contributions to the field.
One reason why sociology has disappeared from public view might simply be that it has become dismembered into a multiplicity of specialisms - media studies, gender studies, industrial sociology, political sociology, and so forth. I think there is something in this explanation. Specialism is the order of the day in most areas of intellectual endeavour, in the natural as well as the social sciences. But it is certainly not the whole answer. Specialism invites synthesis. Why aren't sociologists producing just that? There are massive changes going on in world society, and a whole range of social problems we face as a consequence. Sociology in the past has always sought to connect social diagnosis with problem-solving, and it should be no different today.
So what are the reasons for sociology's decline? I would suggest two main ones. First, sociology's star was dimmed by the rise of market-based philosophies from the early 1980s onwards. As a phase of government, market fundamentalism lasted some twenty years - roughly the period covered by the Reagan and Thatcher governments. Its overall influence lasted longer, since more sophisticated versions of it continue to guide international organisations, especially the IMF and World Bank, down to very recent times. If markets settle most aspects of social life, including social justice, the scope of social factors - the prime province of sociology - is correspondingly reduced. The economic, as it were, predominates heavily over the social.
A second reason I would single out is the impotence many people feel in the face of the future. There are no longer utopian projects that would supply a source of direction for social reform and a source of motivating ideas. I'm not saying that sociology was ever itself a form of utopianism. But sociological thinking, born of the political and economic revolutions of the 19th century, certainly was regularly stimulated by an engagement with those who wanted to change the world for the better. It is not surprising in these terms that psychology - which deals with enduring aspects of the human condition - has overtaken sociology in terms of popularity among students.
What is the remedy - given that one is necessary, as I definitely believe it is? Well, in some part the world is moving in a propitious way for a recovery of the sociological imagination. Market fundamentalism is disappearing from the scene. The stage is set for a return to the social. After all, even the IMF these days gives social and political factors a significant place in development processes - and Mrs Thatcher is long gone.
I'd like to ask you, my readers, for responses. The answer for me is a return to the style of thinking that originally drove the sociological enterprise. A little bit more utopian thinking might help too - well, why not? Politics in some ways has become deadly dull. We need more positive ideals in the world, but not empty ones - rather, they should be ideals that link to realistic possibilities of change. Most of all, though, we need to confront the big problems that face us, and provide a field of debate for helping us understand them better. Globalisation itself is far more than just an economic phenomenon. It's a set of processes that increasingly links our personal lives, even intimate aspects of them, to global events - the controversy over the Islamic headscarf is just such an example. Why is religion seemingly again so influential in the world today? What accounts for the resurgence of ethnical conflicts in so many countries? Is the family dying or not? These are quintessentially sociological questions. Let's get to work to answer them.