A pre-packaged discussion for further discussion (version 2)

Posted on by Stephen Mennell

In the middle of July, Ruud Stokvis sent me a review of The Sociology of Norbert Elias, edited Steven Loyal and Stephen Quilley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), which will appear in the next issue of Figurations. In it, he drew attention to a remark in the book by Richard Kilminster, and this triggered off a little private discussion by e-mail between several of us. In the end, we found ourselves discussing national differences in the style and the organisation of sociology as a discipline, and we have decided to send the exchange to Elias-I because others may like to join in, perhaps offering viewpoints from countries other than the Netherlands and the UK.

Richard Kilminster [in ‘From distance to detachment: knowledge and self-knowledge in Elias’s theory of involvement and detachment’, in The Sociology of Norbert Elias, p. 38]:

The younger practitioners in sociology will probably experience their relations with others, inside and outside their institutional, professional and sociological relations, in way that make the methodological imperative of greater detachment and suspension of value-judgements, pursued rigorously and in its pure form alone, seem simply inflexible and even authoritarian. On the other hand, sociologists still wedded exclusively to the greater detachment, fantasy-control, ideology-banishing model of scientific activity will find the contemporary kinds of sociological activities and preferences . decidedly disconcerting. To them, those research trends and attitudes will seem strange, unrigorous and uncontrolled, constituting a dangerous blurring of the much-fought-for clear boundary between scientific knowledge and personal and lay experience. This boundary was always previously policed by a more predominantly repressive, prohibiting superego, the character of which, and its relationship to other psychic functions, have now arguably been transformed as social dividing lines have opened up .

Richard went on to ask how these perspectives could be reconciled, and concluded that they could: “embracing a higher level of more differentiated self-control, [sociologists of contemporary sensibility] may be better able than earlier generations of sociologists to live with this seeming incongruity.”

Ruud Stokvis 14 July 2004 [in his book review]:

One of [Richard Kilminster’s] concluding remarks really surprised me. That is his suggestion of the emergence of a kind of ‘controlled decontrolling of social controls’ [R.S.] in the standards of detachment of younger sociologists, that would disconcert older sociologists, who cling more inflexible to standards of detachment. In my experience most young sociologists cling more firmly to standards of detachment than ever. That is the reason they turn away from qualitative studies of long-term processes and prefer the strict measurement of variables connected with ahistorically formulated problems, often phrased in terms of rational action theory.

Stephen Mennell 15 July 2004:

I was thinking overnight about what you said in your review about being surprised at Richard’s assertion that younger generations of sociologists were less concerned with being “detached”, and that that wasn’t true in the Netherlands.

I think it is probably a real international contrast. I agree about the scientism and the irritating upsurge of Groningen rational choice at the expense of good old Amsterdam figurationism. I think scientism was also strong in Ireland when I arrived, but is declining. The reason for that, I think, is a peculiarity of the dominance of the Catholic Church here until quite recently – it was a bit like the Soviet Union, in that it combined theoretical functionalism with number-crunching survey research, neither of them likely to pose a threat to the ideological hegemon.

But the UK is different. John Goldthorpe draws a distinction between “the sociology of the departments” and the “sociology of the research institutes” (himself strongly favouring the latter). The research institutes, few in number but including his own Nuffield College, have close links with many European and American centres, where number-crunching, mathematical modelling and rational choice are dominant. In contrast, during the generation immediately after mine – perhaps indeed including many people of my own age – the Departments of Sociology in most British universities seem to have succumbed to the dreaded “social theory”, as Lord Giddens and his acolytes call it. The result – and I think Richard is right about this – is what Elias (at least in conversation) called “philosophoidal” sociology, with a high ratio of speculative conceptualising to sound empirical evidence.

The actual developmental process by which this situation developed is, of course, fairly complicated. It certainly owes something to the spirit of 1968, which seemed naturally to lead to the solipsism of phenomenology and ethnomethodology; and in line with that, the Marxism of 1968 soon degenerated into the Zen-Marxism of Althusser and then into the philosophical idealism of Foucault, poststructuralism and postmodernism. All these were soaked up by His Lordship, whom Herminio Martins once described as “the ventriloquist of the Zeitgeist”. Whoever is to blame (and we may follow another Lord, Lord Butler of yesterday’s report, in deciding that it was a “collective decision”, so no individuals are to blame), the result is that the state of British sociology is, as Norbert Elias said just before he died, “lamentable”. Richard Kilminster has written about these things in much more detail.

Ruud Stokvis 19 July 2004:

This difference between nations in directions in sociology is indeed strange. In relation to your last remark I think that the general currents of thought in most developed countries are more or less the same, social science and its related fields are very internationalised. The difference is in the organisation of the social science and humanities faculties in the different countries. This way of organisation determines the situation and experiences for each individual sociologist, including you and me. With us, I think most of the social science that is inspired by French and German philosophers is contained in the humanities departments as “cultural studies”, partly overlapping with branches of communication science. They have a scientific circuit of their own, that is largely separated from the Dutch sociology departments that are part of the social science faculties. It is fascinating. I will discuss it with some colleagues, and perhaps I shall come up with better informed ideas.

Steve Quilley 19 July 2004:

Ruud, Stephen forwarded your review of our book, and I was gratified that you had enjoyed reading the essays. . On the question of detachment … I think sadly this is perhaps a bit of a British disease. The problem seems to be, as others have implied, steering a course between number crunching positivism and PC cultural philosophy.

Stephen Mennell 19 July 2004:

Ruud: You are right. Eric Dunning has often said that one of the disasters of our generation in British sociology has been the discipline’s failure to “maintain its boundaries”, and that we have been swamped with waffly “cultural studies” in consequence. But the alternative, as you say, seems to be that if the bullshit artists are coralled into their own academic networks, then people like us are swamped by the physics-envy faction among sociologists.

I suppose that Elias could be represented as having sought to establish (among other things) a rigorously-based form of cultural studies, but that field in the event took its bearings from Birmingham rather than from Leicester. And the result is that we end up not feeling we belong in either of the modern camps.

Stephen Mennell, in conclusion 19 July 2004: Richard’s original remarks – which should be read in full in the Loyal/Quilley book – ingeniously extended the theory of informalisation processes (particularly associated with the name of Cas Wouters, but to which others have contributed) to the sociology of knowledge and the sciences. My conversation with Ruud Stokvis took us in the more mundane direction of the organisation of sociology as a discipline in various countries. Others may wish to comment from their own countries’ perspective. But, if Richard is right, those international differences in the organisation of academe may be not unrelated to differences in informalisation processes more generally.

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Professor Stephen Mennell
Department of Sociology
University College Dublin
Belfield, Dublin 4, IRELAND

Last edited on:11,May 2017 11:54:27 by Arjan Post