Change, Uncertainty and the Future of Sociology

Article excerpt

I am grateful for the opportunity to address themes that are central to the future of our discipline and association. That future appears clouded to many of us, especially the majority located in universities. There, our concerns are amplified by funding problems, shifts in student enrolment patterns towards `safe' vocational courses, permanent revolution in organizational structures and the rest (I have been at James Cook University for three years and in each year the composition and structure of our Faculty have been different).

Those matters richly deserve extended sociological attention, which I can't give them here. But I do want to link them to other questions about the future of sociology. The theme of `sociology in crisis' is as old as the discipline itself, but there are important differences between the challenges presently facing the discipline and the post-Parsonsian `crisis' of US sociology in the 1960s. In that period, each side of the quarrels over `system vs conflict', `structure vs action' or `conservatism vs radicalism' could share the comfortable assumption that their arguments mattered. It was important to settle the political, theoretical and methodological parameters of sociology because sociology mattered. The type of sociology that prevailed would influence the shape of society itself. We no longer enjoy that consolation. We may have come to terms with a post-Parsonsian pluralism, but we seem to face the more insidious threat of a leaching away of our salience. That point has a double sense. In the more obvious, the audiences for sociology among policy elites, publics and students appear to be shrinking. In the perhaps less obvious sense, the specifically `sociological' character of what we do loses definition, shading into the concerns of various area studies.

It is this question of salience that I want to address briefly today. In doing so, I want to avoid two extremes: a denial that anything significant or problematic is happening and a fatalism that supposes nothing can be done to halt the decline of our discipline. In an address of this type I can't hope to be exhaustive, so I'll confine myself to three aspects of change that impacted upon the salience of sociology.

* Shifts in dominant sites of uncertainty.

* New modes of production of knowledge.

* A utilitarian culture that demands immediate `relevance'.

I'll run through the difficulties created by each of these developments before turning to the ways in which sociology might usefully respond to them.

Uncertainty

Sociology and the other 19th-century projects we have posthumously enrolled as sociological were born in the attempt to make sense of an emergent industrial, urban, democratic and `modern' order. Such success as sociology enjoyed in its early days derived from its ability to define, and to formulate as quintessentially `social', some of the major sites of uncertainty in that order: urban poverty, crime, labour unrest and political conflict. That diagnosis would hold for the pragmatic founders of American and British sociology, for Marx's `historical materialism' and, of course, for Durkheim. Durkheim's genius as a disciplinary entrepreneur lay in his capacity to take any source of fashionable anxiety and argue, to paraphrase, that `It's the social, stupid.' A very few decades later, what some would see as the discipline's finest hour in terms of its salience came with the agricultural, industrial and social programmes of the Roosevelt `New Deal' in the USA. The employment of sociologists in large numbers appeared to open a limitless vista of state patronage and influence for the discipline.

Our recent difficulties in establishing our salience, in forging privileged links to significant sites of uncertainty, derive from two apparently divergent trends. The first of these, paradoxically, is our own success. The fundamental theses that the founders of sociology fought to establish have become truisms, even cliches. …