Sociology, Civil Society, and the Unbound World

By Bamyeh, Mohammed A. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Sociology, Civil Society, and the Unbound World


Bamyeh, Mohammed A., Canadian Journal of Sociology


Abstract: The social origins of sociology are rooted in urban modernity, and specifically in civil society. Such a point of origins occasioned the growth of totalistic systems of social representation, which culminated in the modern state. The two contexts sealed sociology's role as a sort of bridge between civil society and the state or, more generally, between traditions of prosaic social communities and those of applied, action-oriented systematicity. The paper argues that modern processes of globalization have reshuffled the cards, as civil society has become more globalized and less beholden to state jurisdiction, and as the state has increasingly become less competent as an agent of strategic action in a world typified by globalization. This particular impasse has become detrimental to sociology, since it caused the relocation of its addressees away from the communicative bridges that have linked them since the inception of modernity.

Resume: La sociologie a ses origines dans la modernite urbaine -- dans la societe civile, plus precisement. Ces sources ont donne lieu a l'elaboration de systemes totalisants [totalistic] de representation sociale, qui culminent dans l'Etat moderne. Les deux contextes ont fait de la sociologie une sorte de pont entre la societe civile et l'Etat ou, en termes plus generaux, entre les traditions des collectivites sociales prosaiques et celles d'un appareil d'Etat [systematicity] pragmatique. On soutient ici que les processus modernes de mondialisation ont modifie la donne -- la societe civile mondialisee tendant a se soustraire a l'autorite d'un Etat qui devient lui-meme de moins en moins competent en tant qu'agent d'action strategique au sein de cet univers modifie. Cette impasse est prejudiciable a la sociologie, qui se trouve ainsi detournee de la fonction de fil communicateur qui la caracterisait depuis les debuts de la modernite.

In his Sociology of the Renaissance, Alfred von Martin (1944) chronicles the process by which such "practical" sciences as engineering and metallurgy gradually moved up from the artisan workshop into the university, where they joined historically far less "profane" traditions of inquiry, such as philosophy, medicine and astronomy. The point is pertinent here not simply because it charts out the increasing "rationality" or inclusiveness of the university, nor because it documents a progressive trend toward an ever widening professionalization of knowledge. More importantly, it shows that processes of professionalization of knowledge also involve a perpetual shift in boundaries and relative hierarchy -- for instance, the gradual dethronement of philosophy, and the prominence and enrichment of worldly, social, temporally-bounded or technological sciences through modernity.

But disciplinary hierarchies do not last forever. One of the founding principles of sociological thinking itself -- at least since Marx's famous inversion of Hegel -- was that knowledge emanated not from the inert reservoir of the abstract Idea, but from contingent and surrounding social conditions. This semi forgotten principle would mean that the ongoing debate regarding a crisis of fragmentation in sociological thought, and the wider question of relevance of sociology as a discipline, need to pay attention to the formative, yet currently elapsing, socio-historical contexts which have occasioned its birth as a distinct discipline. In this respect, one must look not only at what is happening within sociology itself, but rather at the society in which it operates, and of which it speaks.

In the same way that the "practical" sciences, commencing from their humble origins in the craft shop, the street and the marketplace, came to join the elevated traditions of inquiry, sociology began to coalesce as a field of inquiry outside of the university, in what ultimately came to be known as "civil society." The idea of civil society is intimately linked to the rise of the urban bourgeoisie, denoting not only a venue of educated social communication beyond customary Gemeinschaft tradition, but also a form of society existing alongside instruments of power, notably the state. …

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