Discipline, Field, Nexus: Re-Visioning Sociology

By Carroll, William K. | Canadian Review of Sociology, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Discipline, Field, Nexus: Re-Visioning Sociology


Carroll, William K., Canadian Review of Sociology


FOR SOCIOLOGY, THESE may be both the best of times and the worst of times. Sociology's identity is in question, if not in crisis. The questioning is wide ranging and multifold. It extends from sociology's claim to disciplinary coherence, through concerns about the integrity of sociology's putative object, to the very question of the value of sociological knowledge. The question posed by Robert Lynd (1939) in the Great Depression--knowledge for what?--has in the hands of Dorothy Smith, Michael Burawoy, and others been conjoined to the question "knowledge for whom"--for ruling elites and ruling relations, for subalterns excluded from power; for mainstream publics and radical counter-publics?

Sociology's crisis has been variously described; indeed, "crisis" has been a recurrent metaphor in reflections on sociology (Hollands and Stanley 2009). Craig Calhoun (1992), writing two decades ago, characterized sociology as an "archipelago of poorly connected islands of specialization" (p. 25), and the concern about sociology's internal coherence has only grown in the years since. Donald Levine (1997) considers sociology to be in a state of "pluralistic confusion." For Jack Porter (2008:xx) the decline, and possible death, of sociology issues from sources that include a "disciplinary fragmentation" through which sociology has become polycentric, lacking in any centered core. Some writers observe that, beyond its internal challenges, sociology faces a decreasing demand for its knowledge (Brante 2001) due to the decline of the welfare state, the rise of postfordist fields such as interdisciplinary applied social studies (Holmwood 2011) and even a "rebiologization of the social world" embraced by strands of ecological and neoliberal thought (Fuller 2006:5, 138).

For John Urry (2000), the crisis arises out of the increased mobilities afforded by globalization, which decompose sociology's traditional object--the bounded society--casting the discipline adrift and washing away "the tentative certainties that sociology had endeavoured to erect" (p. 17). Other epochal developments, such as the postmodern expansion of the cultural field, have also been cited as having destabilized sociology's object. For some (Zanotti 1999:451), sociology has become "essentially a postmodern discipline in the sense that it currently emphasizes the study of cultural differences," yet this very tendency is decried by others as a "decorative sociology" privileging the cultural over the social and economic and replacing analysis of social relations with literary-textual readings and esoteric debates about the disappearance of reality (Rojek and Turner 2000:639). The upshot may be that "sociology now lacks a stable research agenda, responding slavishly and uncritically to social change with more and more paradigm shifts in theory" (How 2003:159).

Canadian sociologists differ in judgments of the nature of the crisis and its remedies, and these differences bear directly upon the prospects for sociology in Canada. For instance, Neil McLaughlin (2005) has described Anglo-Canadian sociology as a "dominated discipline" whose subservience to more established fields is reinforced by the sharp competition between the humanities and sociology, itself intensified by the Canadian educational system's institutional flatness. McLaughlin (2005) fears that Canadian sociology could become "a shell of a discipline," whether as a junior partner servicing the research needs of the state, or as "a 'grab bag' discipline with no intellectual coherence or scholarly status" (p. 32). Among the remedies he cites is the creation of "a professionalized critical sociology" constructed through open debate (McLaughlin 2005:25). (1) Joe Michalski (2008), in contrast, mounts a spirited defense of positivism and "pure sociology," purged of politicized rhetoric and of all that is extraneous to "the social": "the individual, the psychological, the ideological, the meaning of the human condition, the subjective goals and ends toward which human actions are believed to be directed, and deconstructive and contemplative interpretations of reality" (p.

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