Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Call Yourself a Sociologist - and You've Never Even Been Arrested?!

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Call Yourself a Sociologist - and You've Never Even Been Arrested?!

Article excerpt

In this paper I want to address a theoretical and a political problem. The theoretical issue is whether sociology as a discipline is inherently "radical" - whatever that may mean. If it is, then the political question becomes whether we are living up to the demands set by such a "radical sociology." I shall focus my attention primarily on English-speaking Canada, making use of my own perspective as a transplant from British sociology. This narrowing of the canvas is largely on pragmatic grounds - of space and of my own trajectory and location - and makes me better able to reflect on some representations of our discipline than on others.

I should also confess at the outset that while American sociology has had a profound impact on Canadian sociology it had much less impact on British sociology. I am, therefore, less qualified to examine that impact in as much detail as it deserves. This may not be so much of a disqualification, given the very mixed press that the American influence has received. It is, therefore, all the more interesting that in preparing this paper, I took my initial inspiration from Howard Becker, whose presidential address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 1966 had an almost equally polemical title - "Whose Side Are We On?" Becker's central message bears reiterating, at least every 30 years or so:

To have values or not to have values: the question is always with us. When sociologists undertake to study problems that have relevance to the world we live in, they find themselves in a crossfire. Some urge them not to take sides, to be neutral and do research that is technically correct and value-free (without quotation marks). Others tell them that their work is shallow and useless if it does not express a deep commitment to a value position. This dilemma, which seems so painful to so many, actually does not exist, for one of the horns is imaginary" (Becker, 1967: 239).

The bulk of the rest of his address is a rehearsal of the arguments against the concept of a value-free sociology, much of which appears quaintly dated today. What I want to take from Becker's address is not his validation of "taking sides" in sociological work, per se, but the underlying reason for taking sides, which is an acknowledgment that values, commitments, even passions, generated outside sociology are not just permitted but have an active role in our work as sociologists. I want to argue that this is not only an inescapable, but a necessary, even defining constituent of sociology. I would like to begin this process by revisiting, albeit briefly and superficially, the arguments for the radical roots of sociology. I will then retrace the debates of the late 1960s and 1970s about what the rapidly expanding and newly confident discipline of sociology ought to be about, and some of the particular circumstances that attended the introduction of sociology as a fully fledged discipline into Canadian academia. Finally, I will look at some more recent influences on what we do, and suggest that collectively these constitute a formidable barrier to the recovery of a "radical sociology," but that this task remains as imperative as ever.

The Radical Roots of Sociology

Why do I feel so uneasy and yet so compelled to refer to Marx, Weber and Durkheim and other early luminaries? It is only partly because I claim no expertise in this area. It is partly because I resist the notion that the classics/founders/canon have authority over how we think now. But I suspect that both my ignorance and my suspicion derive from the way in which our 19th and early-20th century predecessors have been used by precisely the kind of sociology that I want to argue has worked against a radical development of the discipline, and against the principles that should inform that development. It is therefore salutary to do a little reclaiming of the history of radicalism in sociology. It is, of course, normal (or it was until a year or two ago) to treat Marx and his writings as the epitome of the radical sociologist at work, and as blueprints for revolution. …

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