Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Disinterested Relations? Reflections on Sociology and History in and beyond New Zealand1

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Disinterested Relations? Reflections on Sociology and History in and beyond New Zealand1

Article excerpt


This essay reflects on the relations between history and sociology and their respective practitioners, locally and overseas. These disciplines are often distinguished by their prime focus on past and present, perceived different methodologies, and distinct styles of presentation. Building on C. Wright Mills' thoughts on these divisions, many of which he disputed, such issues are examined in North America and Europe, especially Britain. Varying degrees of separation between sociologists and historians in tune with changing fashions since the 1950s are described and analysed. This survey of overseas trends serves as a backcloth for closer examination of the situation in New Zealand. The essay concludes by suggesting, that while longstanding questions of compatibility are apparent, there should be more concerted efforts to combat mutual disinterest in current troubled times.


Sociologists have a reputation for writing dull books. Walk into a big bookshop like Borders or Dymocks and you'll find shelf after shelf devoted to the writings of historians, but precious few tomes with their origins in sociology departments. For many readers, the very word sociology conjures terrifying visions of vast and incomprehensible tables of statistics and pages of jargon-ridden prose (Hamilton, 2008).

Sociologists complain, at times, that social historians are insufficiently self-conscious as to their own conceptualization, and that they tend to offer their findings as particular findings, relevant only to their particular context, and are excessively cautious in making extended generalization. And social historians, of course, offer exactly the converse criticism: they sometimes find that sociologists are over-anxious to derive from particular evidence generalizations and typologies which are then translated to inappropriate contexts (Thompson, 1976: 387).

The above sentiments were not expressed by persons who had little sympathy with sociology or at least some sociologists. Hamilton is very positively reviewing what he describes as an 'informative and entertaining' book by Ian Carter, professor of sociology at Auckland (2008), although he partly attributes this to the author's social historical credentials.2 E. P. Thompson's remarks are also taken from a review. In his case Robert Moore's highly praised historical sociological study of working class Methodism in northern England (Moore, 1974). Hamilton might rate this prose as rather convoluted. In more typically incisive fashion, however, Thompson later declares: 'I must state plainly...when the materials are historical, there is no difference whatsoever (his emphasis) in the methodology appropriate to the sociologist and the social historian' (Thompson, 1976: 389).

Leaving aside the import of Thompson's sentiments for the moment, I wonder how many readers of this journal would acknowledge any truth in Hamilton's views. I suspect they are likely to dismiss them as a caricature of our discipline. Perhaps a scornful snort or shake of the head is in order, although it's hard to rebut the popularity of some historical works and the lack of sociological bestsellers over the years. But whether this can be simply explained by different styles of delivery is very debatable given the qualitative flavour of much recent local sociology. So do disciplinary comparisons ultimately rest on whether historians and sociologists are perceived, by themselves and others, as telling the best stories? Or does assessing the relationships between history and sociology need to go beyond the presentation of what we might call surface differences and delve into much deeper ontological and epistemological issues? Of course, if the latter is true, this leads us back to 'terrifying visions' and how we might combat them.

Few teachers of SOSC 100 courses, and possibly their students, will need reminding that C. Wright Mills is often seen as defining what makes sociology distinctive. …

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