Public sociology

I am about to try and persuade some of my colleagues to contribute to a blog devoted to public sociology. This is intended to be a response to a growing tendency for individuals and groups to develop specialist expertise in areas of concern or interest to them. A good example of this is where environmental movements wish to challenge the use of some forms of technology and even some of the scientific assumptions underlying them. This often takes the form of invoking the cautionary principle on the basis of the incompleteness or partiality of the science. Other examples are movements involved in public health and medical issues that want to challenge policy or the scientific models underpinning the policy, for example the ‘medical model’ of disability or the imposition of ‘professional’ perspectives that ignore or marginalise the views and experience of users, clients or customers. I have also noticed that friends and family members are increasingly going to their doctors and consultants armed with the results of research they have done in order to understand what the Doctor is saying and engage in an informed discussion about their condition and possible strategies. This is also true of interactions with financial advisers and the tax authorities. In fact there is an official drive in this direction with the government providing web based services like ‘the Expert Patient’ and other information sites and an increasing exhortation to all to be proactive in taking responsibility for our own lives.

It seems to me that it could be of significant benefit for individuals and groups to have a source of reliable knowledge about how societies work and the social processes that form the context of their experiences and problems and have, often pretty invisible, impacts upon their lives. It is a commonplace in sociology that the unintended consequences of intended actions often have a far greater  impact on outcomes than those intended and hoped for. These unintended consequences are often due to the way individual and group actions and behaviours connect with, reverberate through and rebound from much broader social contexts and processes. C. Wright Mills claimed that sociology is the study of the ways individual lives are linked to the historical development of social structures. To quote from his book The Sociological Imagination (1959):

It is the political task of the social scientist — as of any liberal educator — continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work — and, as an educator, in his life as well — this kind of sociological imagination.

Something if this is hinted at in H G Well’s commentary on Mr Polly’s predicament (and many of the petty bourgeoisie of the time):

I come back to Mr. Polly sitting upon his gate and swearing in the east wind, and I have a sense of floating across unbridged abysses between the General and the Particular. There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding, seeing clearly the big process that dooms millions of lives to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstance […] and, on the other hand, Mr. Polly sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned, confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it were, nettled in greyness and discomfort [..]. (H G Wells. The History of Mr Polly 1910 Chapter 7 Part III).

The man of understanding, who can provide the ‘General’ contex to Mr Polly’s ‘Particular’ circumstances in Well’s story is a social scientist of some sort.

The public sociology blog would hopefully have a number of contributors with different areas of research expertise.  The intention would be to write informative posts aimed at what might be called ‘the intelligent lay person’ and would be of interest to other sociologists and inquisitive members of the general public. Posts would be a mixture of short reports and observations on current research, opinion pieces and short commentaries on current news and issues where a more sociological perspective might add to understanding. Hopefully contributions will be made by research students as well as established academics and scholars. As a blog of course it will be possible for readers to post comments and hopefully this will be a good way for practicing sociologists to engage with and discuss issues in a public and relevant way.

Another impetus behind this idea is a recent edition of the Times Higher Education Supplement that had a couple of articles on the diminishing role of public academics and intellectuals and their increasing irrelevance. The vacuum they are leaving is rapidly being filled by populist journalism and celebrity opinion makers. The edition in question is that of May 28th 2009.

In a leader article, Go public to prevent extinction by Ann Mroz, she claims that “knockabout popular debate appeals to few scholars, but if intellectuals disappear from the public eye, academia may suffer”. Another article in the same edition is a commentary on a talk given by Professor Harris of Oxford University at a seminar marking International Academic Freedom Day,  Freedom fighters ‘when it suits’, where he  argued that the current challenges to academic freedom were threats in which the academic community was complicit. Academics protect their work from external criticism, he said, and specialisation is used as a barrier behind which academics and their colleagues can hide. The full text of his address is available online.

Levels of explanation

One of the interesting aspects of Elias’s work is the way he characterises the various sciences collectively as a ‘model of models’ that map on to the  ‘great evolution’ and what this means for sociology as an autonomous discipline, in fact one of the sciences within the model of models, and what it says about the nature of sociological knowledge and implies for sociological research methods. By the ‘great evolution’ we are referring to the way that different material  levels of integration emerge over planetary time such that each new level is dependent on the preconditions of the earlier level but, due to characteristics of the emergent level, each new level cannot be understood or explained purely in the terms of the level from which it emerged. So for example, the level of integration we call ‘life’ was necessarily preceded by the the physical and chemical levels but, once life emerged on earth, it cannot be explained (modelled scientifically) purely in terms of the features of physics and chemistry. What is more, once a new level has emerged it reacts back upon and alters the nature of its ‘host’ levels. Examples of this are the oxygenation of the atmosphere and the development of the pedosphere (basically the soil that the later forms of life depend upon), both of which are the results of the emergence of life. Another example is that of climatic change due to the emergence of life (the biosphere) long before the emergence of humankind and the resulting anthroposphere (that part, in fact most, of the biosphere that has been affected by the emergence and development of human groups and societies). What this implies is that, to some extent at least, a full understanding and explanation of an earlier level of integration requires some reference to the effects produced by the subsequent levels of emergence that have both changed the dynamics of and processes within that level. An example of this is the way that practically every aspect of the biosphere is now affected by and has been changed by its incorporation  within the anthroposphere. This has had the effect of changing the context of the processes of evolution that the emergence of humankind was predated by and was dependent upon. Another example would be the changes in human biology and psychological functioning that have come about as the result of what Elias called ‘symbol emancipation’ and the development of culture. What is of crucial importance here is the fact that culture as a symbolic system becomes to a certain extent decoupled from material reality and takes on autonomous characteristics and possibilities and that it is external with respect to individuals. Cultural maps of the external environment and the ‘recipes’ for behaviour are very different to the internal ‘maps’ of the external environment that inform the somatic and instinctual behaviours that are internally constituted through blind evolutionary processes of adaptation. It is argued that at the very least an understanding of phenomenon at any one level of integration would need to take into the account of  the two bracketing levels, those above and below the level of the phenomenon. Of course the number of levels of emergence and integration, what our scientific demarcation rules for establishing boundaries and how we label these is a significant problem. I understand that a living cell has within it about 20 levels. A human individual is biological, chemical and physical as well as social and cultural. As a sociologist the levels that need accounting for will depend upon the specific level in question. Much sociology does this already, at least implicitly, for instance C Wright Mills distinction between personal troubles and public issues and his claim that individual experience has to be related to both social institutions and their location in historical processes. This is also sometimes quite explicit in the methodological claims that society and social processes cannot be explained purely in terms of individuals’ conscious motivations and experience or their own understanding of their actions as the historical process and structural level of society are as much the product of unknown and unanticipated consequences of behaviour with a scope in time and place far beyond the subjective experience of actors. On the other hand the emergence, reproduction and development of society, social institutions and structures, cannot be explained without reference to the grounds of individuals’ behaviours and understandings.

One thing is made quite clear however, by the ‘three levels ‘approach to sociological understanding. A sociologist does not have to study physics in order to do sociology. Equally, a scientific understanding of society cannot be based upon or extrapolated from a knowledge of the physical and chemical levels of integration. In addition, different levels of integration will have different scientific theories and models. Mechanistic and mathematized models are inadequate for studying and representing society and social processes  because of the nature of the reality being dealt with.  The limits of quantitative and statistical models of society are not due to inadequate mathematical and statistical knowledge but because there is a mismatch between the representational and modeling capacity of mathematics and the ontology of the exponentially more  complex levels of integration that are the the psychological and social. It seems that what we might call the representational or theoretical language in which a level of integration is described and modelled  must be adequate to that level of integration. Even if it makes sense to say that mathematics is the appropriate language of the physical levels it doesn’t follow that it is for other levels. No doubt mathematization and quantification have a methodological part to play in sociology, but this is within limits and is only approprate for phenomneon that are amenable to mathmatical description. For instance some structural and patterned aspects of social processes can be represented to some extent mathematically, albeit only descriptively. But in the end we are reliant on words (as indeed are, in the final analysis, physicists).

Value free science

Over the last few days while I have been snatching odd moments to reacquaint myself with my earlier PhD work and that of Norbert Elias (in the midst of marking MA essays), I have been reminded about what it was about sociology that gripped my back then, what I found important and exciting, and what it is I thought sociology is and can do. What sort of enterprise is it? What sort of knowledge does it provide us with? What does it mean for sociology to be empirical, for instance? Elias’s work must be one of the best places to start.

These questions are imply many others. For instance, is sociology a science? (My answer then and now is yes but we need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of what science is to argue the case). Does it make sense to make the old distinction between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ with the role of science (and therefore of a scientific sociology) ‘simply’ to tell us how things are (however uncomfortable or disappointing this turns out to be) and the separate role of ‘politics’ and civil society to make value judgments about what sort of society we should ideally strive for? If so then presumably it would be a contradiction to speak of the possibility of an emancipatory or critical science. If science’s role is to describe the natural and social world as it is and explain the processes and mechanisms that account for the way it ‘is’ and then hand this knowledge over to government and industry to make of it what they will and use it in any way that it, potentially, can be, then science is available for emancipatory or repressive programmes alike. If this is what they believe then this is something that scientists must consciously accept or repress in some way. There would be an interesting sociological project to investigate the personal and institutional ways that this conclusion is justified and/or repressed – science washing its hand of responsibility. This conclusion is the one of course that underpins the old use/abuse model of science.

The above argument about the separation of the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ and the possibility of science institutions, processes and knowledge being confined and limited to the realm of the ‘is’ falls apart as soon as it is conceded that the sort of value freedom this depends upon is not possible and that the ‘ought’ is not applied to scientific knowledge externally and after the event, but internally and constitutive of scientific knowledge itself. The distinction breaksdown when it is shown that values have an internal constitutive function in the development of scientific knowledge. These values are in turn partially constitutive of the reality that the knowledge constitutes practically on the basis of theory. Scientific knowledge constitutes reality materially through the application of theoretically informed material interventions. This entails the radical conclusion that heteronomous valuations to some extent construct the material reality partly constituted through scientised technological interventions in non-human nature. This is why I think it does make sense to talk about the possibility of an emancipatory or critical science. Different values internal to science would produce different sorts of science. This goes for the natural and social sciences both.

A Theory of Science

Since writing a post here 4 days ago, Detachment in the work of Elias, I have reviewed my own writings on the subject that I haven’t looked at for over 15 years. There are only two, a major section in my unpublished PhD thesis, The Development of Scientific Knowledge in Relation to the Development of Societies: a Problem in the Contemporary Sociology of Science (1990) and a paper I gave at the XIII ISA World Congress in Bielefeld in 1994, The Role of Levels of Integration in Elias’s Sociology of Knowledge, also unpublished. As is evident, I have not been particular good at getting my work into print! I was very fortunate to have had Richard Kilminster as my supervisor and indeed we attended the ISA World Congress together.  The section of my thesis that is relevant is chapter 7, The Importance of Ontology: Elias’s Realist Position and particularly the chapter subsection, The Ontological Model of Integrative Levels. The re-reading prompted me to have a quick scan through more recent work that addresses similar aspects of Norbert Elias’s work and I immediately found that of Stephen Quilley and Steven Loyal as well as sections in Richard’s latest book. I have started to add these to the bibliography.

This has reawakened my interest in this area, the sociology of knowledge, the nature of scientific knowledge as process and product, and how the sciences map onto Elias’s notion of the ‘Great Evolution’ and the emergence of and relations between integrative levels of existence. I have for a number of years now been teaching a module on Society and the Environment part of which covers the role of science and technology in the ‘mastery’ of nature and the development of industrial economies and hyper-consumerism. This has tended to focus on both a critical realist account of science and its underlying ontology as compared with overly reductive and mechanistic scientific models of natural and ecological processes. This in turn has been counterbalance with a discussion of co-constructivist and co-evolutionary perspectives. It is quite clear to me that my teaching and presentation of these issues have undoubtedly been influenced by my earlier work on Elias’s ideas but I have drawn on them in a fairly pragmatic and simplified fashion and not referred to these or my earlier work explicitly.  The time is right I feel, or will be as soon as I become an independent scholar after retirement, to follow these ideas up and perhaps a useful way to do this will be as an explicit dialogue between my earlier work, more recent work in the same Elisian mode, critical realism, and co-constuctivist and co-evolutionary ideas. I think it would be also interesting to relate this to the rather vague ideas to be found in the work of Ulrich Beck on ‘the democratisation of science’.

Frankly, I find the prospect of working on this much more interesting than the paper I was proposing to write on critical theory I mentioned in another post here, Critical sociology, so I’ll probably drop that for the moment.

Anthropology: On Becoming Modern

In today’ edition of Science there is a section on human social evolution with 2 articles both suggesting a link between human social evolution and cultural development which is relatively autonomous with respect to biological evolution. One of them, Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior, claims that growing population density can account for the first appearance of ‘modern’ behaviour without appealing to genetic changes or changes in cognitive capacities. In particular this can account for the emergence of specialist cultural areas. Frankly I thought this was an idea Adam Smith came up with in the 18th century and Durkheim in the late 19thcentury. I will need to read these articles to see if they add anything to our existing sociological understanding of these matters. The earlier historical context may well be interesting but I suspect it would be a fairly unproblematic and minor extension of existing sociological knowledge.

Anthropology: On Becoming Modern (Ruth Mace)

Unlike other animals, humans cooperate with nonrelatives in coordinated actions, decorate their bodies, build complex artefacts(useful or otherwise), talk, and divide themselves into linguistic groups. To understand the evolutionary basis of such behaviors, anthropologists must consider not only issues connected to social evolution in animals, but also the implications of the possible coevolutionof genes and culture. Two articles in this issue examine aspects of human social evolution: On page 1293, Bowles(1) investigates the origins of altruism toward one’s own social group, while on page 1298, Powell et al. (2) study the emergence of cultural complexity. Based on empirical evidence and modeling, both studies suggest that the demographic structure of our ancestral populations determined how social evolution proceeded.

Link to articles via Leeds Uni login

Friday 5th June ‘Science in Action’ on BBC World service [summary and ‘listen again’]
“We humans pride ourselves on our culture. Our tools, our ideas and innovations, and our art. They’re all passed on within our societies, and help shape who we are. These so called ‘modern human behaviours’ appeared suddenly around 90 thousand years ago, but at different times in different geographical areas. Something must have been happening to prompt the change – but exactly what has been a mystery. Jon Stewart meets researchers who think they have solved the problem”. [podcast]

Detachment in the work of Elias

Since being introduced to Norbert Elias and his idea that a form of detachment (at both institutional and individual level) is a necessary condition for the development of scientific knowledge, I accepted the idea as a useful working proposition. I still do but have always felt, for me at least, that there is unfinished business in this area. The unfinished business can be dated back to when I was working on my PhD thesis in the 1980s. I was studying the then current sociology of science informed as it was by Thomas Kuhn’s ideas (paradigms, scientific revolutions and the incommensurability of paradigms), the post empiricist philosophies of science and the ‘cultural’ turn in sociological analysis. I was also much taken with the ideas of Gaston Bachelard and his notions of epistemological rupture, the emergence of a ‘new scientific mind’, the ‘city of science’, scientific apparatuses as ‘reified theory’ and ‘super-realism’.   It was in this context that I turned to Elias’s sociology of knowledge and science, his ontology of levels of integration and emergence, and the concept of detachment. There seemed to be some interesting overlaps in the ideas of incommensurable scientific paradigms (TK) and epistemological rupture (GB), and between the ‘new’ scientific mind (GB) and the development of scientific detachment (NE). I quickly came to the conclusion that  a suitably sociologised Bachelard using Elias’s process sociology would be a significant advance in our understanding of science as a process, an institution and a distinctive form of knowledge. And I still think this is the case. However, the approach I took to the natural sciences and my understanding of them seemed rather more radical than what I was reading in Elias. In brief, I felt that the operation of autonomous values made possible through their institutionalisation in science and the ensuing detachment this underpinned from scientists’ potentially heteronomous values were not as autonomous as we supposed. The automatic (and therefore apparently autonomous) orientation of the scientists was based on deeply embedded and embodied values that were not necessarily autonomous in the sense Elias proposed. The autonomous values acting as the unconscious framework molding the scientific process and scientists’ cognitions and behaviours tended to be reductive, atomistic, mechanistic and analytic. This, we are beginning to realise, leads to natural science knowledge in many cases being quite a bit less ‘object adequate’ than was previously thought. Far from being autonomous in a wider context (and adequate to natural processes) these ‘autonomous’ values are quite specific to a particular historical and cultural context. The ‘involved’ valuations of a previous ‘stage of development’ become the ‘autonomous’ unconscious of a later stage. If this is the case, then all we can say about the natural sciences that is different from sociology is that they operate within an institutionalised orthodoxy sociology has yet to achieve. However, there is no denying that this orthodoxy has produced some powerful ‘productive’ knowledge about nature.

It is possible that, perhaps counter intuitively, the degree of detachment needed is more likely to be achieved by sociology and sociologists precisely because of the nature of sociology. This is a bold, even arrogant claim that I hope to be able to justify to some extent in future posts. It will also be useful, for me at least, to look in much more detail at Elias’s ideas on detachment and try to unpick in far more concrete terms what is detached, what it is detached from, the distinction between autonomous and heteronomous values, and the constitutive relationship between the scientific institution and scientists as knowledge producers. There are several excellent resources for this, for example chapter 5 in Richard Kilminster’s latest book Norbert Elias: Post-philosophical sociology (please see the bibliography). I have developed my ideas about the natural sciences over the last few years in my work on society and the environment. It will be an interesting exercise for me to revisit my PhD and the Elias’s ideas on involvement and detachment to see how it now fits with my current take on science.

Hijacking the future (and the past)

On the day that I read the first essay (Modernity and the Planes of Historicity) in Koselleck’s Futures Past, I also discovered a book by Susan George, published last year, Hijacking America. In Koselleck’s essay he makes the point that, during the emergence and consolidation of the new European Nation States and their governments, ‘ownership’ of the future was wrested by the State out of the hands of the religious authorities. The religious conception of the future was “the certainty that the Last Judgement would enforce a simple alternative between Good and Evil through the establishment of a single principle of behaviour”. From this time on the State and its rational prognostications calculate the possibilities of different futures and became responsible for the future. Part of this take-over consisted in the State repressing alternative religious and political predictions and claims about the future (rather as had the Roman Catholic Church previously – heresy was now delimited by the State rather than the Church). It is at this point, on the cusp of modernity, that the previous age could be seen as and labelled ‘medieval’. Grotius, in 1625, considered that the wish to fulfil predictions was one of the causes of unjust wars. According to Koselleck, “The facility with which anticipations of devout Christians, or predictions of all kinds, could be transformed into political action had disappeared by 1650”.

Which brings me to Susan George’s book. According to the publisher’s blurb  the “American secular and religious right has made its “long march through the institutions” and changed the way Americans think. […] A broad alliance of neo-liberals, neo-conservatives and the religious right successfully manufactured a new common sense, assaulted Enlightenment values and targeted the top of society where culture is created and legitimized”.

Perhaps a clue here is the reference to an assault on Enlightenment values. Perhaps under the conditions of late modernity, when, according to Zygmunt Bauman, State based politics and power have become decoupled, the State has lost its monopoly hold on the future, and this is manifesting itself in the USA as a new ‘medievalism’. The predictions of some Christians, accompanied by freeloaders, carpet baggers and opportunists, are again being transformed into political action, defining heresy, and constructing the grounds of, from a secular viewpoint, unjust wars. The Christian Right in America have gone a long way in reclaiming the past through the successful promotion of Creationism (in its recent guise as intelligent design) through the education and political systems. Perhaps it is now in the business of reclaiming the future for its apocalyptic prophesy.

Critical sociology

For a number of reasons I have become increasingly interested in explicitly ‘critical’ sociology. Of course some would say that sociology is inherently critical, and I would agree. By explicitly critical sociology I mean sociologists and sociologies that go out of their way to announce and establish their critical credentials.  Over the last few years I have been using the ideas of Critical Realism in an undergraduate module I teach on the Sociology of the Environment and more  recently I have got involved in a project with colleagues and students to produce an on-line student edited journal about Critical Theory. More generally I have been interested in what might be called ‘diagnostic’ sociology for many years. I would include under this heading Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, Norbert Elias, and Anthony Giddens for instance. There are many others. All offer a socio-historical  account of today’s world and the the problematic position of individuals within it. All imply in one way or another, more or less nuanced, either a critique of modern society or the basis of such a critique. Given that the word ‘critical’ is used in a number of different contexts (the two identified above are the Critical Theory developed within post-revolutionary western ‘revisionist’ Marxism and Critical Realism as developed from the philosophical writings of Bhaskar in opposition to naive forms of realism and positivism in mainly the social sciences but with significant implications for ‘natural’ science as well) I have been discussing with my friend and colleague Richard Kilminster the possibility of writing a paper making the connections and outlining the differences with a view to informing a more concretely specified critical sociology. Needless to say Richard’s input has opened my eyes to a range of related issues and problems and so the paper will have to wait until I have more time for research (and hopefully persuade Richard to jointly author it with me). For the moment, following up one of his suggestions, I have obtained a copy of Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time by Reinhart Koselleck (the most important German intellectual historian of the postwar period according to the publisher but lacking an article in the english language Wikipedia). In addition I have ordered a copy of Critique and Crises: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. A forthcoming post here will outline what I think will be the relevance of Koselleck’s contribution to a discussion of critical sociology.

A brief note on ‘critical’ sociology.  Not all conceptions of sociology would claim to be critical. Given that much sociology attempted to model itself on an authoritative ‘received view’ model of the natural sciences which saw science as ‘value free’ knowledge that simply reported on or represented nature as it is, then this is all sociology as a science of society could (or at least should) do. My personal belief is that sociology is inherently critical in some sense but it is not necessarily self-evident what that sense is. Part of this argument rests on the claim that the ‘received view’ philosophy of science characterised above is simply wrong.