Losing heads, keeping faith

Sociology after the Crisis
August 23, 1996

Why should anyone, apart from those having their minds disciplined by reading for some academic qualification, bother to read a text on sociology? Charles Lemert believes that there are potential readers "who care about sociology, or who are at least intrigued by it" and who want to understand more about the context of their daily lives.

Such people may exist, but is this the book for them? They would be, I suppose, mature, reflexive sort of people with much life experience to draw on. They would need to be alerted to the nature of some specific problem that related to them and then, perhaps, they might be persuaded of the relevance of sociology to illuminate it. But this is not how Lemert sets about his task. He assumes that readers want to be reassured about a sociology they would really like to love but that has, apparently, lost its way a little. His is more an attempt to firm up the wavering faith of putative believers than to make new converts.

For those who have not noticed, sociology in the United States fell into considerable disarray in the 1980s. When Alvin Gouldner predicted the coming crisis of sociology in his eponymously entitled book published in 1970: "Neither he nor C. Wright Mills could have anticipated the terrible reputational state into which the profession would fall in the 1980s". British readers can be reassured that such a disaster was not paralleled in this country. As the University Grants Committee's report on sociology concluded in 1989, the discipline was stronger at the end of the 1980s than it has ever been. Whatever the Conservatives did for the country in the 1980s they certainly did no harm to sociology: staff, students and research all expanded rapidly.

Lemert is not concerned with anywhere outside the US, but such parochialism merely parallels much of the parochialism of sociology in most societies. His strictures on the pseudorealities created by sociologists who structure away social differences are well taken. He complains that sociologists have been "resistant to the best sociology that is being done today outside the organised profession of sociologists".

Maybe the faithful will be encouraged by this book. Lemert writes well and there is much that is wise and perceptive. He draws on Durkheim, Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens to reveal many of sociology's tortured debates and postgraduate students will enjoy the way he weaves many diverse threads into a pleasing tapestry of contemporary social thought. However, he does become rather wobbly when he faces the critiques of modernity put forward by some sociologists - "enterprises like sociology with deep stakes in the previous order quite naturally resist the thought of that order ending out of fear that the ending entails their own actual loss of stake" .

So if sociology is no longer "the decisive measurer of social facts" and descriptions are not enough, how can sociology justify its existence? I cannot help feeling that Lemert, like Mr Harding in Trollope's The Warden, has doubts in his heart about the position he is holding. He gives few examples of contemporary sociologists who are engaging with the "real" issues but falls back on a list of American journalists and feminists who, he claims, are writing "the sociologies of our time". This is defeatist populism. British students should be spared such advice and engage instead with the works of Michael Mann, David Lockwood, John Goldthorpe, Zygmunt Bauman and many others who show the strengths of British sociology. It is certainly good that American students now read with massive approval the works of Giddens, but how long will it be before the professional pride of their teachers recognises that it is necessary to look outside the US for the main strengths of contemporary sociology?

Ray Pahl is research professor in sociology, Universities of Essex and Kent.

Sociology after the Crisis

Author - Charles Lemert
ISBN - 0 8133 2543 9 and 2544 7
Publisher - Westview
Price - £40.95 and £9.95
Pages - 252

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