The solid and the deceased

In Defence of Sociology
January 17, 1997

The title of this book is deceptive. This is not a systematic, reasoned defence of sociology but a diverse collection of ephemera and essays, going back to 1979, of which only the first few pages are a rush to the academic barricades. Their tone, too, is deceptive and unrepresentative of the whole. We even have a joke: "What do you get when you cross a sociologist with a member of the Mafia? An offer you can't understand."

It is an essay in the "great-mind-on-holiday" style, light on footnotes, heavy on generalisation and - of course - excellently understandable. Its burden is positive, that sociology is not dead, that the social relevance is there and that it seems to tell us what we already know only because it is so indispensable. We are all sociologists now.

Anthony Giddens sees sociology as the science of modernity but is shy of postmodernism. So we get a repunctuation whereby "postmodern" becomes part of "post-traditional" as in "Living in a post-traditional society". This, too, is a bright and lively piece, moving at tremendous speed, an excellent introduction to globalisation, reflexivity and the cult of expertise. It is something of a Giddens theme that "fate" has given way to "choice" in matters of lifestyle so that we are now - paradoxically by constraint - all active and responsible. An amusing conceit is his notion that addictive behaviour, far from being a social problem of the margins, is central to mainstream ways of living.

In all this, he is careful never directly to define his straw man, an actual traditional society, though he does arrive at a definition piecemeal and by overall implication. What emerges is a romanticised vision, at times endearingly nostalgic, at others worryingly stereotyped, in which the !Kung come to play for him the same generalised role that the Australian Aborigines had for Durkheim. He is surprisingly happy to splash, duck-footed, in deep and muddy pools such as "ritual" where others fear to tread. Later he will evoke the ideal western family as "the way we never were".

We then plunge into a deep and terrible abyss. The great central wodge of the book is a series of theoretical essays that are unapologetically historical or studiedly parochial. It is not that the long critique of functionalism is ill-argued or unenlightening, but in 1997 surely such concerns seem as inapposite as a refutation of the doctrine of the divine right of kings. And whose heart would not sink when confronted with a detailed discussion of the intellectual antecedents of positivism, Auguste Comte and other foundering fathers of sociology? This is bare-knuckles, heavyweight, academic slogging. The result is less a defence of sociology than a convincing case for the prosecution.

This backward-looking section continues into a number of reviews-cum-obituaries. So, on social policy, we consider T. H. Marshall. On literature and society we have good, solid and deceased Raymond Williams. Death itself is more crucial as the criterion for inclusion than theoretical sophistication or importance. Indeed, the only major figure left alive here is Habermas - and as the focus of Giddens's attention in "Reason without revolution?", he may well have intimations of mortality. For there is not just an antipathy for most of the more continental theorists of the past 20 years but what amounts to a deliberate attempt to deny their existence. The Germans and the French may do it. But, apart from Habermas, they do it offstage.

The end section presents a sort of New Labour manifesto for sociological engagement in the teacup of contemporary British politics. Giddens is equally excoriating of Conservative and Labour muddled thought. Tories cannot simultaneously vaunt the free play of market forces and urge a return to the traditional family and Victorian values. Labour cannot expect to bolster the traditional welfare services without underpinning the sexual division of labour they assume nor hanker for Keynsian economics in a globalised economy. If economic aid to the Third World can be deadly so can the dependency culture. Both traditional conservatism and classic socialism are now spent forces. Rethink, urges Giddens. Greater labour flexibility, better education, earmarking of tax income, more personal responsibility for health and localised forms of participation and self-help - these are the Blairite options. Only thus can globalisation and the new individualism be brought into a fruitful relationship where the little Europer and the little Englander are equally out of date. Is anybody listening? Well, "The Labour party and British politics" goes back to 1994, so we have the benefit of hindsight. Then Giddens wrote: "Tax-cutting - in the sense of reducing income tax - is the lodestone of Tory electoral strategy. Labour can and should outflank the conservatives on this issue. The idea of reducing basic rate income tax to below 20 per cent in the pound doesn't seem a starter in practical terms. Yet even if only meant as a Tory-teaser, the proposal is a stimulus to debate." They listened to that.

So what do you get if you cross a sociologist with a Blairite socialist? An offer you can always re-use.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

In Defence of Sociology: Essays, Interpretations and Rejoinders

Author - Anthony Giddens
ISBN - 0 7456 1761 1 and 1762 X
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £13.95
Pages - 288

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