Is sociology lost or is it just misunderstood?

April 2, 1999

As Tony Blair struggles to reshape society, many of those who should be advising him are stuck in a mire of navel-gazing and philosophical jargon. Alison Utley reports.

Next week, sociologists from around the world will gather in Glasgow to ask the painful question: what is sociology for? The agonising is due in part to the popularity of other subjects, jostling on sociology's borders - business studies, media studies, cultural studies and other job-related disciplines. But the insecurities run deeper than that.

Some prominent sociologists fear that their role as advisers to government, as shapers of welfare and social policy, has become obscured by jargon-laden methodological approaches to the subject. Some go further, suggesting that reductionism and relativism and an inability to get beyond unanswerable questions about the meaning of truth have led the discipline into a navel-gazing crisis.

Alan Aldridge, a sociologist at Nottingham University, says the discipline has become so inward-looking it has lost its audience. "With the exception of leading lights such as Anthony Giddens (director of the London School of Economics and guru of Blairism), it is true to say no one is listening to us," Aldridge says. "Part of the reason is the hyper-defensive over-reaction to the negative press sociologists received in the 1960s. We no longer provide what our audience wants, which, in my view, is predictions of the future."

The discipline's 19th-century founders were in no doubt that sociology was about making predictions and finding solutions to real-world social problems. This was how sociology invented itself as a science in contrast to religious mythology and metaphysics. But as the 20th century closes, making predictions has became taboo. "Sociology has lost its public standing," Aldridge says. "We no longer take risks for fear of being wrong."

Drawing a parallel with meteorology, Aldridge points out that weather forecasting is not an exact science, but people still value weather predictions because they are more often right than wrong. "The same could be true of sociology, but somehow it seems we have lost the grand vision," he says.

Over the past 40 or 50 years, sociology has broken up into a mosaic of competing, often bickering schools, and each strand has a different view about the purpose of the subject.

For Martyn Hammersley of the Open University, the fragmentation has gone too far. "People see themselves as using a particular approach and it limits them," he says. Individuals attend competing conferences, read a small number of journals, and there is little communication among the different schools, many of which have political overtones.

"Instead of producing sociological knowledge, people link their work to political agendas - feminism, race relations or whatever. There is the assumption that a political stance is linked to a particular philosophical approach, such as postmodernism, and suddenly you have to buy the whole package."

For Hammersley, sociologists need to rediscover common sense and start looking for objective truths, a stance that is very much against the dominant, postmodernist, tide. "When I say sociology should do no more than seek the truth, it is a red rag to a bull," he says. "Sociologists get bogged down in the meaning of truth. Truth is commonsensical. We cannot live without some notion of truth, but sociologists do not need to be sidetracked into trying to resolve philosophical questions about its nature that have been debated for millennia. After all, often the answers do not make any difference to what we do.'' But not everyone agrees. Liz Stanley, director of women's studies at Manchester University, dismisses Hammersley's objections as nonsense. "I am a feminist sociologist but that does not preclude me from having knowledge of other spheres," she says. "What we are seeing is not necessarily the growth of specialisations because they have always been there. They are just better catered for today by the enormous growth in specialist journals. This must be to the good of the discipline."

Paul Higate, a research associate at York University, is worried about the smouldering stand-off between sociologists and the media - one of the side-effects of sociology's insularity. Journalists have become wary of sociologists' propensity to write and speak in jargon and, as a result, are reluctant to address their work. "Sociology is alive but it needs to be cut from its aged institutional moorings. Its messages need to be relaunched into the very heart of everyday life," Higate says.

John Abraham of the University of Sussex sums up: the failure of relativists and postmodernists to appreciate the importance of sociology as a tool for shaping society has hindered its ability to make discoveries about the real world.

While the classical concerns of sociology - class and inequality, race and gender - are high on the political agenda, sociologists themselves may need a leg-up.

"What is Sociology For?" is the theme of this year's British Sociological Association conference at Glasgow University, April 6-9.

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