Discoursing with intent

May 12, 1995

Sociology, its critics claim, is wedded to jargon and unloved by the society it purports to understand. But Michle Barrett argues that the discipline still has much to say. The link between academic work and politics has been uncomfortably close in sociology - as in other social science disciplines.

Margaret Thatcher wheeled out economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman to legitimate an economic strategy; Tony Blair uses Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at Georgetown University, United States to add academic weight to a moral platform. The connections between social analysis and political action are also there in terms of empirical research: proof of widespread racial discrimination in the 1970s played an important part in bringing in race relations legislation, for instance. None of the social sciences are immune from this, and nor should they be.

For sociology, the connection to politics has been particularly strong - as many sociologists have argued that an analysis of society leads necessarily to a political diagnosis. Let us caricature a little - we set up a model of the class structure and we then show that people act in accordance with their class interests; this gives us a way of linking people's occupation, income, voting behaviour, social roles and so on. Of course the clearest version of this was in Marxism, which claimed to predict the outcome of social conflicts. But this was only one example of a perspective, endemic in social science, that made a causal link between social conditions and people's behaviour.

Sociology in the past tended to overemphasise the causal effect of social conditions. In policy terms this led to what popular critics (read the tabloid papers) call social worker syndrome. No one is made to take responsibility for what they do - it is all the result of "circumstances" like unemployment. The problem is that much of this is true - unemployment can be shown to increase suicide and illness, for instance. But it is a question of balance - and sociology has tended to ignore the ways in which different people respond to similar conditions.

Sociology has traditionally focused on class and in the postwar period when class was also the defining issue of British politics, the tendency to ally schools of thought in sociology with political positions was understandable. Marx on the left, Weber in the middle, Parsons a conservative etc. But politics is now more complicated. The two parties model has shifted. The postwar spectrum from left to right has been unsettled by cross-cutting politics - new social movements concerned with racism, women's rights, ecology and so on, make it difficult to predict positions on a whole raft of issues.

You cannot use a simple class model to understand something like the veal war. Of course economic interests are crucial for some of the people involved. But they do not explain people taking ethical decisions and acting on them - even if not in their own immediate interests. We need to look at the different ways in which people identify what is politically important to them. Most importantly, we need to recognise that the success of political positions depends on how well they can be expressed and communicated to gain maximum support.

Classical sociology was founded in the late 19th century, the product of western industrial societies in a colonial world. Its key concepts were the nation state, class structure, the idea of the social determination of individuals. These will no longer do. Nation states now operate within the constraints of global economic connections; large scale migration has thrown up acute conflicts of cultural and ethnic identity; information and media systems are of paramount importance - and not least in politics, where image is all; consumption dominates; family forms and sexual mores have changed beyond recognition.

Sociologists are in the forefront of trying to understand these changes. But it is a new kind of sociology, influenced by economic geographers, media analysts, specialists in various technical fields. Sociology has emerged as an arena in which a variety of disciplines - both more technical and also more interested in culture and "image" than classical sociology - meet to work on these issues of contemporary social change. An "old" sociology, restricted to the classical topics, has little to contribute to this.

David Walker (THES, March 17) criticised sociologists for having nothing to say. There is some truth in his argument - academic sociologists are not employed in government departments, do not have the sympathetic ear of the media, are not the trusted advisers of senior politicians. Maybe he was talking to the wrong ones though. There is something of a crisis of confidence in the traditional forms of sociology. But there is a world of very interesting commentary and analysis if you go beyond the old models and concerns. British politicians are not known, in any case, for attaching academics and intellectuals to their retinues - which of them has historians or philosophers to advise them, either?

Walker contrasts sociology with economics in this regard, and there is an interesting difference. Sociologists, he says, do not have the style or chutzpah to put themselves on the line in public and carry on regardless even if they get things badly wrong. Is he serious that getting things wrong is so unimportant? This is relativism run mad if pushiness is more important than getting things right. Of course, economists, and other social scientists (sociologists even on occasion) are able to speak clearly and authoritatively - but often at the expense of reducing complicated situations to a few manageable variables. The fact that people do not always behave rationally is the fly in the ointment of much economic modelling, which may account for their fallible forecasts. Give me a more cautious sociologist any time.

In a recent piece in The Independent, Blake Morrison said that 99 per cent of the delegates at the recent British Sociological Association conference were prone to use the word "discourse". Well why? The idea of discourse has become popular in sociology (as in several other academic disciplines that have also been influenced by Foucault's work) because it shows the links between language and power - a "discourse" is not just a set of words, it is a set of rules about what you can and cannot say. It insists on the connections between language, politics, and social practice. It has a different set of connotations for the people using the word than, say, "language", or "'ideology". It is particularly useful if you are trying to understand how politics works in a media dominated society. But the use of the term raises a much more general issue that bedevils discussion of sociology - the question of jargon.

Accusations of jargon tend to be made when one discipline meets another. My technical vocabulary is jargon to you, and vice versa. This is not unique to sociology - far from it. Take a look at computing jargon. Most of us simply want to find out as painlessly as possible how to use the things. But computing "techies" love the stuff - the more complicated the better, as they are using it to solve new problems. Sociology is different from computing, though, in that it is about things we all deal with in our lives. So either sociology speaks in the language of common sense and gets defined as stating the obvious, or it interprets and translates into more theoretical languages, which can be regarded as jargon.

Paradoxically, this is sociology's strength and a tribute to its general influence. If you move house to get your child into a better school, you are taking a sociologically informed path of action. Sociology is the study of how societies work, but as we are in the thing we are studying there is already a level of interpretation going on. Not only that, the ideas that sociologists have had, and the interpretations that they have made, come to be part of those societies and alter the way people behave in them. So sociological insight becomes "common sense" as it filters into everyday life. Anthony Giddens, professor of sociology at Cambridge calls this a "double hermeneutic" - there are two circuits of the interpretation of meaning in play. Well, is that jargon, if he can elsewhere explain what he means in short words everyone can understand? No - it depends on who you are trying to address at the time, and for what purpose.

It may well be true that sociologists have not addressed their writings often enough to a popular audience and have not sought a political platform from which to speak authoritatively. This is partly, I believe, because of the history of the subject, where social analysis was too closely linked to desired political outcomes. The "silence" of sociologists can be seen as stemming from a principled unease about this.

New work in sociology is opening up a fresh approach. Zygmunt Bauman, emeritus professor of sociology at Leeds University, through studying the holocaust and what we can learn from it about rationality in modern societies, has concluded that ethics needs to be reinstated. He argues that sociology has bought into the agenda of modern rationalism, which is seen as being emancipatory and progressive, and has been insufficiently critical of the latter's amoral and technicist qualities. In some ways the introduction of a self-conscious ethics as the basis for stating public political positions, and distinguishing them from social analysis, sounds as if it is going back to the old distinction in sociology between "facts" (of which we have scientific knowledge), and "values". Clearly it is not that simple, as sociological knowledge has interpretation in it, and values are influenced by knowledge. But maybe sociologists could find a more comfortable position from which to speak if we could clarify the difference between sociological analysis, and the ethical choices and political beliefs that individual sociologists hold.

Michele Barrett is professor of sociology at City University and from 1993-95 President of the British Sociological Association. She is writing here in a personal capacity.

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