Sociology's malaise

March 24, 1995

David Walker's periodic laments for the condition of sociology rarely receive the serious response that they deserve (THES, March 17). I think, though, that three comments might be made about his thesis. He is right about the political corruption of much organised sociology which has turned it into a vehicle for the ideological justification of a limited number of social movements. However, I am not sure that the remedy is a more politically plural sociology so much as a reassertion of the important space between the personal and the political that used to be occupied by the commitment to scientific integrity.

He is also correct about the cultural irrelevance of much British sociology in the postwar period. Our failure, though, is to engage in the debate with neo-classical, utilitarian economic thinking which was the real opponent of Anglophone sociology up to the Second World War, and beyond in the United States.

For reasons which remain to be understood, the generation which he admires became obsessed by a debate with Marxism that had its roots in the culture of mainland Europe and had little relevance to British conditions. It is, for example, striking how there is no simple introductory text today dealing with Herbert Spencer, the most influential British sociologist of any generation, or how the critical re-evaluation of Talcott Parsons in the US is passing us by. We have even come late to communitarianism: Selznick's The Moral Commonwealth which covers similar ground to Etzioni was hailed as the book of the year in US sociology in 1992/93 and is virtually unknown here.

Finally, even when we were students together, David Walker had problems understanding what microsociology had to offer. I would point out, however, that the one brand of sociology which has succeeded in establishing a major commercial market is the much-derided conversation analysis.

One of its leading practitioners, who was professionally ostracised ten years ago for political and intellectual incorrectness, now makes at least twice as much as I do as a corporate communications trainer. In other areas, CA has contributed significantly to the improvement of human service interactions across a wide range of health and welfare settings, to the responsiveness of emergency services, to risk reduction in traffic control rooms and so on.

David Walker is asking important questions: I hope we can do better than produce knee-jerk responses.

Robert Dingwall

Professor and head of School of social studies

University of Nottingham

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