Too Much Sociology…or Not Enough?

Too Much Sociology…or Not Enough?

“I haven’t read this yet but I feel like you will have an opinion on this,” said Becky, posting an article to my Facebook wall. She was right—you don’t need to read an editorial titled “Too Much Sociology” to correctly guess that the guy who wrote Sociology for Dummies will have something to say about it.

The n+1 editors bemoan the fact that the sociology of culture, originally used to expose the structures of power that govern cultural production and consumption (in other words, why Gossip Girl gets made, why we watch it or don’t, and why we admit watching it or don’t), is now winning popular acceptance and being used to justify those structures rather than question them.

“In sociological living,” the n+1 editors write, “we place value on those works or groups that seem most likely to force a reevaluation of an exclusive or oppressive order, or an order felt to be oppressive simply because exclusive. And yet despite this perpetual reevaluation of all values, the underlying social order seems unchanged; the sense of it all being a game not only persists, but hardens.”

Well, first off, it seems a little rude to shoot the messenger. As the n+1 editors point out, scholarship in sociology and critical studies has indeed gone a long way towards explaining the ways in which we produce and use cultural products (including memes, in both the general and Tumblr senses of the word); just because that knowledge is now spreading and has not yet caused the upending of the cultural apple-cart doesn’t mean it hasn’t done any good. Marx was wrong about the coming global revolution and the feasibility of communism, but he wasn’t wrong about capital and exploitation. Sociologists have learned to be a little more modest about their predictions, and I don’t think Pierre Bourdieu (inventor of the concept of “cultural capital”) would be shocked to see that here it is 2013 and the bougies are still bougies, the proles are still proles. Such is the way of things.

Marx called religion the “opium of the people,” a mythology used to justify the world order and quell revolts with promises of eternal reward. Echoing the much-bandied idea that science is our new religion, the n+1 editors suggest that sociology itself has become the people’s new opiate: cultural inequality (in other words, I flash my expensive education via my cultural repertoire), linked to structural inequality (in other words, the money it cost to buy that education), makes perfect sense. We all (or at least the “English majors” who the editors are surprised to hear spouting critical theory) see how much sense this inequality makes, and we tell ourselves that it’s inevitable—thus, we don’t work to change it.

The n+1 editors have done their reading and make many accurate observations about society and sociology (not the same thing), but ultimately, their argument hinges on one erroneous assertion buried near the end: “sociology cannot provide us with internal reasons for its ever-rising prestige.” Au contraire, mes frères et sœurs: sociology has provided many explanations for the rise of sociology, among them Émile Durkheim’s theory of functional differentiation and Max Weber’s theory of rationalization. Durkheim and Weber both predicted that as a society, we would increasingly come to see ourselves in rational—that is, scientific—terms. In other words, we would increasingly come to understand our society in sociological terms. Unlike Marx’s predictions, that one has come true.

So if we understand ourselves so (relatively) well now, in such (relatively) scientific terms with such (relatively) comprehensive data, why haven’t we fixed everything? Why—ask the n+1 editors—are the cultural sociologists themselves, rather than fighting injustice, justifying their own privileged positions?

Well, a short answer is that fighting injustice isn’t their job. To quote the great parapsychologist Peter Venkman, “Back off, man…I’m a scientist.” A longer answer would point out that if the world’s sociologists aren’t quite throwing themselves at the walls of power, they’re hardly conservative: sociologists are among academe’s most dogged fighters for social justice. The sociologists I know didn’t take the job because they find it abstractly fascinating that African-American culture has been historically stigmatized, they took the job because, through research and education, they can make the world a better place.

An even longer answer would question the n+1 editors’ assumption that “the relentless demystification sociology requires” has been without profoundly positive effects on social justice. Sociology is rising in popularity and (I’ll happily take the n+1 editors’ perspective on this point) prestige because we live in a world where facts about human nature are valued over assumptions about it. That sounds cold, and it is, but it’s the kind of cold that puts the freeze on notions like “a superior race” or “the proper roles of the sexes” or “manifest destiny.” Yes, economic inequality in the U.S. is growing—but sociology has been growing for over a century, and it’s hard to see the social changes that have happened since Durkheim published his Rules of Sociological Method (1895) as mostly bad.

Yes, as Bourdieu and other sociologists have pointed out, a cultural elite who rule by listening to Arnold Schoenberg and Big K.R.I.T. (versus the non-elite who exclusively listen to pop music) are still an elite—as they were when they listened only to Beethoven and turned up their noses at jazz—but sociology not only explains that change in elite tastes, it’s an integral part of a world where those tastes are changing to become more inclusive, less rigidly hierarchical, and more open to cross-pollination.

In short, the world isn’t getting worse, or even staying the same: it’s getting better, and sociology is making it better. Sorry, English majors—you have to keep reading Bourdieu. It’s good for you, and for everybody.

Jay Gabler