What the heck am I doing?

I will use this blog to think out loud about, and hopefully discuss with others, the question of how a sociologist specializing in theoretical questions can make useful contributions to practical social struggles for greater equality and freedom in society.

Science and Society

Sociology has traditionally defined itself as ‘the science of society’ or, if you like, the science of (human) social life. The main stream of this discipline has two general types of answer to the question of how sociology can contribute to social change: one associated with the work of Emile Durkheim, and another associated with the work of Max Weber. The work of Karl Marx provides a third option, which I will discuss more in a moment.

Durkheim claimed that sociology could address questions relating to social change by diagnosing the healthy and pathological factors in the life of society and prescribing remedies for the pathologies, much as medical doctors do for physical human bodies.

Weber claimed that sociology could analyze the objective cause and effect relationships of social actions and make specific practical suggestions to political actors by telling them what consequences one or another course of action would probably have.

The two seem similar at first glance, but they disagree fundamentally in important ways. We can perceive this difference most easily with respect to questions of values and norms.

Telling People What to Do

Durkheim believed that sociology could answer normative questions – that is, tell people what they ought to do. Briefly, he perceived society as having an objective existence, a life of its own outside of and beyond the lives of individual human beings. He furthermore perceived the life of society as making up organically integrated whole (like a human body), and explained social norms as products of the nature of society itself. As a result, he perceived norms as objective and normative questions as having objective answers.  Sociologists had the distinct task of answering these questions by determining what is good for society, so to speak. He assumed that what is good for society is also good for individuals.

Weber, on the other hand, perceived norms as depending on values, and values as subjective (that is, rooted in individual consciousness). Sociology could not therefore answer normative questions. Sociologists could tell actors what consequences a given course of action would likely have, and hence what costs and benefits it would likely provide relative to a particular set of values, but it could not tell people which values they should have.

For complicated reasons I don’t find Durkheim’s answer at all convincing. Call it a lack of faith, but I don’t see our actually existing society as having the kind of integration on which his notion of normativity depends.

Weber’s answer, I find a little more useful, but also problematic. The idea of identifying cause-and-effect relationships appeals to me, but I don’t share his conviction that we can identify these relationships in a value-neutral way.

Taking a Third Option

This brings me to the third option.  Marx would have said that both Durkheim and Weber assume the scientific production of knowledge to happen separately from people’s concrete life activity, including the social struggles which that knowledge aims to describe. Famously, he wrote in the Theses on Feuerbach that

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

In working out his ‘materialist method of history‘ (or ‘historical materialism‘ for short) Marx states, or at least implies, that the truth or falseness of knowledge depends on the knower’s position in social relations, particularly relations of struggle. One could say, therefore, that truth is relative, but it is relative to something broader and less flexible than individual subjectivity. We cannot simply choose on an individual basis what we would like truth to be; we make truth, but we make it by acting in the world, in relation to others, and therefore we make it under constraints that we have not chosen.

I find the historical materialist position generally convincing, but of course I have many problems with it. I will use this blog to work through some of those problems.

But perhaps you can already see my general problem. As an academic sociologist I work in an institution and a discipline which assume a fundamental separation between the activity of producing knowledge about the social world and the practical struggles which make up that world, and I do not believe in that separation.

Hence my question: what the heck am I doing?

5 thoughts on “What the heck am I doing?

  1. This is a great start to the blog. Look forward to reading more. I have a BA in Sociology from the U of W, but a few short years after graduation I have nearly zero recollection of specific theorists and their particular theories. I can already tell that reading this blog will be a nice refresher course focusing on the theories that have relevance to making the world a better place; you know, the ones that actually matter.


  2. Good start, Dr. Powell. You’ll have to plug me in to where Marx implies that “the truth or falseness of knowledge depends on the knower’s position in social relations.” This is something I’d like to follow up on.


  3. Pingback: The relativity of bananas, part 4: Conclusion | The Practical Theorist

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