Q&A

NB: Through my involvement with the Social Theory Research Cluster at the Canadian Sociology Association, I’m toying with the idea of constructing a website that would allow sociological theorists across Canada to create little profiles of themselves as a way of promoting theoretical work to other researchers inside and beyond our discipline. The following is my initial idea of what these profiles might look like.

What is your institutional affiliation?

I work as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University.

What is the overall goal of your work as a social theorist?

To develop a scientific social theory capable of making practical contributions to struggles for egalitarian social change – to feminism, socialism, anti-racism, sexual freedom, and ecological sustainability.

What are you working on right now?

I’m just beginning work on  a social-scientific epistemology that is radically relativist but still also materialist and formally rigorous. It’s a big project that combines my work on genocide studies with a broader investigation of epistemology and cultural difference.  I’ll be looking at colonialism and neo-colonialism, the pressure to erase indigenous cultures, as well as the sociology of scientific knowledge and various critical approaches to science including feminism, post-colonial theory, and political economy.

I’m also making early preparations for a body of work on radical democratic approaches to solving collective action problems, which I hope will be practically useful to activists.

What major projects have you done up to this point and what kinds of theoretical contributions have you sought to make in that work?

Much of my work up to now has been in genocide studies. My main work in that area is the book Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide. I wish I had subtitled it “A Radical Sociology of Genocide” because my goal was to develop a critique of the modern state system as an institution, right down to its roots.  I argue that the institution of sovereignty contains a dialectical contradiction in which deference to the sovereign simultaneously defers violence and reproduces its conditions of possibility on an ever-expanding scale, both in material and symbolic terms.  This process of deferral or “deferentiation” not only constructs the institutional fact of sovereign power but also is involved in the self-formation of individual subjects, making sovereignty both an objective and a subjective social relation.  For this project I used a mix of classical theory – Elias, Marx, and Durkheim, mostly – and more contemporary theory including genealogy, deconstruction, and postmodernism. But I also tried to present a very clear and rigorous analytic framework which anyone in the arts and social sciences could grasp, and I made extensive use of historical sources to give the analysis a firm empirical grounding.

My other major work has been in helping to develop the field of relational sociology.  With François Dépelteau at Laurentian I co-edited two volumes called Conceptualizing Relational Sociology: Ontological and Theoretical Issues and Applying Relational Sociology: Relations, Networks, and Society.  The volumes had a great mix of established, prominent scholars in relational sociology like Pierpaolo Donati, Margaret Archer, Nick Crossley, and Mustafa Emirbayer, along with up-and-coming scholars.

I also contributed a chapter of my own in which I tried to develop what I call a “radical relationism”. Although relational sociology claims to overcome the subject-object dualism of classical sociology, many relational figures (like Bourdieu for example) do this merely by integrating an analysis of subjective, individual-level processes with analysis of objective, macro-level social structures or processes.  Some authors treat relations as a distinct type of objectively real emergent social structures, while others reduce relations to patterns of interaction among individuals. I wanted to experiment with treating relations as prior to everything else, including both individual subjectivity and objective social structures – that is, to analyze everything as comprise of relations and treat relations as prior to actors themselves. I think I managed to articulate a coherent framework for doing this, although much work remains to be done.

What kind of a theorist are you? Who are the influences and sources you draw on?

My sources are eclectic, although I suppose I’ve always been drawn to relational thinkers without having a term for that until recently.  My first real theoretical inspirations were feminist, anti-racist, and post-colonial theory: bell hooks and and Cornell West and Edward Said, that sort of thing. (Actually, my first theoretical inspiration, in kind of a negative way, was Noam Chomsky: I remember reading Manufacturing Consent and thinking, he’s on to something but his theoretical model is shallow and his exposition is all over the place. I wanted to write about imperialism in a more systematic and thorough way.) Wallerstein was interesting but I haven’t done much with him.  Dorothy Smith’s Conceptual Practices of Power was a big influence on my conception of social science as a form of practice. From there I got into social network analysis and Foucault, then did a close reading of Marx and Parsons, then a lot of Elias, Bourdieu, SSK and actor-network theory, some deconstruction.

Also one slightly eccentric book that made a big impression on me was The Logics of Social Structure by Kyriakos Kontopoulos. This book really got me thinking that instead of treating theoretical and epistemological differences – like, say the difference between Marxist holism and postmodernist constructionism – as questions of truth that we have to fight over like religious fanatics, we can step back and negotiate across epistemological differences, experiment with different epistemic strategies for different purposes, and treat epistemological and even ontological assumptions more like different forms of scientific instrumentation than as dogmas.

How do you see your theoretical work as being useful to sociologists who mainly focus on empirical or applied research?

My work on genocide was definitely intended as a framework for comparing and analyzing different historical forms of genocide and state violence.  Most of the work in genocide studies focuses on individual cases or makes a few limited comparisons among cases. I’m proposing that we can investigate and understand different genocides as common manifestations of an underlying systemic tendency, and also that thinking this way could help us develop more effective genocide prevention measures. I’m also optimistic that it can help to make sense of gendered and racial violence in everyday life.

I’ve also received positive feedback from Indigenous scholar-activists that my framework has helped them to articulate something which is part of their lived experience, namely that Western civilization has tremendous violence inherent to it.

My work on relational sociology is pretty abstract and removed from any immediate applicability – except that I did develop a relational conception of genocide which some other researchers have found useful and which does help to articulate how we can understand the treatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples as genocidal.

But as for the work on radical relationism and relativism, that’s still a work in progress. My ultimate goal is to develop a notion of science as one form of knowing among others, as only one possible way of ordering our collective experience of the universe, without sacrificing the vitality and transformative potential of scientific research.

How do you think your theoretical work might be useful to people outside the academy?

I’d like to think that Barbaric Civilization would give Canadians, and Western subjects in general, a new perspective on their own identities and their own relationship to these institutions we call ‘states’ or ‘nations’. In particular, I’d like people to see how their own self-identity and self-worth have been tied up in competitive struggles for social dominance, how shame is a function of political inequality, and thereby to open up space for living on a more egalitarian basis. I’d also like to think that people engaged in anti-oppressive struggles might find the book interesting as a big picture look at what they are struggling against.

The work I’m beginning now is aimed at answering: how can we deal with difference without resorting to violence? Understanding that even what passes for rational discourse can involve plenty of symbolic violence, especially against non-normative subjects.  The work on science will be about how we can deal with deep epistemic differences; the work on collective action problems will be with how we can deal with socio-political differences in society generally.

What do you see as the important questions or challenges for social theory today?

I’m not sure that’s a coherent question; it assumes that ‘social theory’ is some kind of united collective enterprise with shared goals or interests or functional needs, and I don’t think that’s the case, nor do I think it particularly needs to be. Although I will say that at an institutional level, academic social theory along with academic social science in general is facing a growing crisis of relevance as neoliberalism advances and the post-1945 vision of universities as public institutions wanes. If the ideology of government as steward of the societal commons continues to wane then we could find ourselves stranded as traditional intellectuals in the Gramscian sense.  If we can’t help capitalists make profits and we can’t help workers find and keep jobs and we can’t help governments govern then who is our audience, our constituency, our target market?  This is probably more of a problem for left-wing or ‘critical’ sociologists than for those who are comfortable serving the social order.

On a theoretical level I’m trying to find a way to do socio-politically critical work without making the latent functionalist assumptions that one finds in mainstream critical theory of which Habermas is exemplary – the sort of thinking which assumes, along with Parsons, that society is or can be a functionally integrated totality, that society is a normative order, and which disagrees mainly only about the extent and nature of the pathologies that we face. I respect normative entrepreneurs but I’m committed to understanding social norms as the product of practical social relations.

At the same time I want to do work with systematic and, for lack of a better word, nomothetic aspirations, work that proposes counterfactuals and leaps ahead of existing practices. I don’t have the temperament for work which uses theoretical concepts to develop a mainly idiographic analysis of some particular social setting or moment, work which makes connections and identifies discontinuities without proposing deeper, relatively invariant structures that generate the world of experience.

I don’t object to theoretical work along either of these lines (normative or idiographic), but I sense another untapped possibility.  Positivism deserves most of the criticism that has been heaped on it but I still believe in the revolutionary potential of sociology as a scientific enterprise.

What thoughts do you have?

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