Searching for a Sociological Sensibility

Image: João Silas

Saturday 6th August, 2016

Keith Kahn-Harris

In a post on the Sociological Imagination blog, in the context of discussing my experiences as a sociologist working partly-in and partly-out of academia, I raised the following questions:

Is there a sociological sensibility whose presence can make someone a sociologist without reference to what other sociologists write? Is there a bedrock on which sociology rests whose existence both underpins and transcends specific manifestations of sociological writing?     

The reason I asked these questions was, in part, out of a concern that sociology’s professional identity might be overly limited if sociology is too closely identified with the ‘sociological literature’: does one have to have a constantly-updated familiarity with sociological literature in order to be a sociologist? I was also concerned that, if sociology lacks a sensibility that transcends sociological writing, then the discipline would be the lesser: If all sociology is, is an agglomeration of publications and techniques, then it can never really be a socially transformative practice.  

Although I was coy about suggesting what it might be in my earlier article, I do indeed believe that this sensibility does exist. Not only that, its importance is only going to increase – or, perhaps, its lack of articulation is going to be ever more strongly felt, in the conditions of abundance and proliferation that characterize contemporary scholarly publication.  

While this abundance and proliferation of scholarly publication has much to do with pressure in academia to publish more (and earlier), it is also simply a function of time: writing simply accumulates and with the rise of digitization and electronic publication, less is lost. At the same time, scholarly attention is spreading out to hitherto barely-studied topics, creating new sub-disciplines. Literature reviews on a vast range of subjects today represent daunting challenges. I know this from my own experience: My PhD work on extreme metal scenes was carried out in the late 1990s, when the literature on metal was so limited that I was able to read pretty much every piece of scholarly writing on the subject. By 2016, ‘metal studies’ has expanded to the point that it even has its own (excellent) journal and I can barely keep up with the every-expanding literature. A PhD student looking at metal today is faced with a difficult choice – diligently cover the specialist literature at the expense of wider reading, or risk unknowingly covering old ground while being better grounded as a generalist. Academics (and sociologists outside academia) face an even tougher challenge – trying to keep up with the ever-proliferating specialist literature while somehow keeping track of wider developments in the field.

‘Literature reviews’ of course, have rarely ever been ‘complete.’ As I say to my MA dissertation students, a literature review is something constructed, rather than a reading of ‘everything’ around the subject. However, it is fair to assume that significant gaps in even the most diligent and well-read scholar’s reading are going to become ever-more common. Certainly, in my work peer-reviewing submissions for a number of journals, I am noticing more and more papers that have missed important works despite having lengthy bibliographies. Again, for purely logistical reasons, scholars are increasingly having to make difficult (but rarely conscious) choices between covering ever-smaller substantive literatures and having a wider grounding in more general works.

This isn’t simply a logistical problem; it has a real impact on how sociology – and, indeed, other disciplines – is written. The necessity to respond to and reference an ever-growing body of writing, produces ever denser texts, in which narrative and structure can become drowned in a proliferation of citations and quotations. Particularly in scholarly journals, there is less room to ‘breath’, for an argument to reveal itself and build at its own pace.

I was particularly struck by what is being lost in some of my recent reading. A few weeks ago I re-read a book that had impressed me during my undergraduate studies in the early 1990s, Geoff Dench’s 1975 monograph published by the Institute of Community Studies Maltese in London: Case-study in the Erosion of Ethnic Consciousness. The book is judiciously, but fairly thinly referenced, in part because virtually nothing had been written on Maltese in Britain previous to his work, but also because the study of ethnicity and immigration was, at the stage, in its relative infancy. The result: a book that is a pleasure to read, that lays out a clear argument on its own terms.

Earlier this year, I read a couple of recently-published American urban ethnographies, Matthew Desmon’s Evicted and Terry Williams and Trever B Milton’s The Con Men. Both were written by experienced and knowledgeable scholars. There is, of course, a huge literature on the subjects that are covered in both these books, and the authors do not ignore it. However, both books were published to appeal to the trade as well as the academic market, and so the scholarly apparatus is drawn on selectively or implicitly, or put in endnotes. Again, the result is books that draw you in, that provide an enthralling reading experience, without in any way compromising sociological integrity.

One of the lessons of my recent reading is that a sociological sensibility is more likely to reveal itself in writing that, while grounded in works that have gone before, finds a way to live on its own terms. As scholars find it ever-more difficult to keep up with even the most specialized literatures, it is this ‘free floating’ sociological sensibility that can bridge at least some of the gaps that are inevitably going to emerge in even the most diligent literature reviews.

The problem lies in nailing down what this sensibility actually consists of. Initially, I intended this article to offer some suggestions. I mulled over isolating a sense of curiosity, an interest in collective-individual relationships and an appreciation of the unintended consequences of action, as being particularly crucial. However, the more I thought about it, the more this sounded both arbitrary and platitudinous. There seems to be a risk in ‘pinning the butterfly’ and killing something beautiful by defining it. If we need a sociological sensibility that can transcend specific manifestations of sociological writing, then this sensibility has to be something that can inspire; something that can ground sociologists even when they are not well-read. Some have managed to offer an inspiring encapsulation of a sociological sensibility, C Wright Mills being an obvious example, but such successes are few.

It is perhaps worth distinguishing here between those ‘classics’ that have inspired further works in the sense that they have generated questions and frameworks that can sustain the discipline, and those that inspire by triggering a desire to do sociology. Into the former category we might put someone like Talcott Parsons, who dominated the discipline for decades but whose turgid writing can scarcely have inspired much desire or passion. In the latter we might put Mills, and those sociologists whose writing has a literary quality in which the sociological sensibility is allowed to breath freely – a Richard Sennett, a Howard Becker or an Angela McRobbie. The distinction isn’t, of course, absolute, and I’m not discounting the possibility of inspiration being drawn from even the most turgid works. But I still maintain that a sociological sensibility may be more successfully distilled in works that manage to break free from the tyranny of the literature that has gone before.

Further, the act of teaching may be as important a practice in demonstrating a sociological sensibility as writing is. I am thinking here of a sociologist such as Les Back, who has inspired generations of sociologists – including myself – with the humane and conscientious example he sets in his teaching, as much as in his writing (which is also inspirational).  ‘Role model’ is, of course, a concept invented by a sociologist, and modeling one’s own sociological practice on someone one admires may be as valuable a way of transcending the proliferating literature as anything else.

A sociological sensibility may therefore be better learnt from examples, both written and unwritten, than inculcated through a set definition. The challenge for sociology in a time of unmanageable abundance, it seems to me, is to find a way to ensure the discipline stays grounded in human relations and human narratives. That means finding spaces for individual connection and for forms of writing that can connect with readers as more than just fodder for further referencing.

To end with an analogy: One of the most striking aspects of popular music culture today has been the growing popularity of vinyl at the same time as instantly available digital music is becoming ubiquitous. Vinyl represents a ‘slower’, haptic and relational format against the disembodied alienation and speed of digital music. In a time of scholarly abundance, we need a vinyl sociology.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a scholar in the new field of heavy metal studies. He works as a writer, sociologist, lecturer, salonist and music critic.  

Here's more you may be interested in: