Epistemic Reflexivity and the Spotless Sociologist (Notes for Reinventing a Rounder Wheel)

By Mario Trifuoggi

The industrialisation of academic publishing is one outcome of global educational expansion which criticism cannot pass over the wider discourse on the production of knowledge under capitalism. Whether the latter, especially in its current neoliberal fashion, is empowering or bridling intellectual freedom, it is a very complex matter with multiple aspects to be considered. Redundant publications are certainly one of many negative side effects of the overall acceleration of the knowledge-production process occurred in many disciplines. However, when it comes to sociology, I think that the reasons beneath the ‘compression of the past’ blamed by Graham Scambler lie somewhere else.

For unravelling and eventually transcending the past, it would be necessary to (collectively) understand it. Instead, sociology suffers from a chronic lack of consensus about its disciplinary boundaries (that is, the question of the ontology of the social). Canonical sources are ‘uncontentious’ and classics are ‘reified’ because every sociologist picks up her ones, having no common disciplinary pool to draw on. As follows, methodology is overwhelmingly contingent on the position of the researcher in the field, weakening the internal consistency of the discipline and hampering ‘cumulative intellectual progress’. From a positivist point of view, intellectualism is to blame: sociology should simply tread the same path as economics in expelling reflexivity from the formation of its object of study. From a constructivist one, on the other hand, science can even be rejected altogether in favour of a perpetual interpretive endeavour, entrapping sociology in a hermeneutic loop.

Whilst I do set value on sociology as a scientific project, I also believe that the inherently contradictory nature of the social constitutes the self-explanatory reason why the hegemonic pretentions of positivism are sterile and doomed to fail. In facts, sociology departments continue to be split in half with respect to this matter. The subject-object dualism that sets our object of study apart from natural sciences is constitutive of the sociological imagination. Thus, we are somehow forced to start anew every time we approach apparently incommensurable worlds from different positions in space and time. How can sociology, though, reconcile such a relativistic perspective with the cumulative structure of knowledge that is peculiar to science?      

Pessimists would say that we are doomed to fragmentation. Optimists would rather argue that the current crisis of sociology makes room for young and innovative scholars to regenerate the discipline. Realists (or better critical realists, borrowing from Roy Bhaskar) would comment that we cannot eschew the intrinsic contradictions of our field and we need to cope with them; yet, we can do it better through the exercise of reflexivity as a collective practice. Epistemic reflexivity is not (only) about disclosing the voice of the individual researcher, but (also) about exposing her historically constituted standpoint as a way of addressing the social and physical geography of power peculiar to the field of knowledge production.

In advocating ‘hard reflexivity’ in social sciences, neither am I saying something new (Bourdieu and Wacquant’s An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology as well as Burawoy’s The Extended Case Method go back to the 90s) nor do I want to grant a privilege to critical realism over other accounts of the social. I rather contend that, until one is committed to science, epistemic reflexivity is the only tool available to sociology for making sense of its own history and eventually agree on the (collective) meaning of the discipline, enabling a quasi-organic accumulation of knowledge. For the positivists, it would mean to stop taking ontology for granted and to constantly disclose the assumptions beneath their methodology, for social sciences simply do not work like natural sciences. For the constructivists, it would mean to recognise the possibility of the intersubjective objectivation of the social, drawing a line between sociology and cultural or literature studies. By doing so, along the lines of the reduction to three main reference points in the philosophy of social science (i.e. positivism, critical realism, and constructivism) suggested by Alvesson and Sköldberg in Reflexive Methodology, I am convinced that we could maximise the exchange between different sociological traditions and enhance the degree of internal consistency of the discipline at the same time.

Summing up, to overcome the syndrome of the ‘spotless sociologist’ that solicited this intervention among others, I would say that placing more value on review articles, as a way of incentivising epistemic reflexivity, can make a significant contribution to clarify where we are coming from and where we are standing now. The current publishing regime can (should) be blamed for discouraging enterprises of this sort, and so can be all the other hindrances of the neoliberal academe that stand in the way of intellectual thickness, but we should first interrogate ourselves on the epistemological reasons why sociologists keep reinventing the wheel before we can finally hit the road that leads to a truly cumulative scientific field.

Mario Trifuoggi is a Graduate Student in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths.

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