If a Sociologist Makes a Discovery in the Forest but There’s No One to Notice, Does It Still Count?

By Stephen Mugford

A while back I heard a podcast from the BBC. It featured interviews with younger, social science researchers on recent findings about illicit drug use(rs), all of which I’d heard before or even ‘discovered’ myself. This elicited my inner ‘grumpy old man’ suggesting to me the acerbic phrase ‘the eternal sunshine of the spotless sociologist’. Riffing on the film in which memories were erased so people could forget—and even repeat—events, I bemoaned the tendency to rediscover ideas or social processes that were documented by a previous generation, work of which the present researchers seem blissfully unaware. The issue is reminiscent of the opening citation of Merton’s classic Social Theory and Social Structure:

“A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost. […] It is characteristic of a science in its earlier stages … to be both ambitiously profound in its aims and trivial in its handling of details. […] But to come very near to a true theory, and to grasp its precise application, are two very different things, as the history of science teaches us. Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it”

– Alfred North Whitehead (Emphasis added.)

To the extent that my claim (of repeated rediscovery) is warranted the question arises as to cause. Is this an aberration provoked by, for example, the current pressures to ‘publish or perish’? Is it, instead, cultural: is sociology especially prone to fads and fashions? My recollection is that Pitirim Sorokin (Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences) thought so. Or is there something inherent in the subject matter of the discipline that lends itself to this tendency? I’d like to suggest there is an interaction between the last two of these. 

As a thought experiment, what it would look like to emulate physics? Recently the Large Hadron Collider confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson while the up-gunned LIGO detected gravitational waves a century after Einstein’s theoretical prediction. Both are spectacular triumphs for the ‘standard model’ of physics. Where is sociology’s ‘standard model’? Is it good enough to keep on pointing to the different lengths of time that the topics have been studied as an excuse? This seems weak: despite a century plus as a university subject, there’s no sign that sociology is even close to physics circa 1650. Perhaps the subject matter is different? Maybe but I’m a bit tired of the argument about geistewissenchaften. We should either have a larger corpus of appropriate theories and data or be soul searching about what we are up to. (Moreover, since Heisenberg and the rise of quantum theory the idea that in one arena the researcher is part of the system while in the other s/he lies outside it seems a slim difference.)

Furthermore, the sister discipline of psychology has a strong emphasis on replication, the steady aggregation of findings and elaboration of theories. Indeed, when apparently established results fail to stand up to rigorous scrutiny psychologists considered it a replication crisis (see The Replication Crisis; and recently Ego Depletion). An irony, therefore, is that one social science has a crisis when replicability fails while the other (sociology) seems to have the reverse: replication does occur but no one knows or notices. Hence my wry title about sociologists and forests.

My explanation for this problematic state of affairs can be briefly sketched. I identify two elements.

On the positive side, sociology has always fought hard against simplistic arguments in which common sense reasoning combines with individualist reductionism: we side with Durkheim not Thatcher on whether there is ‘society’. We doubt, moreover, that effects in large groups are merely additive. Since Simmel we think that as numbers rise the nature of social reality shifts in complex ways. Overall, we share the satirist H.L. Mencken’s jaundiced view that ‘for every human problem there is an answer which is neat simple and wrong’, preferring to look for answers that are more nearly right because they are complex and in some ways untidy. All this combines with the insight that Weber and Pareto independently brought when they broke from economics: humans are not rational actors.

On the negative side, however, I see faddism and an addiction to fancy language masquerading as serious thought (or more accurately over-promoting ideas that have some real value). Been there, done that, have old T shirts with names like Garfinkel and Althusser on them. (I resisted Foucault, a black hole into which countless graduate students vanished with barely a whimper as they passed the event horizon.) Out goes yesterday’s name or theory and bingo!: out goes any findings made in that epoch. We have our memories swept clean and can start again.

I wince when I hear sociologists being interviewed on the radio, their answers riddled with pretentious jargon, saying things that could be said clearly (but aren’t) or making the banal sound important. Worse still is when I hear them make connections between theories (e.g. Marxism) and issues (e.g. LGBTI rights) with no apparent sense that the corpus of theory in the first has no intelligible connection to the second. (You see, I did follow Althusser for a while and this is a legacy I still value.)

When these things happens, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that behavioural economics, psychology and cognitive science increasingly fill the spaces we thought of as our own. If ever we are to achieve Comte’s dream that sociology is to be the queen of the sciences we will need to lift our game –and drop the faddism and fashion. Listen closely in the forest.

Stephen Mugford is a Partner at Kinnford Consulting. He originally specialised in sociology and social psychology. Trained in the UK, he held academic posts in Wellington, NZ, Berkeley, California (Visiting Prof in Public Health) and in Canberra, where he taught at ANU from 1974-1996. In this role, Stephen earned a major reputation as a scholarly researcher and policy developer in criminology and drug policy. His published work included papers on restorative justice and illegal drug use that have become citation classics. Stephen is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management (AIM).

Originally posted 23rd February 2017.

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