Sociology’s Dual Horizons: Reflections from David Beer

Thursday 30th October, 2014

In this special series for The Sociological Review website, innovative sociologists reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the discipline today. In the first essay, David Beer, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, reflects on how Sociology's promise can be fulfilled in a potentially difficult environment. He draws attention to the discipline's dual horizons, arguing that we can look to Sociology's past in order to help secure Sociology's future. 

We already know that sociology faces lots of challenges – we might even be a little jaded by such observations. It may offer a little comfort to remind ourselves that we are not alone. All disciplines are being corralled, pushed, pulled and cajoled by the systems of measurement that now act upon them. The conditions that sociology is being conducted within are not distinctive to the discipline, yet its response should be. Sociology is uniquely placed to understand how these broader systems are changing the formation of knowledge, how media infrastructures and networks afford the circulation of ideas and how extensive data assemblages and potent systems of governance are reworking the social world. The difficultly will be making the most of sociology’s promise in a potentially difficult environment.

Using forms of knowledge from outside of sociology can be productive in helping us to see and think in creative and innovative ways.

One concern that I expressed in my book Punk Sociology, was that sociologists might be inhibited by the conditions in which they are operating. It occurred to me that the ways that our research quality and performance are measured – the calculation of the value of thought – might push us towards playing it safe. The results of such potential timidity are not likely to be positive. Instead, we need to find inspiration for imagining how sociology might enact a viable future in which it is able to function and maybe even thrive but on its own terms and to its own agenda. Sociologists need to stick together, not be individualized. Sociologists need to be expressive and bold, not overburdened with insecurity or with a constant nagging need to legitimize and justify their existence.

In Punk Sociology I suggested that we might draw upon a punk ethos in order to do this – helping us to produce a discipline that strips-back social issues, draws upon eclectic resources, employs do-it-yourself techniques and speaks in direct and assertive ways. But I see that as just one potential way of adapting sociology to the contemporary world, I’m sure there are lots of other options. As I argue in that book, and drawing upon Howard Becker and others, using forms of knowledge from outside of sociology can be productive in helping us to see and think in creative and innovative ways. The general point though is that we need to think through sociology’s role and promise. I say quite a bit about this in Punk Sociology though, so rather than rehearsing these points here I’d like to use this short piece to suggest that there are two other key challenges that I think sociology should tackle and which I think might give some direction to its efforts.

Disciplines are defined by their tensions. One particular tension I think we need to explore further concerns the relations between the old and the new. This is not an argument about how sociology should deal with social change. Others have made strong and compelling arguments, for instance, for the need for sociology to be more historical in its analysis. Rather, what I want to propose here is that sociology needs to keep a very attentive eye on both its own past and its own future. It shouldn’t be preoccupied with itself; rather this is a point about where our ideas, inspiration, guidance, sense-of-self and analytical resources come from. The problem, I think, is that sociology could easily lose a sense of both its own past and of its potential futures. This might leave it both unanchored and directionless.

The least that an engagement with sociology’s heritage will give us is a sense of context – both social and disciplinary – but it is likely to give us much more.

Sociology needs to find a way to balance the old and the new. There is vast scope for using sociology’s accumulated knowledge in productive and exciting ways. Returning to older sociological work, in the broadest sense of the discipline, might give us a greater sociological imagination and a more informed analytical edge. Older sociological work can allow us to see contemporary questions in a new light, provide us with concepts that might reinvigorate our findings or perhaps even help us to ask the right type of questions in our research. There is much to be gained from pausing and reflecting on what sociology has already said and how it might be revitalized in new settings. The least that an engagement with sociology’s heritage will give us is a sense of context – both social and disciplinary – but it is likely to give us much more. The overlooked texts of key thinkers and those sociologists that have perhaps been sidelined despite their vast qualities, might give us a starting point for reinvigorating our own sociological imaginations. This approach might enable us to broaden the scope of our ideas and stretch our understanding of what sociology is and how it has been imagined in different eras. Using older sociological work will force us to rethink any staid ideas about the discipline and force us to reflect on what sociological work might be. Of course, many are already doing this but there is the potential for sociology as a discipline to take more inspiration from its own dusty archives. 

Alongside this we should also be thinking about the future of sociology and how it might adapt to the unique properties of the context in which it is being performed. The potential for reimagining sociology’s future has received limited but growing attention.  The disciplinary challenges of digital or ‘big’ data are now fairly well known, even if much is still to be said. But again, I think sociology can imagine a future in which it might make a unique and telling contribution, particularly as we continue to see the emergence of new forms of digital by-product data of various types – and as these become embedded into the functioning of the social world. Much of the interest so far has been upon the analysis of (or possibilities for analyzing) these potentially vast and socially revealing data sets, and with good reason. It should be said that many sociologists are in a good position to be at the forefront of the analysis of new forms of social data. But sociologists should aim to do much more with these important transformations to the fabric of the social world.

Sociologists might find some purpose and a vibrant future if they are to exercise their sociological imaginations upon the rise of such data forms. This might include analyses of the infrastructures of data assemblages and how these find their way into our everyday lives, it might be concerned with how metrics make us feel, it might be interested in the emergent industries around big data and the new types of work and specialisms that emerge, it might be concerned with unraveling the truth claims made from these data and perhaps in challenging the way that they enact the social world. The emergence of new forms of by-product data might provide opportunities for seeing the social world in new ways, but sociologists should not just have a role in this. They should also try to see how these data play a part in the very functioning of the social world, how they are understood, who uses them and how. Let us go back to our purpose as sociologists to think about how new forms of digital data order, divide, structure and construct the social. This is where sociologist will have a distinctive contribution to make. 

Sociology still has much to offer. My suggestion is that we try to keep alive some sense of the discipline’s past and its future. This dual horizon might be really productive and might help to prevent us getting stuck in the muddiness of the present – maybe even turning it to our advantage. I’m sure of one thing though, we will need to try to work together, supportively, to keep sociology a lively and exciting space for ideas and genuinely open thinking.  

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. He also co-edits the Theory, Culture & Society website His publications include Punk Sociology (2014), Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation (2013) and New Media: The Key Concepts (2008: with Nick Gane).

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