Swimming Upstream: Sociology Beyond Description

By Nicholas Gane

In this special series for The Sociological Review website, innovative sociologists reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the discipline today. In thefifth essay, Nicholas Gane, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, reflects on the alleged failure of Sociology to address the causes of the financial crisis. 

On the eve of the 2012 British Sociological Association conference, the senior economics correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, Aditya Chakrabortty questioned the failure of the discipline to address questions relating to the recent financial crisis. He observed that at the point when economics had failed us, voices from other, more critical disciplines such as sociology, had largely gone missing. Chakrabortty offered the following explanation for this absence: ‘Sociologists are reliably good at analysing the fallout from crises: the recessions, the cuts, the dispossessed, the repossessed. I’d expect them to be in for a busy few years. But on the upstream stuff, the causes of this crisis, they are practically silent’. He went on to add that this failure to tackle the big political and economic drivers of financial crisis meant that the discipline had missed an ‘historic opportunity’ – an opportunity to challenge the hegemony of economic concepts and ideas within the public sphere, and with this the opportunity to shape and perhaps recast public understandings of crisis as well as possible routes out of it.

Unsurprisingly, Chakrabortty’s article was not well received by the British sociological community, and a number of academics wrote letters to The Guardian to defend their discipline. Many of these letters raised important points about the vibrancy of economic sociology, not just in the UK but internationally, and also about the need for sociology to address more than simply economic questions. Chakrabortty answered these responses by writing a follow-up piece, in which he stated that he had received many private letters of agreement from academic sociologists (including some from those that had publicly condemned his critique), and re-iterated his initial point: that while there are exceptions ‘many academics haven’t begun digging into the banking crisis’, but instead have ‘ploughed on’ with their usual research, irrespective of what was happening in the world outside of their specialist fields. John Brewer, the then president of the British Sociological Association, in turn put an end to this episode by writing a final response to Chakrabortty that was published on The Guardian website. He insisted that sociology was tackling the crisis ‘head-on’, and, more than this, that ‘sociology and the social sciences, both in the UK and US, are concerned not just with how we can clear this mess up but how we can stop it happening again’. In sum, the discipline was said to be doing its job, and that was pretty much that.

Chakrabortty, however, had clearly touched a nerve within the sociological community, and, contrary to Brewer’s belief, there was – and still is – much more to say. Writing in the wake of the 2015 UK general election it is clear that neoliberal politics and economics have not gone away but are here to stay, and if anything are likely to enjoy a new lease of life under the newly elected Conservative government. Against this backdrop sociology – at least as an historical, theoretical and perhaps most important of all critical enterprise – looks increasingly vulnerable. If the discipline ever needed a strong theoretical and critical understanding of the ‘upstream’ governmental strategies and techniques that have led us from the financial crisis to the present it is now. But for all the talk of addressing upstream problems relating to the mess of crisis, few sociologists have actually addressed the means through which this mess has been ‘fixed’ (if we can call it that) and with what consequences. Little if anything, for example, has been said about the relation between ‘upstream’ governmental initiatives such as quantitative easing (QE) and ever-sharper forms of social inequality that have emerged in their wake.

Yet in 2012 a Bank of England report on QE made precisely this link. This report was picked up by Larry Elliott at The Guardian, who wrote that ‘The richest 10% of households in Britain have seen the value of their assets increase by up to £322,000 as a result of the Bank of England’s attempts to use electronic money creation to lift the economy out of its deepest post-war slump’. More recently, The Guardian reported that the wealth of the richest 1,000 families (worth a total of £547bn) has increased by more than 112% since 2009, and is now worth more than poorest 40% of British households. What are the structural mechanisms that, post-crisis, have made this staggering degree of social polarisation possible? Surely this should be high on the agenda of a discipline concerned with questions of power, class and inequality?

For this reason, I would argue that descriptive sociologies of inequality, or of anything for that matter, do not go far enough. Description is, quite obviously, a key aspect of sociological work, as is measurement, but the idea of sociology taking a descriptive turn is something I would contest for at least two reasons. First, as the recent debate over the empirical crisis of the discipline suggests, a sociology that is primarily descriptive in basis is very likely to be displaced by work done outside the academy: by good journalism (as demonstrated above) or by commercial agencies that are capable of ever-more powerful and finer grained forms of measurement. Second, and perhaps more importantly, such descriptive sociology is destined to remain preoccupied with describing Chakrabortty’s ‘downstream’ problems rather than asking how these problems are actually created.

In view of these points, it is not enough simply to measure and describe inequalities, for example; rather it is necessary to go beyond this and analyse the structural forces that create inequalities in the first place, as well as reproduce them and sustain them over time. Description of social inequalities is a first step, but only that. What is needed beyond description is a strong analytical and critical engagement with the processes and practices that produce the phenomena that we wish to describe. In order to do this, my belief is that historical and theoretical work – which is at risk of being sidelined by neoliberal audits such as the Research Excellence Framework – is indispensible.

There is a further point that it is important to make here: when describing or measuring inequality the discipline cannot presume that it is talking to the converted. Some people – especially those with libertarian or neoliberal commitments – believe deeply in inequality as an epistemological and political principle. In November 2013, the Mayor of London and brother of the current UK Universities and Science Minister, Boris Johnson, delivered the Third Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies, in which he expressed such a belief: ‘Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top’.

For Johnson, not only is inequality natural but ‘essential for the spirit of envy’, and any attempt by a government to ‘stamp it out’ would not only be mistaken but ultimately ‘futile’. The popular media immediately jumped on these comments and most people either laughed at them and/or dismissed them out of hand. The problem is, however, that to laugh at a view is to let it stand. The idea that inequality is something biological and that what is needed is fierce competition to sort people into their natural places is nothing new, and it is deadly serious – as classical sociologists such as Spencer, Weber and Simmel were well aware. Because such views are serious, they require an equally serious response, and for this to happen, again, sociology needs to be more than simply a descriptive enterprise (which ultimately leaves the underlying epistemology of the contemporary politics of inequality intact). For otherwise, sociology will continue to document the inequalities and injustices of market capitalist society while the political Right continues in its political ascendency and says ‘we know: good isn’t it?’

This short piece is an appeal for a sociology that is ambitious in its desire to move upstream to tackle the big political and economic issues of our times. It is also an appeal for the discipline to take seriously the power of political values and positions with which is has tended to have no sympathy. Extraordinary things have happened since the financial crisis unfolded in late-2007 as governments worldwide have worked tirelessly to boost markets and secure the interests of big capital. If the discipline is serious in its bid not only to document inequalities but also to expose their root causes then it is vital that sociology address the mechanisms that have made this not only possible but also legitimate in the eyes of an electorate. If sociology is to take a genuinely ‘public’ form then it cannot avoid moving ‘upstream’ to deal with these sorts of questions.

Nicholas Gane is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. He is currently writing a sociological history of neoliberalism.

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