November 26, 2015

The Sociology of Everything

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that in the eight years  Everyday Sociology has analyzed a wide range of topics using a sociological perspective. From bumper stickers to babies, marriage to McDonald's, vacations to vaccines, drugs to diapers, and traveling to Twitter, it may seem as if everything relates to sociology.

You don’t even have to read this blog to get a sense of the scope of the discipline. Just look at the course offerings in the sociology department at your local college and you’ll see what I mean. You can take classes on a wide array of themes such as Sociology of Religion, Medical Sociology, Sociology of Violence, Environmental Sociology, Political Sociology, Sociology of Aging, Sociology of Sport, Sociology of Film, Sociology of Death and Dying, Sociology of Sex and Sexualities, and the Sociology of Organized Crime. These are just some of the classes available in my medium-sized department. If we surveyed sociology departments around the world then the list of would be infinitely longer.

Sociology is the not the only discipline that demonstrates this sweeping analytical reach. My colleague Glenn Geher writes a blog for Psychology Today called Darwin’s Subterranean World. I sometimes give Glenn a hard time not just because he is an evolutionary psychologist; rather, I playfully tease Glenn because he unabashedly analyzes everything from an evolutionary perspective.  Just scroll down the list of topics that Glenn has written about in his psychology blog and it’s like. . . well, it’s like looking at the breadth of topics in the Everyday Sociology archive.

In thinking about this idea that a single field of study such as sociology can presume to explain any topic under the sun, I found myself reflecting on C. Wright Mills and The Sociological Imagination. It certainly takes quite an active sociological imagination to try to fit anything and everything within your disciplinary scope. As Mills suggests, we should be asking sociological questions about the structure of society and the people who live here, so it may not be too surprising that we try to explain all things we observe. But this is not exactly why I thought of Mills when I was trying to make sense of sociologists’ attempt at being omniscient.

In The Sociological Imagination, Mills criticizes some of the “habitual distortions” that are present within the social sciences. One of these distortions Mills refers to is “grand theory” and a second distortion he calls “abstract empiricism.” Understanding what Mills is getting at in his disparaging assessment of these two trends actually sheds some light on what I’m calling the sociology of everything.

In his discussion of grand theory, Mills takes issues with this “not readily understandable” and “not altogether intelligible” attempt to present a general sociological theory of life. Grand theory tries to explain all things social—or everything—in one large, all-encompassing theoretical brushstroke. The problem with this approach is “that there is no ‘grand theory,’ no one universal scheme in terms of which we can understand the unity of social structure, no one answer to the tired old problem of social order.” In other words, there is no neat and tidy way to comprehend the entire social world.

Following his critique of the grand theorists, Mills focuses on those who attempt to gain a quantitative understanding of social life without any connection to theory or other social processes. For Mills, these “abstract empiricists” are more concerned about methods, particularly copying the “The Scientific Method” of the natural sciences, and less concerned about what their findings might be telling us. Whereas grand theory tries to stretch an umbrella explanation over everything, abstract empiricism is so narrowly focused on what’s occurring in a particular area of study that the how and why of social life is often neglected.

In considering the sociological practice of analyzing nearly every topic imaginable, I can’t help but think that we are witnessing a combination of the two distortions that Mills identifies. We might refer to this as abstract theoretical empiricism because it is an attempt to explain every empirical process from a disconnected theoretical position. Abstract theoretical empiricism puts all things social under the sociological microscope but too often it keeps those things contained in their own little petri dishes. A succinct way to say this is that abstract theoretical empiricism studies everything but connects it to nothing.

Abstract theoretical empiricism is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, we live in a social world, many things we experience in our daily lives are social, and so why not try to understand these things sociologically? In fact, one of the exciting things about studying sociology is being able to apply sociology to our everyday lives—much like the theme of this blog. Many of us take the social world for granted and consequently, we fail to see the social origins of social life. On a very basic but also important level, abstract theoretical empiricism reminds us that the social processes we experience are not natural but are socially constructed.

Despite its upside, there is also a potential drawback to abstract theoretical empiricism. Specifically, it can result in a sort of intellectual irrelevancy when academics (and most of us, including myself, are guilty of this) end up publishing articles on obscure and esoteric topics that no one ever reads. It’s not only that the topics are somewhat arcane and unique; more importantly, it’s that they are too often analyzed as if they exist in a vacuum. At its worst, abstract theoretical empiricism compartmentalizes social life and fails to consider the topic we are studying beyond that particular topic; it fails to see beyond what it’s seeing.    

One indication that abstract theoretical empiricism is a trend not just within sociology but within many academic disciplines is the fact that so many journal articles remain unread. Although it is difficult to quantify, some studies suggest that nearly half of the academic articles written are only read the by the author (and presumably the editor and the reviewers). And with the sharp increase in predatory publishing, it’s not even guaranteed anymore that an editor and reviewers are reading your work; sadly, you might be the only one to have read your published journal article.

Why does this happen? Most academics need to publish articles to keep their jobs (publish or perish) and many of us end up publishing articles on the small slice of disciplinary life that we study. In trying to make a name for ourselves in our field of study, we may fall into the trap of abstract theoretical empiricism by writing only for and within a very specific audience. As a result, many academic journal articles are not relevant or interesting to anyone outside of that sub-disciplinary group.

C. Wright Mills would certainly not be pleased that so much of what we write and study ends up collecting virtual (or actual) cobwebs.  As one of the discipline’s first public sociologists, Mills would want our work to find reach larger audiences, to be engaged with pressing issues of the moment, and to inform public debate on these issues.  He did not want the “economics of truth”—in which we allocate our time and energies for professional advancement—to take precedence over the “politics of truth”—whereby we use our scholarship to address pressing political and social issues.

So where does this leave blogs like Everyday Sociology and Darwin’s Subterranean World? Of course I’m biased, but I tend to think that the abstract theoretical empiricism that we’re practicing on these websites is actually good for our disciplines. In the vein of public sociology, or what Mills calls “intellectual craftsmanship,” we are highlighting the range of our disciplinary contributions, raising thought-provoking questions, employing simple and jargon-free language, using our lives and observations for reflection and analysis, and disseminating this information to global audience. To invoke a well-known phrase from Mills, this approach should be the task and promise of social scientists.

Comments

all the topics you named are founded to be intrerested

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