Responding to commentary from social scientists about the recent riots in London, an Australian sociologist warns against “vulgar sociologism”:
ARGUABLY the greatest poet of the 20th century, Wynstan Hugh Auden, is reported to have quipped that, the goal of anyone seriously interested in human affairs, should be to “never commit a social science”. As I am an academic sociologist, one could be forgiven for thinking, I might take offence at such a blanket dismissal of my stock-in-trade.
However, I think WH was right on the money. And, the media and academic commentary on the riots in London days has only added to my conviction that ‘vulgar sociologism’ – as the Peruvian sociologist Cesar Graña termed it – is much worse than no sociology at all. If only social scientists knew how to keep their ‘traps’ shut, from time to time…
As a result of such shortcomings, what often passes for social science or social commentary, especially in the public domain, is no more than cliché, thinly veiled moralism or prophecy based on hindsight. Like the Old Testament prophets, who emerged from the desert to proclaim that unless the people repented, more God-willed disasters awaited, these social scientists and social commentators seem to relish holding society responsible for humanity’s ills…
If the recent outburst of public sociological commentary is anything to go by, we can see why Auden counselled against ‘committing’ the sin of social science. Bad social science reduces complex problems to simplistic formulas. It only fills our newspapers, radio and television airwaves, with irrelevant commentary…
The truth of the matter is, that unlike medical research and the fight against diseases, social science is acting in bad faith if it promotes the view that it can seriously enhance a society’s capacity to avoid or solve social problems. There is no social science equivalent to prevention or cure; and even diagnosis is a sketchy practice.
A sociologist is really arguing that sociologist can’t help society deal with social problems? Isn’t this what motivates many to become sociologists and what use is research if it doesn’t apply to society? If sociology can’t diagnose, let alone prevent or cure, what is left? What exactly does this sociologist lecture on in class?
At the same time, I can see some merit in another idea in this piece: it is difficult to quickly describe and/or understand what happened in London. While I don’t know many sociologists looking for “simplistic formulas,” this is a reminder that social behaviors and actions are often the product of complex circumstances. Quick, accurate, and helpful pronouncements about complex situations on television are hard to come by, whether the field is sociology, politics, economics, or something else. As this sociologist notes, there is quite a temptation to respond quickly: academics may want to be in the public eye and can be rewarded for it. In a world of sound bites and Tweets, is it any surprise that academics may want to take part and claim some space for themselves?
In the end, I’m somewhat bamboozled by this essay. Cautions about rushing to judgment are helpful but the broader statements about the capabilities of sociology and social science are unique.
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