So what does Harper have against sociology? First, Harper is clearly trumpeting a standard component of neo-liberal ideology: that there are no social phenomena, only individual incidents. (This ideology traces back to Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.”) Neo-liberalism paints all social problems as individual problems. The benefit of this for those who share Harper’s agenda, of course, is that if there are no social problems or solutions, then there is little need for government. Individuals are solely responsible for the problems they face…
But there’s yet another reason this ideology is so hostile toward the kind of sociological analysis done by Statistics Canada, public inquiries and the like. And that has to do with the type of injustices we can even conceive of, or consider tackling, as a society.
You see, sociologists often differentiate between “personal injustices” and “systemic” or “structural injustices.” Personal injustices can be traced back to concrete actions of particular individuals (perpetrators). These actions are often wilful, and have a relatively isolated victim.
Structural injustices, on the other hand, are produced by a social structure or system. They are often hard to trace back to the actions of specific individuals, are usually not explicitly intended by anyone, and have collective, rather than isolated, victims. Structural injustices are a result of the unintended actions of many individuals participating in a social system together, usually without knowing what each other is doing. Whereas personal injustices are traced back to the harmful actions (or inactions) of individuals, structural injustices are identified by differential societal outcomes among groups. Sociologists call these “social inequalities.”…
What should be clear, then, is that Harper’s seemingly bizarre vendetta against sociology is actually an ideological attempt to prevent Canadian society from being able to identify, and tackle, its structural injustices. Without large-scale sociological analyses, we can’t recognize the pervasive, entrenched social inequalities that these analyses reveal. And because structural injustices are actually generated by our social systems, both their causes and solutions are social.
One of sociology’s key tenets and strengths is the ability to get beyond the individual level of analysis and look at the bigger picture in society. Think Durkheim’s explanations of sui generis social facts or Marx’s idea that people make choices within circumstances not of their choosing. Harper’s perspective sounds like one that is often identified with Americans, an individualistic approach that tends to ignore social structures and instead looks at whether people work hard or have good morals.
So why doesn’t someone ask Harper directly about social injustices? Certainly he must recognize some. Of course, he might still propose individualistic solutions to these but some are hard to pin solely on individuals such as situations like extreme poverty in developing countries.