X-studies and the “trivialization” of disciplinary scholarship
Here’s a very interesting observation that I recently came across:
The history of say, the sociology of nationalism or the sociology of religion might be written a one in which an initial competition between Marxist, Durkheimian and Weberian approaches to nationalism or religion–which were also Marxist, Durkhemian and Weberian approaches to anything else—has gradually given way to internal debates about nationalism or religion among specialists in those areas and the development of in-house “theories of” nationalism or religion. From there it has sometimes been a short step to the jettisoning of the formal theoretical apparatuses altogether and a readiness to embrace increasingly interdisciplinary inquiries into the phenomenon of nationalism or religion. Indeed, it is now possible to devote an entire career to one specialist area without worrying too much about the integrity of the [theoretical] tools one deploys to study it. This sequence–sociological inquiry into X on the basis of established disciplinary procedures, expansion of the discipline by means of the increasing proliferation of specialist areas, development of localized substantive theories within those areas, abandonment of formal theory altogether, and embrace of interdisciplinary methods and the establishment of departments or centers of ”X studies”—was what the German sociologist F. Tenbruck had in mind in his essay on “the law of trivialization” (Turner 2010: 30).
This seems to me to do a good job of intuitively describing the fate of many fields in sociology and their relationship to their more mature “interdisciplinary” cousins. For instance, there is the sociology of religion, and there are “religious studies.” There is the sociology of race and ethnicity and there are “race and ethnic studies.” There is the sociology of gender and there are “gender studies,” (sociology of organizations versus organizational studies?). This also seems to agree with my impression that the work done under the interdisciplinary banner tends to be a little loosey-goosey, more descriptive and generally less interesting (with exceptions) than its more disciplinary classical or post-classical counterparts. I wouldn’t go so far as calling this type of work “trivial” but I’d have to agree that there is certainly something of a transformation towards less compelling, more delimited and generally more circumscribed questions as we move along the gradient from classical, to post-classical to interdisciplinary “X-studies.”
Conversely, we can surmise that areas that are successful in partially resisting the move, may keep their original appeal. I think the recent move towards performativity in economic sociology represents the first attempt to move the field from its postclassical, disciplinary form to a more interdisciplinary format (e.g. “social studies of the economy”; just like Mertonian “sociology of science” was transformed into “social studies of science” during the 1970s and 1980s). If successful in reorienting the field we can predict that work on social studies of the economy will become less tied to classical or post-classical questions (e.g. Zelizer’s running argument with Marx, Simmel and Weber; Granovetter’s via media between under and over-socialized conceptions of the actor, etc.), more concerned with relatively minute conceptual, epistemological and methodological issues, and more dependent on micro-descriptive case study material. If unsuccessful, we get to keep economic sociology as it now stands, but it is likely that post-classical “fatigue” will soon set in.
This is already what has happened to much that goes by the name of “organizational studies” in Europe and the U.S. which contrasts sharply with what used to go by name of “the sociology of organizations” along the same dimensions (e.g. circumscription versus ambition, descriptivism versus substantive theory, etc.). The much ballyhooed “crisis” of organizational theory (which we have devoted some attention to here in the past), may then be recast simply as an abortive transition towards interdisciplinary “trivialization” manifested as (the lingering feeling of) being stuck in an intermediary status quo: neither here (sociology of organizations) nor there (organizational studies). Organizational theory is in crisis because this type of “theoretical” concern (tethered by an umbilical cord to big or medium-sized classic questions) simply does not fit the organizational studies mold.