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should I drop post-modernism from the theory course?

I want to completely drop post-modernism from my sociological theory teaching. Here’s my argument.

First, a definition. I’ll call someone post-modern if (a) they claim to be post-modern, (b) place themselves within a post-structuralist tradition, or  (c) are arguing with post-modernists. This would include Lyotard, Giddens (in his is radical modernity text), Jameson, Derrida and all deconstructionists such as De Man, Foucault, Flax, Baudrillard, the various feminists and sexuality theorists who argue with Foucault. I don’t include people who are just “fancy Europeans,” such as Bourdieu, who never called himself post-modernist and stems from an earlier modernist sociological tradition.

Here are my reasons for cutting post-modernism theory (PMT):

  1. Professional: American sociology is not really focused on PMT. The major journals simply do not publish much on PMT, at least since the mid-1990s or so. The major books in our field tend not to be the massive “theory” volumes of the past. The one exception is Foucault, who pops up from time to time.
  2. Cognitive: I find it very, very hard to understand. Also, if one of my goals is to teach clear argument about social behavior, it’s immoral to teach PMT.
  3. Empirical: I do not know if I can clearly say that I can judge or assess many PMT claims. I find those that I understand bizarre and unsupported (e.g., the lack of self asserted by some PMT). I teach stuff I disagree with, but at least I have to understand the theory and its empirical consequences.
  4. Substitutes: Why not teach stuff like networks, globalization, or epigenetics as “theory?” These ideas are really changing the way we think about the social world, which is exactly what a theory course should be about.

The two PMT folks I’d continue teaching might be Foucault and Baudrillard, but I don’t need the whole PMT blah-blah-blah apparatus to teach them. They can easily be folded into my teachings on critical theory and Marxism.

Tell me if I am right or wrong.

Written by fabiorojas

January 3, 2011 at 8:39 am

140 Responses

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  1. Keep Foucault (i do not think that he considered himself a postmodern), and drop Baudrillard completely.

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    Baptiste C.

    January 3, 2011 at 9:18 am

  2. I’m ignorant of the discipline here, but how much work has Baudrillard inspired or informed? What’s your justification for keeping him? It seems like impact should be the primary criterion for selection in a survey course.

    Like

    Nuveen

    January 3, 2011 at 9:47 am

  3. Snippet from Wikipedia:
    “Foucault also rejected the poststructuralist and postmodernist labels later attributed to him, referring to classify his thought as a critical history of modernity rooted in Kant.”

    Like

    Bergies

    January 3, 2011 at 10:06 am

  4. I agree with you, but yes, keep Foucault, because you still need him to make sense of influential work in some subfields of social science.

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    Benjamin Geer

    January 3, 2011 at 11:28 am

  5. my two cents coming from a different area (philosophy). We seem to be reaching an agreement among the commentators – keep Foucault, drop the rest. It makes sense to keep Foucault given his interests in the manifestations of power and his attempts to ground what he was saying in something that we might describe as empirical/historical material (however contested his attempts at factual history may have been). It is not of great importance whether he saw himself as a pomo. Skip the rest.

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    Fredrik Stjernberg

    January 3, 2011 at 11:42 am

  6. I find sociology’s dismissive stance toward postmodernism frustrating and disingenuous. It frequently gets mentioned as the comic pole we can all agree is idiotic without bothering to actually engage with the texts (my colleague Neal Caren has pointed out that we often do the same thing with functionalism!). As a major shift in the direction of theory, sociology ought to be more involved in that conversation, and we don’t get there by sniffy dismissal.

    I don’t find points 1-3 convincing. American sociology doesn’t write large tomes on Weber either, but we study him still as a progenitor; many others are in the same category. Clarity, particularly of translated work, is certainly not a standard for importance in other sociological theory. And the importance and possibility of testability are themselves theoretical claims whose critique needs to be considered, not just assumed away!

    That said, the substitutes argument is very strong, since pomo has to beat out something else, and the candidates you mention above are important contenders. Furthermore, to teach pomo well takes a lot of time and care. (Someday I will teach a graduate class focusing on postmarxism and postmodernism alone!)

    My own bottom line: I think you have to teach Foucault because of his continuing influence, but it’s HARD to do well because there’s really no single text that summarizes his thought. Too many people think Foucault is a theorist of the prison because they’ve read Discipline and Punish!

    I think Baudrillard deserves some mention, perhaps “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” or “Requiem for the Twin Towers.” More importantly, I think the reason for NOT including postmodernism more generally needs to be explained well and in a non-dismissive frame.

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    andrewperrin

    January 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm

  7. Two exceptions to point (3) (both of which focus on postmodernism as an empirical project closer to the mainstream): Allan and Turner (2000); and Mirchandani (2005). A student an I wrote a little ditty (Lizardo and Strand 2009) trying to make sense of the various flavors of postmodernism and its evolution from “fancy French stuff” to “less than fancy British theory.” Our basic conclusion is close to your point (4): I don’t need postmodernism if I have globalization.

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    Omar

    January 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm

  8. I don’t think you can teach feminism right without poststructuralism. If you can’t understand Toward A Feminist Theory of the State you shouldn’t be teaching theory. How’s that for non-pomo declaration of truth?

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    Philip Cohen

    January 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm

  9. Postmodern thought – especially the notion that all truth claims are subjective – is worth debating, but if you cannot do it justice don’t go there.

    It is a blackhole that can only be escaped if you have the time to fully understand the words ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ and can then get at the postmodern critique of the moral elements of modernist theories.

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    James

    January 3, 2011 at 3:23 pm

  10. Should the conversation really start as an evaluation of Fabio’s motives to drop PMT? I’d rather read why any PMT should be taught at all. Skepticism can sound dismissive, point taken, but it’s still skepticism.

    For instance, I can immediately find three reasons to get Foucault in (discipline and the conduct of conducts, governmentality and advanced liberalism, biopolitics and technologies of power). As mentioned, Foucault was not part of the pomo club.

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    Fr.

    January 3, 2011 at 4:03 pm

  11. AP writes: More importantly, I think the reason for NOT including postmodernism more generally needs to be explained well and in a non-dismissive frame.

    Agreed. I think what’s going on more is that FR isn’t particularly interested in PM theory, which is cool, but not a particularly compelling reason for inclusion or exclusion from teaching it.

    I would say that PM theory dovetails nicely with at least org work in the Berger & Luckmann style. With Goffman-type work on self & identity. And with feminist theory (IMHO, the confluence of postmodernism and feminist theory is actually kind of awesome in all kinds of ways). And cultural analysis.

    Teach what you want, but I feel AP’s frustrated and disingenuous vibe.

    Like

    Peter

    January 3, 2011 at 7:17 pm

  12. @Andrew and Peter:

    Thanks for your comments, but I don’t see how I am dismissive or disingenuous. Unlike a lot of PMT critics, I have read a good deal of PMT. I have taught PMT for the last 4 years as a standard portion of my theory course. I have spent much time in my office doing line by line readings with students, who can handle Weber or Marx, but are flummoxed by PMT.

    In other words, I gave it my best shot and I’ve come to the conclusion that my intellectual efforts are best spent on other matters, though I am open to argument. I do not consider my social theory course a historical survey. If I did, I’d be obligated to teach it. Instead, my course is an introduction to the ideas of sociology. I should teach ideas that animate social research.

    If the profession of sociology has moved on, then that’s a big signal to me. If our graduate students and assistant professors can’t be bothered to write dissertations or articles on it, then why torture the students?

    I do take your argument that there might be good PMT work in feminist writings. Multiple people have raised that point. If you are talking about Butler or Sedgwick, I remain a little skeptical. The content to noise ratio is still out of whack, even when I think people have good things to say.

    PS. Peter, our feud is back on!!!!!

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    fabiorojas

    January 3, 2011 at 7:32 pm

  13. I’d say, continue to teach postmodernism, but absolutely drop the horrible travesties of it done in US academia (mostly in the nineties). I think we don’t disagree that much.

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    Guillermo

    January 3, 2011 at 8:15 pm

  14. Imagine someone suggesting in the early 20th Century that we can safely stop reading “romantic” fools like Milton and Shelley. They were so obscure, so overwrought, etc. And then imagine someone saying later in the same century that we can safely ignore “modernists” like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. They were “fascists” or whatever. Then, early in the 21st Century, somebody says we can do without, say, Beckett and Borges because they’re so, you know, “postmodern” and hard to understand. Or whatever. Oh wait! That happens all the time … and it’s sort of silly looking when you put it that way, isn’t it?

    Okay. So maybe we should drop these labels “postmodern”, “modern”, “romantic”, “classical”, etc. But wouldn’t a course in literary theory that doesn’t equip the students with a workable sense of what “romanticism” is be obviously inadequate. Likewise, you have to teach the students what “postmodernism” is (whether in literary theory or sociology or philosophy).

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    Thomas

    January 3, 2011 at 8:47 pm

  15. I think your best argument is #4. PMT doesn’t have to prove that it’s “worthy” of study, it just has to prove that it’s more worthy than something else you’d fit into its place given the scarce resource of 15 weeks’ time. Given everything that’s going on today in sociology (many of which you name), I just don’t think that case can be made.

    Maybe you should spend some time on microeconomic theory, so that when your students go on to make ritual condemnations of economists in ASA meetings and colloquium talks, they can at least have some idea what they’re talking about… ;-)

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    Steve Vaisey

    January 3, 2011 at 8:48 pm

  16. @ Thomas: There’s a key difference. The folks who read Shelley and Milton often agree that it’s good after they’ve spent the time reading it. That’s why there’s a vast and ongoing conversation about Milton, or Shelley. In contrast, when you lay out PMT in detail (as I have in many seminars) you are left with a bag of unsupported statements and puffy language. The fact that sociologists have dropped PMT from their research means that the ideas simply aren’t that useful for most of them.

    @ Steve: I already went through my Chicago-foaming-at-the-mouth-rational-choice-phase. Sorry you missed it!

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    fabiorojas

    January 3, 2011 at 8:56 pm

  17. I think you missed the parallel. Try this: The folks who read Deleuze and Foucault often agree that it’s good after they’ve spent the time reading it. That’s why there’s a vast and ongoing conversation about Deleuze, or Foucault. In contrast, when the New Critics looked at Romanticism they saw little more than a bag of unsupported statements and puffy language. In the early 20th Century, literary critics dropped Romanticism from their research because the ideas simply weren’t that useful for most of them.

    Dropping the major figures of an intellectual epoch feels great. It unburdens us. And we do it all the time. But in the long run, the canon asserts itself. So, Milton and Shelley return to their rightful place. They never really leave the anthologies and the classrooms. The idea of “dropping” them is a flourish.

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    Thomas

    January 3, 2011 at 9:16 pm

  18. Thomas, ok, I see your point. PMT will always be with us and I can’t “drop” it. But here’s a crucial difference that remains. Literary studies, you mention the New Critics, is a very historical field. Once the community has spent tome on X, romanticism or whatever, it becomes part of the record and thus needs to be taught. It is always part of the record.

    In contrast, sociology is a science. It’s goal is not history of social thought or philosophy. It’s an attempt to describe the social world with logical argument and data. Thus, the core social theory course should be about teaching ideas that we honestly believe have yielded important theories that have *some* empirical motivation. A related goal of the social theory course is to teach “literacy,” to help students understand what other people are talking about.

    Thus, even if PMT was hugely popular in the 80s or 90s, I can safely drop it if I can legitimately say that (a) I don’t believe it’s a logical theory that’s related to evidence and (b) other sociologists have stopped using it. Back in the 80s, it would be hard to push this position, but now it’s pretty easy.

    PS. There are a lot of historical figures from an epoch that we don’t read anymore. When was the last time you read Gabriel Tarde? It happens all the time. It ain’t so bad. Most of the “major sociologists” right now will be J-stor memories in 30 years.

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    fabiorojas

    January 3, 2011 at 9:25 pm

  19. “In contrast, sociology is a science.” Hmmm. I think there’s the rub. It is when a field of study gets too confident that it is a science that it begins to dismantle its past. In fact, the New Critics (and later with the “rise of theory”, the postmodernists, in fact) displayed exactly that kind of confidence. I’m going to grant that (at least for the sake of this argument) that everything hinges on whether you are right about what sort of field sociology really is. It is literary tradition with the larger Western canon? Or is it a universal science that makes “progress”? Time (History) will tell. But I really think the “science” of sociology is a dubious notion.

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    Thomas

    January 3, 2011 at 9:37 pm

  20. Thomas, there’s a serious argument to be had here. Every scholar has to decide what they want to be. For me, I like theories and evidence, which most people call science. I hope that my teaching expresses my true belief that we can provide logical explanations of the world that’s backed up by evidence.

    If you really think that science is a dubious framework for sociology, then you and I are doing very different things. And if teaching a theory that is both inscrutable and of dubious empirical support counts as good teaching in some other framework, then so be it.

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    fabiorojas

    January 3, 2011 at 9:48 pm

  21. QED.

    Like

    Omar

    January 3, 2011 at 9:59 pm

  22. Omar, you have just showed how Ngrams can settle any argument.

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    fabiorojas

    January 3, 2011 at 10:00 pm

  23. Think of it in terms of cases we might more easily agree about. From the early twentieth century onward anthropology has been considered one of the premier “sciences” of Western culture. I mean “dubious” in a sense that we would apply to something in the range of, say, Margaret Mead to Carlos Castaneda. Some anthropologists today do of course insist that they, for their own parts, are now scientific, no matter how embarrassing the “science” of the past has been. But surely I can remain skeptical, and imagine (and even hope, to use your word) that what makes anthropology valuable to culture is something other than its “science”.

    As to “our” fields. Maybe sociology has very recently reinvented itself, but last time I checked it did not very scrupulously confine itself to “logical explanations of the world that’s backed up by evidence”. Org “science” has certainly abandoned that pretense.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 3, 2011 at 10:08 pm

  24. Thomas: Here’s the thing that boggles me about anthropology. It does not logically follow that prior bad work eliminates the possibility of current good work. So what if Margaret Meade bungled it? How does that mean we should dump all pretenses of logic and evidence in the present? Gosh, theories of the ether don’t mean we should drop electro-magnetic theory! C’mon – put on your thinking caps!

    Here’s a serious question. What do you do at dissertation defenses? Or when you referee articles? Do you tell students that there’s no need for clear theories or evidence? That it’s just Enlightenment era hubris? In your professional life, do you truly abandon all scientific method?

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    fabiorojas

    January 3, 2011 at 10:14 pm

  25. The theories of ether were testable (and scientific) and not embarrassing. Mead’s work on the Samoans was just an ideological exercise glossed as science for rhetorical purposes. There is progress in physics in a way that there is not in anthropology. The ether was refuted. Mead was essentially debunked. There’s a difference. (The best book on this, and I’ve read a few, is definitely Martin Orans’s Not Even Wrong.)

    Here’s my favorite caricature of what happens at “scientific” dissertation defenses. The thesis is praised for its (a) interesting empirical material and (b) its brilliant synthesis of difficult and wide-ranging theory; it is then criticized for the obscurity of the connections between (a) and (b). The competent PhD student “defends” this sorry state of things with a disquisition on matters epistemological the plays fast and loose with ideas that could be gleaned (by a bright student) from a first-year philsci course, often actually learned in an advanced methods course. Everyone is happy.

    That’s how we let our PhD students pretend they are scientists.

    But why make the test the hoops we make the poor PhD students jump through? What did you actually talk about with Michèle Lamont? How her “explanations” were “backed up” (logically!) by “evidence”? C’mon indeed!

    Like

    Thomas

    January 3, 2011 at 10:37 pm

  26. @Thomas:

    1. My point is even more correct. If Mead was a sham, then there’s an even bigger need for scientific anthropology. It’s a huge issue needing to be addressed. Her work on the culture of the Samoans is so lame and wrong that we need good work.

    2. You must go to some lame dissertation defenses. The ones I go to often have questions like: How did you measure that? How does one model the effect? You have over stated the main claim – how can you fix that? Is that really what the literature claims? I honestly can’t imagine what other types of questions one should ask.

    3. Maybe if you think the entirety of social research is junk faux science, that all research from ethnography to formal models is just aping high status physical science, then maybe you ARE a post-modernist! And by all means, keep teaching it. But please don’t referee my papers because they’re full of logic and data, however well or poorly constructed.

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    fabiorojas

    January 3, 2011 at 10:46 pm

  27. @ Thomas:

    Regarding Lamont, there was actually a lot of discussion of how her evidence matched her framing. At the SSHA panel, I was the one who attacked her for saying that this was a broad description of how academic think about research.

    BTW, Lamont’s book is descriptive and even if she wouldn’t say so, description is certainly a legitimate element of science. So we should judge her work on whether it’s an accurate description of academic judgment.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 3, 2011 at 10:51 pm

  28. Surely a discussion about “How did you measure that?” with all its attendant ambiguities, evasions, qualifications, and methodological conundrums *might* simulate science instead of actually manifesting it? That’s all the lameness I was describing. We’re describing the same defense, that is; I’m just less credulous and solemn about it.

    Look, I’m not *claiming* that sociology is junk science. I’m just pointing out that you’ve got a book burning argument coupled to a “we’re a science” argument here.

    But when we look at what these scientists who are called “sociologists” actually do (outside the journals that wave the “science” banner) we find stuff like Sennett’s The Craftsman and Lamont’s How Professors Think. Surely we can agree that those books are not “science”? And surely you can’t have interesting conversations about “how did you measure that?” or “how does one model the effects” they ostensibly study.

    Like I say, we can pretend to be scientists during a PhD defense. But it’s in many ways a very cruel thing to force someone to do their mind. After all, the next minute we’re praising Malcolm Gladwell for his services to the social sciences! The mind boggles.

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    Thomas

    January 3, 2011 at 11:08 pm

  29. Fabio, this is totally the sort of “lame” (your word) defense of sociology as science that was talking about: “BTW, Lamont’s book is descriptive and even if she wouldn’t say so, description is certainly a legitimate element of science. So we should judge her work on whether it’s an accurate description of academic judgment.”

    If that’s going to be the principle then you *should* still be reading Tarde (which you should, in part to help you understand what Deleuze is trying to tell you.)

    Description *alone* isn’t science. Though it is a legitimate part of science to be sure.

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    Thomas

    January 3, 2011 at 11:16 pm

  30. . . . .
    .
    . _ . .
    . _ _ .

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    teppo

    January 3, 2011 at 11:19 pm

  31. You could combine postmodernism and globalization together, and set Hardt & Negri’s Empire. It’s not an argument I would agree with, but it does seem to have a large fan base in Europe.

    In agreement with everyone else, I would definitely keep Foucault.

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    Naadir Jeewa

    January 3, 2011 at 11:43 pm

  32. PS. Peter, our feud is back on!!!!!

    If that were the case, I would have suggested that no doubt PMT has already been replaced in your course by game theory or whatever scant empiricism-cum-theory that economics next farts over the fence.

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    Peter

    January 4, 2011 at 1:21 am

  33. Fabio, I think the debate between you and Thomas is quite revealing. If in fact you begin with the premise that sociology is (only) a science, and that therefore data and hypotheses are unproblematic elements of its practice, you cannot take seriously PMT (or frankly even the more interesting parts of Foucault, Latour, etc.). Perhaps the most important claims of these texts are epistemological in character; these are also the least controversial, even for positivist social scientists! Serious consideration of these theories tends to mean a self-conscious compromise of epistemological purity in exchange for progress in building knowledge.

    I think, historically and in practice, that sociology is both a science and a humanities discipline, and that it is this dialectic that energizes the discipline and frustrates everyone :). If I’m right, then “sociology is a science so I don’t want to have to deal with humanities-ish theory” is inadequate.

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    andrewperrin

    January 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm

  34. A few quick ones:

    @ Thomas: This is not a “book burning” argument. All the time we make judgments about what is worth our time. People are still free to read or write PMT, but I’m moving on unless I get some great argument to the contrary.

    Also, I am still puzzled about some of your attitudes toward science. Talking about measurement is *exactly* what scientists do. Ever take a physics course? You start by talking about measurement. Units of measure, direct measures & indirect measures. Before you go around claiming that sociologists blindly ape science, we should have a discussion of what actually happens in science.

    Finally, description is part of science. Ever read a medical journal? They often have descriptive case studies, as do biology and astronomy journals. People are reporting phenomena all the time. If Lamont is trying to accurately describe how academics evaluate things, that’s easily science, even if I might criticize how it was done.

    @ Andrew: We don’t walk the way we talk. Sure we can sing the praise of a discipline that’s humanities and social science, but when it comes to jobs and publications, evidence and hypothesis testing rules the day. Even the journal sociological theory has shifted to theory about concrete social processes and less the humanistic “social theory” of the past. If that’s the case, then we should drop the pretense and just say we’re doing science. And unlike PMT, I actually understand that.

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    fabiorojas

    January 4, 2011 at 3:13 pm

  35. Sounds like one wants a unification of the different sciences. Sociologist’s deep desire to copy physics is an age-old discussion that I didn’t think was necessary to go back to. In particular Stephen Toulmin has written excellent stuff on this. Sciences can be different and still be scientific.

    Like

    Bergies

    January 4, 2011 at 4:28 pm

  36. Your definition of “post-modern” leaves much to be desired. First, it is highly contestable that what is ordinarily called “post-structuralism” (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze) is reducible to what is ordinarily called “post-modern”(Lyotard). (Jameson is obviously a Marxist: he’s making a Marxist claim about a particular social formation, specially one which emerges in the capitalist democracies sometime around 1970.) Second, if a post-modernist includes someone who rejects post-modernism but argues with post-modernists, then that seems to make you a post-modernist: consequently, you are required to exclude yourself from your own classroom!

    This does not mean that your original intuition–viz., “post-modern theory” should be excluded from social or sociological theory courses–but it does mean that your argument is significantly compromised and weak.

    However, this is all beside the point. It is perfectly legitimate to minimize teaching what you aren’t comfortable with or have a limited understanding of. In my case, I’m not especially inclined to teach the Chicago neo-liberals, despite their wide-ranging influence on sociology, criminology and economics. These are pedagogical decisions we all have to make. But, to present our own intellectual inadequacies as knock-down arguments against entire fields is just silly and reeks of silly hubris.

    But this, too, is beside the point. As is clear from your comments in response to the post, you understand sociology to be a particular sort of discipline which necessarily means that it is not any other sort of discipline. Any sort of work that does not fit into your view–a view that I think is justifiably called, per Mill, abstracted empiricism–is necessarily excluded and, worse, of dubious intellectual merit. This is a specious argument: to treat as resolved (in your favour) a highly contested question, namely what is sociology?, is an extremely ideological position.

    Obviously, you are free to teach whatever you want in your social/sociological theory courses, but don’t pretend that your exclusions are based upon any notion of “scientificity” or somesuch. Much of the work that brings students into the discipline (certainly not all students, nor should it) is work that takes up broad questions in theoretical terms, often within a significant historical context.

    Lastly, defending your position on the basis of your students having trouble with the material is dubious. Even the best students often struggle with their statistics courses–the material is opaque, abstract, dense, difficult to understand, etc. Reading and doing theoretical work is as much an acquired craft as doing ethnography or the latest fad in statistical analysis.

    Like

    Craig

    January 4, 2011 at 7:40 pm

  37. I largely agree with Craig and Andrew. It’s not so much whether or not sociology is science that got me about your position, Fabio, but the way the “fact” that it is science seems to close the question for you. At that point the issue shifts to what you mean be “science”, and once you mean that it allows you to ignore the recent and highly controversial history of your field (which you of course immediately disown as your history).

    Obviously my reference to “book burning” was a metaphor and a hyperbole. You are very clearly considering a rewriting of the past (in your classroom) to justify the present state of your field (the field as seen by you). You are proposing not to expose your students to ideas that challenge your favored image of what you do.

    It interesting that I propose to drop the scientific pretense and you counter with a proposal to drop our humanist pretensions. Maybe it’s simply to soon to tell. And Craig is right that you are within your rights to focus on the work you are comfortable teaching. Our job, as your peers, is not to let you get too comfortable, I suppose.

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    Thomas

    January 4, 2011 at 8:34 pm

  38. @Thomas: “rewriting the past”? Come on, are you serious? Fabio is just trying to figure out how to divide his precious time between the vast number of possible topics. Moreover, I find it puzzling that you argue with Fabio about whether his research should aim at being “science” or not.
    But at least I now better understand why we couldn’t reach agreement in our earlier argument on sociology and philosophy…

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    Rense

    January 5, 2011 at 4:47 am

  39. No, Rense, I don’t think that was “just” what Fabio was doing. His four reasons have nothing to do with time & resources, but with the value of PMT as such.

    He wants to “drop post-modernism from [his] sociological theory teaching” altogether, meaning he will no longer teach theorists who “(a) claim to be post-modern, (b) place themselves within a post-structuralist tradition, or (c) are arguing with post-modernists.” His list includes Lyotard, Giddens, Jameson, Derrida and “all deconstructionists” (De Man, Foucault, Flax, Baudrillard). He will also drop “the various feminists and sexuality theorists who argue with Foucault.” (He will then bring Foucault and perhaps Baudrillard back in under a different label.)

    I’m saying that, given the history of social thought since, say, 1968, that’s a pretty radical proposal. Even more intriguing is his idea that sociology (students) can do without this (teaching of their recent) history because it is a “science” and therefore makes progress beyond temporary fashions like “postmodernism”, which have been tried, he suggests, without bearing fruit. Fabio agrees with me that in other fields, where these fashions come as movements like neo-classicism and romanticism, he would be less confident about simply “dropping” their key texts.

    So it’s just an interesting discussion, and a familiar one to most people who have a bit historical awareness about “science”. Fabio is using that word in a very common way: because what we do is science, he says, and therefore built on the results produced by tried and tested methods, we don’t have to put up with foundational but “purely theoretical” critique that has no “empirical consequences”. I disagree with him on that. What’s so puzzling?

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    Thomas

    January 5, 2011 at 8:46 am

  40. Even if it were true that sociolgists have significant body of accumulated “results” that they can “build” on, which is a claim that I think itself warrants careful scrutiny before accepting, I think the nature of society (i.e., the object of social theory) requires the sort of anti-foundationalist, post-structuralists, even “romantic” challenge that what is called (these days mostly dismissively) “postmodernism” represents. That is, we cannot seriously propose merely to “describe” and “explain” society. We must let any study of social life engage with fundamental issues of subjectivity and existence. We must always ask, what or who is *really* speaking when we speak as sociologists. We cannot propose to speak simply of “the facts”, however, logical or clear our image (imagination) of them is. That’s what really got me about Lamont’s talk of a “window” into “how professors think” made possible by what she, a professor herself, experienced as the “frankness” of their responses to her questions.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 5, 2011 at 9:02 am

  41. The problem as I see it is that Fabio reads “sociological theory” as meaning “an accumulated body of knowledge generated through empirical research” (this is, for example, how microeconomists see theory for the most part). However theory courses span much more than that. They should be called “sociological theory and sociological thought” or maybe better yet “theoretical sociology”. In fact, theory courses contain very little in the way of the first definition (“an accumulated body of knowledge generated through empirical research”). In the majority of schools, theory courses consist of different theoretical perspectives for studying the social world, and postmodern authors have given us such perspectives. This is what I think is the claim being made by the respondents.

    Theoretical physics, for example, contains many theories that, in the best of cases, are very difficult to falsify, but no one is going to claim they are not physics because of this.

    Like

    Guillermo

    January 5, 2011 at 11:32 am

  42. I just thought of a challenge that might be interesting. Fabio proposes his favorite sociological explanation. That is, a theory and some results that support it. I then try to deconstruct it, *not refute it*. That is, I try to show that even in the strongest case of a sociological explanation supported by evidence, a postmodern perspective (here, deconstruction) has an important contribution to make.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 5, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  43. Such a challenge would be fruitless, because you and Fabio clearly disagree on what a good explanation is and on what would constitute an important contribution.

    Like

    Rense

    January 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm

  44. That’s why I said deconstruct, *not refute*. I would probably grant that Fabio’s explanation was a good one, as far as it goes. And I would then deconstruct it. I would identify a “dangerous supplement”, if you will. *Given* the explanation, I would try to demonstrate the relevance of a postmodern perspective.

    Like

    christinei

    January 5, 2011 at 7:20 pm

  45. Sorry, I just borrowed my wife’s identity! The above post is (obviously) by me.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 5, 2011 at 7:23 pm

  46. Thomas/Christine’s comment points to a deep issue. In the humanities, “interesting” is an acceptable standard. A poem or an opera doesn’t have to be true. So deconstructing an argument, which Derrida himself said is different than logical analysis, might be an interesting and valuable activity. I have no problem with that in principle. In contrast, the sciences try to find truth. That is the standard. Since deconstruction is not a truth seeking activity, by Derrida’s own admission, it’s not relevant to science.

    Now, we can make the case that sociology is both a humanistic and scientific activity. And there is a model for that. Political science, for example, is a discipline that houses both philosophical and scientific inquiries. In Europe and East Asia, sociology is cast in this light as well. It’s sort of philosophical and humanistic, but with empirical branches as well.

    But overall, my belief is that the dual humanistic/scientific model does not serve sociology well. The reason is that the best social theory tends to be driven by empirical questions. Marx didn’t see himself as a “theorist.” He was trying to grapple with specific economic and social processes. Same with Weber and Durkheim and most of the figures who have laid the foundations of sociology. They saw something and then tried to explain it.

    Also, from a professional perspective, scientific and humanistic research tends to ignore each other. In political science, “theory” tends to be its own contained sub-specialty, while the rest of the discipline ignores it. Thankfully in sociology, our empirical research is actually well connected to classical authors, even as we hatch new ideas. For that reason, I stick to empirically driven social research. It’s got a great track record and it’s responsible for most of our great theoretical ideas.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 5, 2011 at 7:40 pm

  47. Well, what does logical analysis mean – are we talking formal logic, or, e.g., Toulmin-logic, which is a much broader and more useful term.

    Humanistic sciences don’t create poems – just as we don’t create organizations. So, whether poems are true is irrelevant.

    I would be curious to see Fabio respond to Craigs post, since that post basically pinpoints all the relevant counter-arguments against Fabios position.
    I don’t see anything wrong with Fabios position – it’s just a subsection of Sociology. A subsection that almost pr. definition will not be able to understand “verstehen” or similar terms.

    Btw., I don’t understand most of the Pomos either, but I take a humble approach and acknowledge my own ignorance. Socrates would have been happy about that.

    Like

    Bergies

    January 5, 2011 at 8:20 pm

  48. No need to apologize Thomas. Engaging in shifting identity interplay is a very postmodern thing to do.

    Like

    Omar

    January 5, 2011 at 8:33 pm

  49. Fabio unintentionally gives a good reason for why the theory of the sort he disparages should be included: by saying that “Marx or Weber or Durkheim didn’t consider themselves theorists” is trivially true–it was impossible for them to have seen themselves as such! Specialization within sociology–economic sociologist, political sociologist, cultural sociologist, social theorist–doesn’t develop in the discipline until well after Marx, Weber, and Durkheim’s deaths. Sociological theory likely (and I’m guessing here) doesn’t become a distinct sub-field until about Parsons’ “Essays in Sociological Theory” (1954, I believe).

    Scienticism tends towards ahistoricism. This is a problem in sociology, economics and psychology. Our colleagues in economics would be well advised to read people like Marx and our colleagues would be well advised to real people like Freud. The same holds for us–Elias has written extensively on this, among others.

    Like

    Craig

    January 5, 2011 at 8:49 pm

  50. Craig: I was not making a comment on the presence of academic specialties. My point is that historical considerations of earlier social theory did not motivate the classical social theorists. When they (Marx, Weber) talk about other economists, the point was to make concrete arguments, not do history of social thought. There’s a pattern in great social theory: previous work is the springboard for new work. People don’t worry about historical exegesis, deconstruction, or whatever. It’s about figuring out the world.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 5, 2011 at 8:53 pm

  51. Fabio: all the same, Marx wrote extensively on “the history of the theory” covering, in detail, all major economic thinkers from at least the seventeenth century to his present. What he called “the history of the theory” was a central part of his own project. The entirety of his project is thoroughly historical. Weber, likewise, is encyclopedic in his historical coverage. Why did Marx and Weber find it necessary to carefully read and consider their predecessors but you don’t find it necessary for anyone else to do so, especially your students? (This isn’t an argument of the sort, “If you want to understand Marx, you need to read Hegel”–although all graduate students in sociology should certainly read both during coursework.)

    Like

    Craig

    January 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm

  52. Craig:

    1. There’s a simple reason Marx wrote extensively on history of economic thought and it’s different than the argument that you and others have made. He did it to show that the previous generations got important things wrong. He was going through the old stuff in order to generate new stuff. The old and new stuff was based on concrete examples. He didn’t do it just to be historical. It was tied to the need to address concrete facts. In fact, Marx’s most important work tends to combine conceptual insights and empirical observations.

    To be fair, Marx did write much that might be considered purely conceptual. But I am not a philosopher, and unless it can show me how to analyze the real world differently, I am happy to let the folks in the philosophy department teach that material.

    2. “Why did Marx and Weber find it necessary to carefully read and consider their predecessors but you don’t find it necessary for anyone else to do so, especially your students?”

    Now you are putting words in my mouth. I have never argued that we should avoid reading predecessors. My courses still teach Marx and Weber and all kinds of crusty musty stuff. Rather my argument is that we can drop certain topics if they simply aren’t helpful. Read predecessors if they are good. Otherwise, we can drive by.

    Do you truly believe that you must read *all* social theorists of the past? Of course not! That’s absurd. What we do is make judgments. In my view Marx and Weber are justified. They produced ideas of lasting value. I am not alone. My colleagues are doing research that responds to these authors.

    I am willing to concede that I am in error on the value of PMT. But after spending four years teaching this material, I now believe that post-modern theory doesn’t meet the bar of essential material that sociologists need to know. I honestly do not think PMT makes a contribution on the level of Marx, DuBois or others that I teach. I might still teach it if research on concrete social processes uses PMT in significant amounts. It does not and has not for about 15 years. Thus, if I think it’s weak theory and few others use it, aside from self-described theorists who don’t work with data, I can safely drop it.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 5, 2011 at 9:24 pm

  53. Fabio:

    I don’t dispute your first point. (Although it is too narrow: there were important theoretical reasons why Marx found it necessary to do the history of the theory.) Marx gives us an example of precisely why we need to read our predecessors: a particular view becomes widespread and it leads to particular theoretical and empirical effects. (In Althusserian terms: Generality II takes Generality I as its material in order to produce Generality III.) These need to be understood and explained, including in relation to the present state of the theory. Marx takes those before him seriously, even if he makes jokes at their expense from time to time; he doesn’t just ignore them for reasons that have not withstood scrutiny. In his case, he’d address what you’re calling “post-modern theory,” even if he thought it were wrong: it was wrong for important reasons. That is, it is sociologically and theoretically interesting why a given theory was prevalent at a given time. This is an important element of the historicity of our discipline. Indeed, in some posts to this site, this very historicity is praised: most recently in relation to cultural explanations of poverty. Why is it not praised now?

    To the second point: now you are putting words in my mouth. I clearly indicated in my first and previous comments that it was not necessary to read everyone. I’m not sure why you’d hold me to the opposite position to that I hold. Your last sentence is just plain silly.

    Perhaps a better exercise would be as follows: in a second year undergraduate survey (twenty-four weeks) of classical social theory, what would you include? The same for a third year undergraduate survey in contemporary social theory? What about a twelve-week course for each of classical and contemporary at the graduate level?

    Like

    Craig

    January 5, 2011 at 9:50 pm

  54. Craig and Thomas,

    At a few points you guys have fallen back onto a position of justifying inclusion of the posts as a matter of intellectual history. However this doesn’t strike me as particularly strong argument for the simple reason that the “post-” theories (with the possible exception of Foucault) have never had an especially strong influence on the mainstream of American sociology and so are not in any meaningful sense “our predecessors” even as they might meaningfully be the “predecessors” of other areas of “social thought since 1968.”

    Furthermore, even if we concede a strong role for the posts in some areas of social thought (eg, lit crit, continental philosophy) this was primarily over a fairly brief period (c. 1980-1995). By this logic, we must then commit ourselves to reviewing any intellectual fad no matter how brief its dominance or how silly it looks in retrospect. I mean, how can Fabio possibly justify his slighting of phrenology, which probably had a greater influence over a wider variety social thought for a longer time than did pomo?

    This may or may not be unfair in your particular cases, but I do find it ironic that the most compelling argument mustered here for inclusion of the “posts” is some kind of alleged canonicity when the ascent of the posts in the 1980s often went hand-in-hand with a critique of the idea of the canon. After all, nobody objected that Fabio is failing to devote weeks to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, or Hume — all of whom have had a much stronger and lasting influence on social thought than anything on the list or criticized so far as an omission. Or is it only our recent intellectual history that we are responsible for rehashing? If so, when can we drop it from the curriculum? 2020? 2080? 2300?

    Bottom line, however much we might like to lock our students in the library until they’ve read through the card catalog, there is a realistic limit to how much intellectual history we can expect them to engage with before they get on to the current active literature and so it’s entirely fair to limit such review to the intellectual history that the biggest and/or most meritorious impact on the current issues.

    Like

    Gabriel

    January 5, 2011 at 9:56 pm

  55. Gabriel – a fair reading of Craig does not at all relate to your arguments. Pomos should be read if they are considered relevant, and more relevant than a substitute. That should be the reason for discarding Pomo – rather than claiming that Pomo is not sociology or not relevant in it self. Unless, of course, one wants a narrow conception of sociology, which would be fine as well. As long as it is acknowledged as being narrow.

    Like

    Bergies

    January 5, 2011 at 10:23 pm

  56. Wow, and we keep hearing the postmodern wars are dead — clearly not given the length of this thread!

    Fabio, I think the best argument you’ve made for dropping PMT is: “my belief is that the dual humanistic/scientific model does not serve sociology well. The reason is that the best social theory tends to be driven by empirical questions.” This is NOT because I agree with you (I don’t), but because it is a self-consciously partial claim, made and pursued in a self-consciously partial way. You have stated premises here that are not defensible by recourse to more basic premises; they are simply statements of your position. Bottom line: you won’t teach PMT in your classes because you don’t like it, or to use gentler language, because it doesn’t fit your normative idea of what sociology ought to be.

    We can have an (even longer) discussion of whether the underlying truth claims of postmodernism are correct, or defensible, or interesting, and I suspect we’d disagree. I think they are all of the above. But your essentially normative claim licenses your decision, certainly in the context of other options.

    Like

    andrewperrin

    January 5, 2011 at 10:49 pm

  57. I’m defending PMT as part of the present state of sociology and therefore that it should be taught in contemporary theory courses. I’m objecting precisely to construing it as part of the history of sociology because if that is true it is too recent a history in the life of social ideas (which may be an important difference in comparison to the life of ideas in physics). 1980-1995 is a fifteen year period fifteen years ago that marks a peculiarly American moment in the development of PMT from the end of WWII to the present day. I am not arguing that postmodernists are our predecessors, but that they are our contemporaries. I am saying that you can’t “figure out the world”, as Fabio puts it, in ignorance of them. Your teachers fail you if they don’t put them before you.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 5, 2011 at 11:07 pm

  58. I believe sociology must continually face (and sociology students must be taught how to face) “the crisis of representation”. I do not believe that they should be undermined by it, but I do think they should be taught what it is. It is part of what is going on in the world that they need to “figure out”.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 5, 2011 at 11:16 pm

  59. Excellent post by Gabriel.

    Like

    Thorstein Veblen

    January 6, 2011 at 1:39 am

  60. The “crisis of representation” is an outstanding example of what PMT has to offer a serious epistemological approach to sociology.

    Like

    andrewperrin

    January 6, 2011 at 1:50 am

  61. What is the crisis of representation?

    Like

    Thorstein Veblen

    January 6, 2011 at 2:16 am

  62. There you go again…

    Ok, the crisis of representation refers to the fact that there is a substantial difference between how we describe the world and what the world is really like. The hypothesis (oops!) is that there isn’t much we can depend on beyond the narratives we make. That’s the crisis. There’s nothing beyond the representation.

    If you do a J-Stor search, you’ll see that the idea was a big deal in the 1990s, mainly among literary types. It’s easy to see why. For a book (“a text”) there really is nothing beyond the constructed reality of the text. That’s what we have to deal with and there is no “deep meaning” out there to be discovered, especially with fiction.

    But let’s take Andrew seriously. Does the crisis of representation illuminate sociology? I say no. First, I have some good evidence that there is a social world that exists beyond my interpretation of it. I encounter things that appear to be other people and they act in ways I can’t predict. Second, even though social life is a series of conventions, they are not conventions created by me. In other words, they exist independently of my interpretation of them.

    So yes, my representation of the social world may be just that, a representation. But it does appear to refer to something that really does exist. Also, I have seen my beliefs falsified about the world, which suggests that beliefs are not completely unanchored from the social world that exists independently of me.

    In the end, the whole crisis thing is just rehashed skepticism. An honorable tradition to be sure, but untenable for any real sociologist. If you really believed that there was this radical disjunction between reality and representation, or that there is not reality beyond our representations and signs, then what’s the point of, say, ethnography? Or survey analysis?

    It’s might be amusing for a philosopher to adopt this position, but it’s a slap in the face to any sociologists who cares about things like poverty, power, economics or anything else. Just because our measurements and perceptions of the world are imperfect doesn’t mean it’s just a big solipsistic language game.

    And that’s why I can’t teach post-modernism anymore.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 6, 2011 at 2:36 am

  63. Gabriel:

    Barring evidence to the contrary, I assumed that Fabio was not derelict in his intellectual duties in teaching classical social theory. In my courses, at least, we spend a month on each of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. This constitutes the entirety of the second semester. In the first semester we cover, at least, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Comte and Nietzsche. I touch upon, for instance, Hume, Ferguson, Condorcet, Spencer, and so on, as necessary for context. Bit of a sausage factory, but it seems like a reasonable degree of breadth for an undergraduate course in classical social theory.

    My argument does not rest upon canonicity. It isn’t clear how you came to this conclusion. Indeed, I haven’t rejected excluded the theorists listed by Fabio. I’ve rejected his reasons: at the end of the day, Fabio’s reasons are subjective and have no other basis than preference.

    Like

    Craig

    January 6, 2011 at 2:55 am

  64. “Your teachers fail you if they don’t put them [postmodernist ideas] before you.” I think the duty of a teacher is to teach those ideas that make sense to him. As long as you are honest about it to your students, pointing out that your teaching reflects your view about good sociology, there nothing wrong with omitting things that you don’t like. (But of course, Fabio brought all of this on himself when he asked for our opinions on his decision.)

    Like

    Rense

    January 6, 2011 at 3:07 am

  65. Reminds me of an algorithm to produce a pseudo-Heideggerian sentence: “the crisis of representation is nothing but the representation of the crisis.”

    Like

    Omar

    January 6, 2011 at 3:25 am

  66. Fabio,

    Regarding your comments on the crisis of misrepresentation, I think you’re giving the misimpression of a more naive epistemology than I know you actually hold. That is, it’s one thing to hold that reality exists (rather than being turtles all the way down) and another to say that what we readily observes is an unbiased reflection of that. I don’t think you’re saying the latter, I just worry that you could be mischaracterized that way and radical skepticism often thrives on a straw man of radical naivete.

    Even accepting that there are facts out there, it’s important to know when and how your ability to see them is refracted. Just yesterday a grad student came to me asking about uses for a dataset and I suggested that the best way to read the dataset was to basically treat the error as data and vice versa (along this model). Similarly, last year I gave some extended musings on cultural scripts as compared to meaningful accounts using the case of Augustine’s conversion in which I suggested that there is some reality of the matter and we can gain useful information about it from Confessions, but we don’t want to take it at face value either.

    The important thing is that in some contexts the data is pretty unproblematic but even in contexts where data is problematic, the interesting problems themselves are systematic and can often be studied as such (eg, this or this or this). This is why I’m not interested in radical skepticism. It may very well be that we can’t see face to face, but there is something reflected in the glass (however darkly) and we can also study the glass itself.

    Craig,
    Canonicity may not exactly be the right word, but I read your comments as generally holding that we need to read and position ourselves vis-a-vis our predecessors and contemporaries. I read as implicit in this an idea of it really being about important predecessors and contemporaries, which really just begs the question of what is important. This theme of pomo being part of the (for lack of a better term) the canon, is more explicit in Thomas’s rather prolific comments, to which I was also responding.

    (btw, that is a truly heroic curriculum you described.)

    Like

    gabriel rossman

    January 6, 2011 at 6:20 am

  67. The crisis of representation, I would say, is more about how representations of social order reproduce that order. I’m putting that in a deliberately Bourdieuian way, but it is also captured by what Deleuze said Foucault showed us: “the indignity of speaking for others”. (The fact that PMT cannot be taught without a bit of Bourdieu, and Bourdieu cannot be taught without a bit of PMT, is part of the reason that dropping PMT doesn’t make much sense to me. It’s like Wordsworth and romanticism that way too.)

    That is, the crisis of representation is felt whenever we are forced to take responsibility for the political consequences of our “scientific” representations. In sociology, I would think, that situation arises all the time. My experience is precisely that PhD students often experience this crisis as a kind of “skepticism”, i.e., as the possibility that they might be wrong (that the world is unlike our representation of it), but this is a very unsophisticated response, which recasts the crisis in terms of “doubt” and therefore as a “crisis of faith”. Students, and some young researchers, really do experience this crisis in this very reductive way: “Who am I to speak of this?” (a good question with many good answers) becomes “I don’t know enough to speak of this!” (expressing either cynicism or defeat depending on the consequences that are taken). This only shows that they have had too limited exposure to PMT in their sociological theory courses and therefore don’t really understand what the crisis implies. It is akin to responding to the environmental crisis by feeling vaguely “guilty” and sorting your trash.

    The real difficulty is much more interesting, and has to do with taking the “conditions of the possibility of the representation of objects” (a Kantian notion) seriously in the case, not of things (as in physics), but of people. In 1968, many intellectuals (especially in France) thought representation (especially of the social world) was finished, i.e., that it was no longer possible (or necessary) to speak for others. Today, there is a more sober view of the particular difficulty that sociological representation requires us to deal with.

    This difficulty is not the “classical” problem of representation, namely, getting the facts right in our representations of them. It is, on the contrary, about respecting the right of particular social domains to be misunderstood if necessary (and a sociological representation is always necessarily, if partly, a misrepresentation anyway) in a way that maintains their dignity in the ongoing negotiation over what society, not *is* (as “figured out” by sociologists), but may become. This requires us to not just study what society happens to be like, but what it always already must be like in order for sociologists to have a meaningful place within it. The meaning of this place when fully (or just adequately) understood (as in a sociological theory course), however, will, I think, not quite turn out to have the simple dignity that Fabio seems to think it has accomplished for itself since 1995.

    “Crisis? What crisis?” as the famous question goes.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 6, 2011 at 7:45 am

  68. Fabio, are you serious about your representation (!) of “the crisis of representation”? You are only referring to an ontological scepticism, not the potential epistemological scepticism. Hence, your representation is way off, not because there is no crisis, but because your conception of the crisis is flawed.

    Like

    Bergies

    January 6, 2011 at 9:03 am

  69. perhaps dedicate one class lecture to postmodernism, or a part of a lecture to it, and then assign various PMT readings in “recommended further readings” in the syllabus?

    Like

    Andrew

    January 6, 2011 at 9:59 am

  70. Fabio, look at your language: “slap in the face”? Seriously? You’re really going to reject a theoretical genre–and an influential one–because you find it emotionally insulting? C’mon, there are lots of good reasons not to teach it, but taking offense is certainly not one of them.

    “I have some good evidence that there is a social world that exists beyond my interpretation of it….it does appear to refer to something that really does exist.”

    The problem is that the crisis of representation means that that appearance is, itself, the product of a representational system. You can choose, arbitrarily, to ignore the fact that the representative apparatus is always distorting, and that that distortion is largely unmeasurable and, therefore, really the main story, but that choice is arbitrary. (It may very well be useful, productive, helpful, but it’s not transparent or truthful.)

    None of this, by the way, is cordoned off neatly in the world of postmodernism. A good reading of Foucault requires it, as do theories of performativity, Latour/ANT, Adorno et al., arguably even Berger and Luckmann.

    Like

    andrewperrin

    January 6, 2011 at 2:41 pm

  71. Get up, shower, take baby to pre-school, have some juice, check up on our latest round of arguments about post-modernism…

    @ Gabriel: A perfectly acceptable epistemology only appears naive when you state it in simple, easy to understand terms. I don’t assume, or ever said, that representations are unproblematic. Rather, I employ an epistemology that admits the possibility of error but also accepts that there is something beyond our conventions and symbolic systems. If I were to be totally explicit, I’d argue for an epistemology that’s Bayesian and Popperian.

    @ Craig: What would I teach in different courses? When I was an instructor at Chicago, you could teach all kinds of stuff. Students would take a *minimum* of a year of social theory. Many start learning as freshmen. In that system, I wouldn’t feel bad teaching post-modernism.

    At Indiana, we have a single course for undergrads, which they take as seniors. The PhD program only offers one semester of theory. Training is very empirical and quantitative. In that system, post-modernism is a luxury.

    @ Andrew: “The problem is that the crisis of representation means that that appearance is, itself, the product of a representational system. ”

    Let’s be careful here. Yes, appearances are a product of the way we represent things. But it is not necessarily true that appearance of the world have no relationship at all to something beyond the subject that creates the representations.

    This is a mistake that a lot of people make. They jump from “we create appearances” and “appearances can be distorting” to “we don’t know anything” or “there’s a crisis in knowledge.” That does not immediately follow.

    If we start with “we create appearances” and “appearances can be distorting” then the following *might* be true:

    1. the difference between reality and symbolic representations is small

    2. the differences are substantial, but can be addressed

    3. the differences are substantial, but can’t be addressed

    The post-modern crowd jumps 1. without seriously considering the possibility for 2 or 3. My personal position is 2 and I think it’s the only one compatible with social science as an empirical discipline.

    Finally, yes, I am offended and you are free to scoff at me. But I stand in good company in my disgust with post-modernists. Consider Barbara Christian, the literary critic, who wrote a highly charged, but ultimately correct criticism of post-modernism. Her point was that the post-modern theory is a tool that suppresses the hard earned knowledge of all kinds of people. Her focus was on women and minorities and how postmodern theory essentially wipes out the validity of their literary culture by reducing their writings to mere self-referential symbolism.

    I don’t think Christian went far enough. If I were to take post-modern theory seriously, such as the crisis of representation thesis, then I would have to seriously consider abandoning all empirical research that presupposes that there is a rational way to interpret and measure the world beyond my preferences and symbolic representations. That was precisely Lyotard’s point in The Postmodern Condition and why the text is considered, rightfully, as a critique of science.

    Finally, you note that the issue with representation is present in work that is not postmodern. I agree, but I would add a distinction. In other work, problems with representation are often presented to be a thorny issue, but that some knowledge is possible. Latour for example doesn’t say with actor network theory is *just* a language game. He doesn’t say that appearance of the world are so radically disjoined from reality that all we have is words. Instead, he makes an argument for a new way of seeing things. ANT is not just another language game, it’s a real (if odd) theory. And that I can respect.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 6, 2011 at 3:24 pm

  72. I think we might be converging on at least some common ground here. I don’t actually think most PMT jumps over possibility 1 in your list, but the problem is in a sense metatheoretical: we have no way of adjudicating among the three levels you describe. I also don’t think you’ll find (much) PMT actually arguing that life is “just” a language game; rather, I think the epistemological point is that the extent to which it is a language game is uncertain and radically unobservable.

    “it is not necessarily true that appearance[s] of the world have no relationship at all to something beyond the subject that creates the representations.”

    No, of course it’s not *necessarily* true. But it’s also not necessarily false. I am happy to be proven wrong, but I don’t see PMT as making the strong claim that there is certainly no underlying reality, but rather that the radical uncertainty about the sign/signified relationship deserves to be embraced, not ignored.

    Of course you are free to be offended, and I don’t mean to “scoff,” but I don’t see how that’s a justification for curricular decisions.

    I am totally sympathetic with the problem of a single semester of graduate theory, which is UNC’s (pathetic) standard as well. As I and others have said, that’s a good reason for relegating PMT below the bar and therefore not teaching it. I had a great time teaching advanced theory last semester in large part because of the great students who chose to take it. I hope to do it again in the future, perhaps interdisciplinarily.

    My bottom line is that sociologists ought not dismiss PMT without reading it seriously. Prioritization is not dismissal.

    Like

    andrewperrin

    January 6, 2011 at 4:00 pm

  73. Fabio and Gabriel: Very much appreciate your posts. My only question (for Fabio) is why it took you so long to dump PMT. It’s fascinating to me that someone who is as serious as you about social science would not just give up when first trying to read such stuff, let alone feel any obligation to teach it to future sociologists. I completely agree that sociology is not well served by any confusion about what should be our proper mission, which is to make progress in understanding the world that surely exists [and is at least partly knowable; if it weren’t, we should all resign and get real jobs] outside our solipsistic heads.

    Like

    ezrazuckerman

    January 6, 2011 at 4:14 pm

  74. As it happens, MIT is home not just to Ezra but also to the most prominent present-day defender of solipsism.

    Like

    Kieran

    January 6, 2011 at 5:29 pm

  75. “It’s fascinating to me that someone who is as serious as you about social science would not just give up when first trying to read such stuff, let alone feel any obligation to teach it to future sociologists.”

    Prof. Zuckerman, postmodern authors have given us many interesting concepts for studying and understanding the social world. They cannot just be dismissed with a wave of the hand.

    Like

    Guillermo

    January 6, 2011 at 5:31 pm

  76. @Ezra: Consider the following statement: “Theology is not well served by any confusion about what should be our proper mission, which is to make progress in understanding the Deity that surely exists and is at least partly knowable; if it weren’t, we should all resign and get real jobs.”

    Well, not all theologians would say that; only priests (of particular orders) would, because their jobs depend not just on the existence of God but on their privileged access to what’s on His mind. Such priests would naturally reduce all doubts about this access (cf. “method”) to doubts about the existence of God. That is, they would position foundational critiques about their field’s methodology and cultural legitimacy as grounded in atheism and therefore beyond the pale of “serious” thinking about such things.

    But there are many critiques of “the Church” (not just the one headquartered in Rome) that are either agnostic or outright theistic. What they question is the idea of someone’s privileged access to a body of “facts” that can be “known” by properly trained “experts”. That’s how a postmodern theologian might approach the subject, and this questioning does not always lead to a rejection of the claims made by the priests (God is love, etc.). It simply deconstructs the texts that presume a particular position of subjectivity within a particular organization of the claims. It emphasizes the power that is implied by someone who proposes to speak for God.

    The reading of “postmodernism” that is emerging in Fabio’s reflections on whether to include the topic in his theory course, seems to be of the “constructivists can jump out a window” (gravity is “merely a construction”) or “Baudrillard claims the Gulf War never happened, what an idiot” variety. Obviously one would not teach such stuff. But that just isn’t what postmodernism is.

    Finally, @Fabio, if you’re going to teach Baudrillard, Latour, and Foucault, why spend any time poopooing a strawman pomosity as some sort of scam and effrontery. There’s fraud and fakery in all fields; when someone fudges data that doesn’t invalidate all data collection. I was really surprised that Latour and ANT wouldn’t go out with the pomo bathwater. To drop “postmodernism” while teaching these thinkers is, I really think, like telling them about class struggle, and getting them to read Marx and Gramsci, but never telling them what “marxism” is because you’re just really f’n tired of the pro-soviet propaganda. I’m with you on the contempary, pomo, version of that weariness. But we’ve really just got to suck it up.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 6, 2011 at 5:49 pm

  77. @Thomas: I still am not following what the crisis of representation is after reading your post…it seems like there are several distinct meanings in there. Can you define it clearly in a paragraph or so?

    Like

    Thorstein Veblen

    January 6, 2011 at 6:56 pm

  78. […] in response to Fabio mostly eliminating postmodernism from his one semester Social Theory course.  Fabio with support from Gabriel Rossman, debates Thomas, Craig and Andrew Perrin. 76 Comments so […]

    Like

  79. You’re doing quite well, Thorstein. Less than 24 hours ago, you didn’t know what it was at all. Now you can discern several distinct meanings. It’s a complex business, so you’re on the right track. A good course in sociological theory might help you flesh it out a bit ;-)

    Like

    Thomas

    January 6, 2011 at 8:06 pm

  80. I am surprised to see so many A+ publishing individuals displaying such a flawed grasp of the scepticism of Pomo and similar positions. To say that the Pomo crowd is in number 1 (Fabios grouping) is just a plain misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the Pomo agenda. A substantial part of the Pomo agenda is to offer different conceptions of the world, and offer concepts and premises that can make us understand the world and empirically uncover the world.
    As a few have indicated, it is, to a large extent, a matter of disagreeing on what constitutes science.

    And of course – some Pomos do fit the description presented, among others by Pomo. But just because there are Palin-like republicans, does not mean we should consider all republicans Palin-like.

    Like

    Anonymous

    January 6, 2011 at 8:20 pm

  81. @ Andrew: This the difference between philosophical skeptics and realists. Skeptics really believe that we have no recourse other than representations. Realists believe that we are in some way connected to something more concrete, however flawed that connection may be. This isn’t “metatheoretical,” it’s an old debate in philosophy. I respect people who espouse skeptical positions, but personally I would have to adopt too many bizarre positions to make it work.

    @ Ezra: My approach was a bit historical, so I stuck with PMT for a while as a way to end the course, which frames sociology as a response to modernization.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 6, 2011 at 8:25 pm

  82. @Thomas: I’m trying to figure out if I would benefit from studying more post-modernism (and I suppose by extension whether Fabio’s students would). Above you and another commenter suggested the crisis of representation is an excellent example of pomo’s contribution, a reason why I should take a class including post-modernism. But now it seems I apparently will need to take a class on theory that includes pomo to develop a clear understanding of what it is.

    Like

    Thorstein Veblen

    January 6, 2011 at 10:05 pm

  83. I’m having some difficulties seeing what, exactly, the positive argument for including post-modernism is supposed to be here. If the point is mainly to instill some modesty concerning our capacity to produce knowledge about the world as it really is, then why not just let them read some Hume (or better yet, some contemporary philosophy of science)? What unique contribution can post-modernism bring to the table that is not better served elsewhere?

    Like

    Mike

    January 6, 2011 at 10:07 pm

  84. @Mike: That’s what mainstream philosophers tend to believe about PMT. If you are pushing skepticism, why not stick with the philosophers who said it best?

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 6, 2011 at 10:25 pm

  85. Ontological skepticism: There is nothing to connect to.
    Epistemological skepticism: The connection is / might be flawed.

    Like

    Anonymous

    January 6, 2011 at 11:19 pm

  86. Fabio: I’m not trying to start any kind of argument (it appears you have your hands full already), but I’m curious: what exactly is the difference between what you view as “good” (i.e., scientific, as you’ve defined that in the discussion) sociology and contemporary neoclassical economics? Economists study many of the phenomena traditionally associated with sociology (e.g., networks, culture, family, organizations). Most of them do just what you say sociologists should do — formulate hypotheses, take them to the data, fret about measurement, estimation, interpretation, etc. In your understanding, are economics and sociology fundamentally distinct disciplines, or are they basically doing the same thing — social “science” — with some second-order differences in language and style?

    Like

    Peter Klein

    January 6, 2011 at 11:37 pm

  87. My point about it being metatheoretical is that we are dealing with theory-about-theory: how do we adjudicate among several competing claims about the nature of reality and our representations thereof, when all the evidence we have is itself representational? So my question is not about distinguishing skepticism from realism, but rather about distinguishing how “distorting” representations are.

    This is not a pomo point at all. It’s directly analogous to, for example, the psychometric problem of measuring “g”, or the economics problem of measuring underlying values. All we have are representations (“indicators”), which we know to be distorted but we have no concrete way of measuring or correcting for that distortion because we have no way of measuring the “gold standard” they’re indicating.

    The crisis of representation is the general case of which these are specific cases. And it is emphatically social scientific, since most of what we have are varying representation of (presumed) underlying, but inaccessible, realities.

    Like

    andrewperrin

    January 7, 2011 at 12:57 am

  88. @ Andrew: First, you don’t need PMT to understand that you can only indirectly measure many things of interest to social scientists. For example, there was a big battle in psychology, early on, about the ability to measure attitudes. Same in sociology. Basically, we had our “crisis” and moved on. All this happened before anybody wrote the phrase “crisis of representation.” The same happened in physics – you can’t measure all kinds of things directly, but they moved on. All of this happened decades before the PMT showed up.

    Second, the term “crisis” reveals an issue I raised earlier. Just because we indirectly know things in many cases, doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t know anything, or that all knowledge is suspect, or that all knowledge is tainted by its reliance on language, or that there’s a crisis at all. These are all possibilities that need to be carefully argued. They don’t automatically flow from the observation that we learn about the world through symbols and mental categories, which was one of Kant’s central arguments.

    My own view, which I’ve hinted at, but don’t have the time to defend in a full blown essay is that these extreme positions are not tenable. They are unwarranted conclusions from a reasonable position.

    Then, finally, there’s the “so what?” issue. Let’s say I accept the CoR thesis and that all social science is literally built on a system of words and language games where it is impossible to really access the social world. Should I stop doing research because I can’t really, with any reasonable degree of confidence, be assured that my symbolic system has any connection to stuff like poverty or prices or voting?

    @ Peter: Wait till next week, mi amigo neoclassico!

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 7, 2011 at 3:32 am

  89. Andrew’s office hours:

    Student: Um, Professor Perrin, can you explain the difference between human capital and social capital?

    Andrew: Do you understand the crisis of representation that riddles all social inquiry?

    Student: !

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 7, 2011 at 3:39 am

  90. …and my own view is that the extent to which these extreme positions are tenable is unknowable; it’s an arbitrary decision made for pragmatic, not ontological, reasons. Furthermore, most of them are not even the positions taken by most PMT. They’re caricatures. And because they’re caricatures, you end up with the conclusion that you must “stop doing research,” a conclusion thoroughly unwarranted by the theory! Poverty, prices, and voting are, themselves, symbolic acts, and before you go off screaming that Perrin said poverty is just symbolic, there’s NO SUCH THING as “just” symbolic, any more than there’s such thing as “just” a social construction. Appropriate humility with respect to representation does not preclude research.

    I loved your image of my office hours — laughed at my computer! But of course not. The fact that nothing is solidly concrete is not a reason to act like it’s without meaning. Floating signifiers are still signifiers. And, bottom line, we can and should choose to bracket thorny theoretical problems in order to make progress.

    Like

    andrewperrin

    January 7, 2011 at 3:50 am

  91. @ Andrew:

    The extreme positions are not caricatures. Can you give me a text that is self-identified as post-modern but that also shies away from a strong skeptical position? I’ve read a few books of post-modernism so I can’t claim to know the whole field. But please, direct me to the text which says that the crisis of representation is totally compatible with a social science that trying to learn about a social reality beyond the researcher’s signifier system.

    “And, bottom line, we can and should choose to bracket thorny theoretical problems in order to make progress.”

    I love reliance on antiquated Enlightenment ideas. With that, I wish you a good night!

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 7, 2011 at 3:58 am

  92. @Anonymous: while most supporters of PMT in this discussion seem so consider PMT as a kind of alternative to a scientific worldview, you claim that PMT “offer[s] concepts and premises that can make us understand the world and empirically uncover the world.” You seem to imply that PMT could be used to *improve* empirical sociology. Could you (or anyone else) come up with a convincing example in which PMT has in this way contributed to a scientific explanation of a social phenomenon?

    Like

    Rense

    January 7, 2011 at 4:06 am

  93. @fabio: sure, Baudrillard’s _The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,_ or _Requiem for the Twin Towers_, both certifiably postmodern and neither arguing that there is no reality, rather that the representation is all we have access to.

    @Rense: Robing Wagner-Pacifici, Discourse and Destruction.

    Like

    andrewperrin

    January 7, 2011 at 4:50 am

  94. @Thorstein: I was of course being ironic. Your basic questions indicate a impasse in the discussion, and I’ve said more than enough for my point of view already. If you don’t know what the crisis of representation is at the level of, say, a bright undergraduate student, you’re going to have a hard time following a conversation *among teachers* about whether or not it should be included in the curriculum. Suppose we were talking about transaction cost economics and you just happened to be completely blank about what it was. Surely, those who were arguing about whether it should have a place in a theory course are not required to teach you the theory as part of their argument.

    It’s actually a bit like Fabio’s highly reductive understanding of the crisis of representation as just rehashed skepticism. If you think the “crisis” is merely a kind of skepticism about whether the “real world” exists, then those of us who think it has a place in the sociological theory curriculum will have a hard time convincing you. We’re having a hard time convincing Fabio, you’ll note. As he rightly pointed out in the post, it’s a “cognitive” problem (I’m not quite sure how the immediate slide to a “moral” issue was achieved).

    Like

    Thomas

    January 7, 2011 at 5:25 am

  95. If you’re interested in my views on this, I have a series of posts on the crisis of representation and how it conditions the problem of academic writing on my blog, starting here.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 7, 2011 at 7:26 am

  96. I ponder why post-modern epistemological discussion is never burdened with recent analytical philosophy?

    Since the linguistic turn there has been a lot of very good work on language. From the relatively mainstream pragmatist perspective, it is misguided to talk of the relationship between words and the world in terms of distance.

    “1. the difference between reality and symbolic representations is small” — This makes little sense if you take the critique of positivism seriously. Since we cannot observe or talk of reality directly, it follows that the statement is not very sensible. What you mean is “in the long run, the need to adjust our symbolic representations according to our consequent experiences will be insignificant”.

    Reframing the discussion as choice of perspective on social practice might be useful as well:
    “But it is not necessarily true that appearance of the world have no relationship at all to something beyond the subject that creates the representations.” — When we are discussing knowledge, we are discussing the arrangement of words into sentences. Use of words is a matter of convention and the question is, what factors shape these conventions. The question you posing concerns the relationship between social conventions and the causal forces that shaped them. This is an empirical question, not a question of ex ante “philosophical stance”.

    “This is a mistake that a lot of people make. They jump from “we create appearances” and “appearances can be distorting” to “we don’t know anything” or “there’s a crisis in knowledge.” That does not immediately follow.” — Who are tehse people? The jump is to “no sentence is ever justified as true by the God or the World, hence we must look at the social processes that produce such status”.

    Like

    Henri

    January 7, 2011 at 7:37 am

  97. I ponder why post-modern epistemological discussion is never burdened with recent analytical philosophy?

    Since the linguistic turn there has been a lot of very good work on language. From the relatively mainstream pragmatist perspective, it is misguided to talk of the relationship between words and the world in terms of distance.

    “1. the difference between reality and symbolic representations is small” — This makes little sense if you take the critique of positivism seriously. Since we cannot observe or talk of reality directly, it follows that the statement is not very sensible. What you mean is “in the long run, the need to adjust our symbolic representations according to our consequent experiences will be insignificant”.

    Reframing the discussion as choice of perspective on social practice might be useful as well:
    “But it is not necessarily true that appearance of the world have no relationship at all to something beyond the subject that creates the representations.” — When we are discussing knowledge, we are discussing the arrangement of words into sentences. Use of words is a matter of convention and the question is, what factors shape these conventions. The question you posing concerns the relationship between social conventions and the causal forces that shaped them. This is an empirical question, not a question of ex ante “philosophical stance”.

    “This is a mistake that a lot of people make. They jump from “we create appearances” and “appearances can be distorting” to “we don’t know anything” or “there’s a crisis in knowledge.” That does not immediately follow.” — Who are these people? The jump is to “no sentence is ever justified as true by the God or the World, hence we must look at the social processes that produce such status”.

    Like

    Henri

    January 7, 2011 at 7:37 am

  98. @Thomas: You say that the “crisis of representation” is a good example of why learning post-modernism is valuable. Can you clearly explain what the crisis is? I understood Fabio’s definition, but I believe you felt it was inaccurate.

    Surely if you think it’s a slam dunk that post-modernism is worthwhile then you can define a central term in your argument. If you are right that your position has merit, making it clearer will make it even more convincing and thus is in your interests.

    Cynics claim that post-modernism either can’t be made clear or is simplistic when the fancy language is stripped away, but maybe they’re out to lunch? Prove them wrong. I am sincerely open to your position.

    Like

    Thorstein Veblen

    January 7, 2011 at 8:45 am

  99. Some people here have the premise that Pomo is: “anyone who is an ontological sceptic”.

    Others say this is not the case – hence, the two fractions are not discussing the same thing. So, basically a waste of time, isn’t it?

    Like

    Anonymous

    January 7, 2011 at 8:56 am

  100. Hi Thorstein,

    I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. It’s a very contested issue, and this discussion has actually offered much more clarity on both sides than the “war” (as someone pointed out it is above) normally brings out in people.

    What is it specifically in what I’ve said about the crisis of representation that you don’t understand?

    I have defined what I mean by the crisis of representation, and all you have said is that you don’t understand it, apparently because it consists of “several distinct” components. Fabio’s definition is simpler, something like “The CoR is the fact that there is no reality, only language”, which can be easily understood but only in a way that allows us to easily dismiss it. (Fabio’s imagined office hours with Andrew’s student.)

    My view of the crisis is not as a claim about some fact about representation, but is a questioning that targets the forces at work under representation, as Deleuze puts it, or the conditions of their possibility, as Kant puts it. Indeed, there is an important connection between the “critique” of (pure) reason and the “crisis” of (pure) representation. Students need to learn where that questioning comes from (when they are themselves critiqued by postmodernists, for example), and why it is often legitimate.

    I’m sure that winning adherents to my position would be somehow “in my interest”, but that’s not really why I’m participating in this discussion. More importantly, as I said before, if you need to know what the “crisis of representation” is from scratch, and if you are disposed to sign up under the banner of whoever first defines the term for you in way you can easily understand, then my rhetorical problem (“convincing” those people) is beyond my capacity to solve. My contribution here is directed at people who having a working understanding of the key terms, even if that understanding differs greatly from mine.

    I can’t prove the cynics wrong in a comment stream. I can only patiently try to answer whatever questions you have about what I’ve already said (and, now, the posts I’ve linked to, where you are also free to comment).

    Like

    Thomas

    January 7, 2011 at 9:06 am

  101. I read Thomas’ blogpost, and I’m still at a loss as to how this is supposed to be some sort of unique insight. Okay, so you can’t represent (“speak on behalf of”) scientific objects or political subjects, because there’s no way for you to pierce the veil of your own impressions and discover The Truth. How is this not an obvious entailment of Hume’s skepticism again? The exact same arguments have been used by empiricists for hundreds of years (though the contemporary realist/anti-realist debate has largely been about unobservables since even the staunchest of empiricists nowadays realize that full-on skepticism is a preposterous doctrine).

    @andrewperrin et al: since the main thrust of your arguments for PMT appears to rest on (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here) the novel insight that even our best theories are themselves profoundly theory-dependent, are you aware that this has also been the cornerstone of pretty much all accounts of scientific realism since at least the 1970s? And that it is perfectly possible that it is, in fact, this very theory-dependence that allows us to adjudicate between competing theories even when they are evidentially indistinguishable? Because I get the impression that you are treating this as an indisputable point in favour of PMT when it is not.

    Like

    Mike

    January 7, 2011 at 9:45 am

  102. Mike, you’re reading something into my posts that isn’t there. At no point do I claim (here or there) that you *can’t* represent objects or subjects. I say that around 1968 it became more *difficult* to do so, or, rather, that the difficulty took on particular characteristics. We call this newish (but by no means “unique”) difficulty “the postmodern condition”. Answers to Humean skepticism are not straightforwardly answers to postmodernist critiques, though Hume’s work certainly inspires some postmodernists (like Deleuze, for example).

    In short: the crisis of representation does not mark the *impossibility* of representation but a particular *difficulty* of representation.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 7, 2011 at 10:00 am

  103. The length and interest of this very comment thread provide a good argument for keeping poststructuralism in the theory course. In other words, the debate is itself interesting and valuable. By discarding even people who argue against poststructuralism (e.g. Habermas?) you are going a bit too far. If Habermas thought something in Foucault and Derrida was worth engaging with, maybe he was right.

    Like

    Jonathan

    January 7, 2011 at 3:46 pm

  104. “Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.” – JL Borges.

    Like

    Dan Hirschman

    January 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm

  105. jonathan,

    ahhh, the old “teach the controversy” argument that has done such wonders for the biology curriculum.

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    January 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm

  106. I think you’re begging the question, Gabriel. There are arguably (we’re arguing about it) more differences between biology and sociology than similarities. This might reasonably be reflected in pedagogy and curriculum design.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm

  107. thomas,
    my point had nothing to do with whether or not sociology is a science. rather i was saying that “my idea is controversial therefore it deserves (curricular) attention” is the last refuge of a disreputable perspective.

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    January 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm

  108. But that “refuge” is only disreputable in science. It the humanities (philosophy, literature, history) we “teach the controversies” (not just “present the results of methodical study”) all the time. Not *all* of them of course.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 7, 2011 at 6:23 pm

  109. God forbid we should teach theoretical debate in a theory class. My point was not to make some dumb “teach the controversy” move to save poststructuralism, but to point out that the debate between Habermas and Foucault was very productive and interesting and of continued relevance. It is a teachable moment, so to speak. By leaving out one of the central debates at the theoretical level of the past half century, what service are you doing to the students? Serious social scientists who are not themselves postmodernists have taken these ideas seriously; these ideas belong in the debate, forming part of the immediate past of the discipline. That serious people still reduce these ideas to a caricature shows that we need to teach them better, in fact. Pretending poststructuralism never occurred seems deeply dishonest.

    Like

    Jonathan

    January 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm

  110. Um, Jonathan, your example isn’t a great motivation to teach postmodernism, Foucault and Habermas rejected postmodernism…

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 7, 2011 at 7:27 pm

  111. @Andrew: thanks, but for this discussion, it would be more helpful if you could summarize a concrete example of a postmodernist approach improving empirical sociology,instead of mentioning a whole book. I don’t immediately see what’s postmodern about this book. (But, seeing how the discussion is developing, I might even finish reading the book before this discussion is over ;) )

    Like

    Rense

    January 7, 2011 at 7:29 pm

  112. @Jonathan: I strongly object to the notion, which you are implying, that Fabio is being “deeply dishonest” by “pretending poststructuralism never occurred”. First, there is a big difference between not teaching something and actively denying that it happened. Second, there is nothing dishonest about teaching according to your own preferences.

    More generally, I doubt that this discussion can ever be resolved if we don’t find some common ground in terms of what makes a “good” theory. For us “scientific sociologists”, theories compete in terms of explanatory power (opinions still differ about the idea of “good explanation”). For the postmodernists, theories compete on some other dimension, although I’m not exactly sure which. One could argue that it is exactly this difference of opinion that we should be teaching, but I’d say that belongs in a philosophy of science course, not a sociological theory course.

    Like

    Rense

    January 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm

  113. Sorry. You said you wouldn’t be teaching people who argued against postmodernism, so that would include Habermas, right? You state you won’t teach feminist theory that engages with Foucault, etc… You are taking out not only postmodernism but the entire debate around it, including people who took issue with it whether from “within” poststructuralism (Foucault) or from another position (Habermas). This thread, I argued, shows that the debate itself still has legs, so to speak. That’s all I was trying to suggest.

    Like

    Jonathan

    January 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm

  114. I was suggesting that if I were to decide to drop PMT, then it would be ok to drop texts that argue/refute PMT. But Habermas and Foucault have lots of other stuff that has nothing to do with PMT. I am very happy to teach Public Sphere or D&P or Archeology of Knowledge (one of my faves). I am not happy to teach X’s refutation of PMT.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 7, 2011 at 7:50 pm

  115. … and I strongly object myself to my own hyperbole in calling this omission “deeply dishonest.” I hope I did not give offense. Obviously there is no reason any course has to include theory of any particular type. What I was reacting to was the implication that, not only is postmodernism (possibly) “immoral” to teach (!) but that the entire debate around it was no longer relevant.

    Like

    Jonathan

    January 7, 2011 at 7:58 pm

  116. Fabio, Habermas disagreed with Foucault. Foucault rejected the *label* postmodernism. And you, sir, are rejecting ideas after first labeling them “postmodernism”.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm

  117. Thomas, you confuse me!

    The authors I listed in the post are self-identified as post-modernists in many cases (Lyotard, Flax) or wrote refutations of post-modernism (Giddents) or appropriated the terminology of post-modernists. So what if I reject them after I correctly label them?

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 7, 2011 at 8:33 pm

  118. It never happens that people give themselves the wrong label? Or refuse a label ironically? Or refuse to be called something in context where it has been given a particular meaning? Or wear it like badge without really having earned it?

    Duke Ellington once said “we stopped calling it jazz back in 1926” (or something). What section of the record store would you put him in? You treat postmodernism like its one simple thing.

    Like I said at the start, I think of postmodernism like romanticism. I’m not very romantic myself, but I know I couldn’t teach poetry without the concept. Likewise, I wouldn’t be able to teach social theory without telling them what people mean when they call themselves (or refuse to call themselves) “postmodernist”.

    Your theory students would, I guess, not come to know what Foucault meant when he said “I don’t consider myself a postmodernist” (or whatever). Just some trash people were talking backing in the 80s and 90s, you’d say. Poor kids.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm

  119. @Gabriel: “Teaching the controversy” was not first suggested by IDers. As the Wikipedia article you link to says, the phrase was coined by a perfectly sensible English professor (whom I admire for other reasons), in a context much like our discussion here. He was not even quite as “chagrined” as the article makes out, as you discover when you follow the reference back to the source.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 8, 2011 at 12:00 am

  120. […] Rojas, a blogging sociologist at Indiana University, is wondering whether he should drop postmodern theory from his curriculum, and the discussion in the comments as well as political scientist Henry Farrell’s […]

    Like

  121. What’s wrong with “teaching the controversy” in biology? As it has been mentioned here, it turns out Lamarck wasn’t wrong after all.

    Like

    Guillermo

    January 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

  122. After reading through this thread all week, I’ve come to think the questions it raised might come down to whether there are empirical reasons for a post-modern turn in the way sociologists relate to data.

    Thomas and others have hinted at sound, empirical reasons for a heightened awareness of post-modern concerns in the day and age we live in today. That is, he’s hinted at the empirical condition of the world to say these are necessary concerns.

    Thomas even seems to have a year (1968) in which everything changed pinned down.

    So my question is: What changed in 1968 or since to make post-modern concerns empirically relevant?

    Or maybe I mean this: What are post-modernism’s sociological foundations?

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    Austen

    January 8, 2011 at 11:00 pm

  123. I’m not sure that the pomo camp advanced “sound empirical reasons for a heightened awareness” in this series of blog posts. The most empirical it got was that Margaret Mead got it wrong in Samoa. This isn’t really an empirical reason that PMT was vital in realizing this. If it could be advanced that a Postmodern thinker deconstructed Mead’s argument to demonstrate that she was justifying Anglo-American oppression of Samoans, then maybe there is something to this.

    The rest of this discussion was mostly talking about what the CoR was and in saying PMT is many things.

    Since the CoR wasn’t made clear. Not only is it 1) empirical skepticism, but it is 2) that our writings have political consequences. Our writings might all have political motivations too, but that seems like it might be PMT trying to speak for another, and that is verboten in PMT.

    ‘What happened in 1968?’
    If you check out Thomas’ blog post it was apparently the May 1968 student strikes in France ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_1968_in_France ). TO paraphrase Thomas it has something to do with the displacement of “Marxism, psychoanalysis, and structuralism” as ways of explaining society.

    Finally, comment #123! Woohoo!

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    James

    January 9, 2011 at 6:06 am

  124. In my defense, I did also say that “Mead’s work on the Samoans was just an ideological exercise glossed as science for rhetorical purposes.” (I mainly think she’s interesting for her effects on the home front, i.e., in the rethinking of sexuality in America, but the Somoans themselves–some of them–did in fact object to the way she represented their sexual mores.) I didn’t just say she got it wrong; in fact, I noted Orans’s idea that both Mead and Freeman were “not even wrong”.

    But I wasn’t trying to be pomo about Mead, I was using Mead’s “profoundly unscientific” ethnography (Orans) as an example of the sense in which an established “science” sometimes isn’t very scientific at all, but could be valuable as something else, like “creditable humanistic observation” (Orans, again).

    Finally, let me emphasize the footnote to one those posts of mine: “Postmodernism did not begin in 1968, but May 1968 marks the point at which postmodernist thinking went definitively “mainstream” as it were.” Pomo “came into its own”, I say, in May 1968; that is, it became a legitimate intellectual epistemology/ethics. It became mainstream to connect knowledge claims to loci of power.

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    Thomas

    January 9, 2011 at 11:44 am

  125. What I am trying to get at is whether there is something about today’s social world itself that makes post-modern theory relevant. How have structures changed?

    When Thomas writes the following, he is describing political philosophy, not sociology:

    “Postmodernism did not begin in 1968, but May 1968 marks the point at which postmodernist thinking went definitively “mainstream” as it were.” Pomo “came into its own”, I say, in May 1968; that is, it became a legitimate intellectual epistemology/ethics. It became mainstream to connect knowledge claims to loci of power.”

    I am surprised that none of post-modernism’s defenders here have tried to link pomo with institutional changes over the past few decades.

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    Austen

    January 9, 2011 at 2:01 pm

  126. I’m not describing very much of anything, I’d say, so those remarks are open to both sociological and philosophical interpretations. Certainly, 1968 also marks an important turning point in the institutional history of the West, especially at the universities. And I think you are right to say that “postmodern conditions” are institutional and that the social world has changed over recent decades in a somewhat “postmodern” way. But I wonder if that actually offers a challenge to Fabio’s proposal.

    Consider: Fabio might counter that one does not need to be a postmodernist to theorize those institutional changes. Here we might say there is a different between postmodern theory and a theory of postmodernity (which would probably be called “late modernity” or “post-industrial society” instead). Postmodern theory is different in *how* we think about society, not *what* we think about. The issue of postmodernISM (not postmodernITY) is precisely the issue of what sociology is to society, *who* sociologists are in society.

    Another way of putting it: postmodern theory is relevant to sociology only if it cannot (or should not) isolate itself from the concerns of, for example, political philosophy.

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    Thomas

    January 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm

  127. “I am surprised that none of post-modernism’s defenders here have tried to link pomo with institutional changes over the past few decades.”

    It’s very difficult to “link pomo with institutional changes” because it is a very broad school of thought. Jameson, for example, defines postmodernism as a consequence of the evolution of capitalism. Baudrillard, on the other hand, rejects the importance of economic factors and considers that postmodern society is one characterized by the dominance of communication and information processes. Not two “pomo” thinkers will agree on exactly what happened. I don’t know if Thomas has a different take on this.

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    Guillermo

    January 9, 2011 at 2:36 pm

  128. Yes, there’s a sense in which Jameson (and also perhaps Baudrillard) is no more a “postmodernist” than Marx was a “capitalist”. It’s what they were talking *about*, not what they were arguing for. Lyotard, however, is a postmodernist in precisely the sense that he celebrates and identifies with the changing institutional conditions. A really clear statement of this is found in the Postmodern Condition: “Such as it is, I dedicate this report to the Institut Polytechnique de Philosophie of the Universite de Paris VIII (Vincennes)–at this very postmodern moment that finds the University nearing what may be its end, while the Institute may just be beginning.” I think he got that right at a descriptive (and even predictive) level. But I’m not with him if we read this as a prescription.

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    Thomas

    January 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm

  129. Andreas Huyssen argues in “Mapping the Postmodern” that we should associate poststructuralism more with modernism than with postmodernism. If we were to agree with Huyssen for the sake of argument, how would that affect this conversation?

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    Matt

    January 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm

  130. I can only say that we should keep postmodernism associated with modernism more than we should try to keep them apart. The tension is essential.

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    Thomas

    January 10, 2011 at 9:53 pm

  131. […] our discussion of post-modern theory, Peter Klein asked if I thought that sociology and neoclassical economics were both broadly scientific: I’m curious: […]

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  132. If I may (and I’m aware that I’m coming in on the tail end of this conversation), I’d like to add my own perspective as an incoming graduate student in sociology…

    The hostility toward postmodernism is apparent in much of the literature that undergraduates are exposed to in upper level classes. It seems that the tendency is to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to those thought of as ‘postmodern.’ For example, in my undergraduate studies in sociology, Foucault was mentioned only a handful of times, either dismissively or superficially. I happened upon a philosophy seminar on the philosophy of power, and it was only then that I was exposed to Foucault with any depth. As it were, reading Foucault (that class piqued my interest) ended up influencing the work that I want to pursue in my graduate studies in sociology. I could see a similar scenario playing out with any number of the PMT thinkers mentioned in this thread.

    All of this is to say that if you want to get away from teaching PMT in any sort of systematic way, it would nevertheless benefit your students (especially in an undergraduate course) to know at least some of the major postmodern theorists and their ideas–even if you only spend a class or two on them. Despite the discipline’s hostility toward many PMTs, it seems to me that some of them can and do inspire fruitful social analysis. Even if it isn’t the kind of work you do or even agree with (and those are certainly good reasons to scale it back), to eliminate it altogether potentially does your students a disservice. To offer a pomo solution, perhaps you could ask former students whether they found the unit on postmodernism useful or interesting?

    Also, a quick word on postmodernism within sociology (again, from a prospective graduate student’s position): the vitriol on both sides that has characterized much of the literature I’ve tried to acquaint myself with before entering grad school is confusing at best and discouraging at worst. It’s difficult applying to graduate school with any interest in ‘the postmodern’ for fear that mentioning (in my case, for instance) Foucault or anyone else considered postmodern may be looked down upon by members of an admissions committee, even at a school that focuses on culture or historical sociology. This is especially true of programs that seem, at least from the outside, to be divided between quantitative and qualitative ‘factions.’

    Anyway, a really interesting thread. Thanks to everyone for your comments and Fabio for the post.

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    Alex

    January 11, 2011 at 5:07 pm

  133. Michael Bishop

    January 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm

  134. Yes, but the curious thing about Chomsky’s position is that he is against theory *of any kind* in social “science”. (I think he would put the scare quotes there too.) He believes that social life is something we should engage with politically, i.e., as activists, or alternatively, as he sometimes says, “you could write a poem about it”. He believes that some very narrow aspects of language are tractable to “theory”. The rest ought to be talked about in non-technical terms.

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    Thomas

    January 13, 2011 at 6:49 pm

  135. […] Rybczynski for giving us an entry for both our jargon watch and Pomo Periscope series. What would Fabio […]

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  136. […] should I drop post-modernism from the theory course? (orgtheory.wordpress.com) […]

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  137. […] most commented post was Fabio’s “should I drop post-modernism from the theory course?“ (136 […]

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  138. So Fabio, I would be interested to hear how this all debate played out: did you drop PMT from your course or not?

    Also, I see that some of the debate here echoes that in Kilduff & Mehra 1997 AMR paper…

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    ivan

    January 2, 2012 at 2:20 pm

  139. You need to start with the philosophy of time…

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  140. […] Occasionally repetitive in response, the question was raised “why include postmodern theory in sociological theory courses anymore?“ […]

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