What kinds of intellectuals are sociologists?

Reading a lot of Hannah Arendt lately has made me think about the relatively quick move (only really a few academic generations) from demanding regular reference to European classical antiquity, often via familiarity with both the original Greek and Latin, to today’s academic standards, which are, all at the same time, much more localized and specialized but also much more diffuse, allowing references and cross-comparisons along multiple lines, some of them genealogical and linguistic (as Arendt does) but many of them simply comparative and broadly anthropological in the the (classical) Terrence sense of nothing human being alien to me (Charles Taylor, by the way, is one of the few who really bridges both worlds, both because of his age but also because of his remarkable abilities and wide-ranging interests.) I don’t think this change is actually a problem (I know some Latin, and I’m more familiar with the classical world than is your average sociologist, but that’s not saying much). However, for good or bad, this change actually speaks to Arendt’s worry that a lack of tradition creates a lack of common culture through which totalitarianism can brew. I think that argument’s an interesting one, but I don’t think it’s right, mostly because I think that a cohesive kind of tradition is a sociological reality we can’t really escape.

I posted the above paragraph to my facebook wall a few days ago, and I got some good feedback, namely that plenty of earlier sociologists (and other kinds of thinkers) didn’t care about the classical era either (and, of course, Arendt wasn’t a sociologist: in fact the “social” is the main problem in The Human Condition).  Which is fair enough, of course.  Yet certainly there’s this broader sense of being an intellectual plugged into an old intellectual tradition in Weber, Marx and Durkheim–and then as well in people like Foucault and Bourdieu, Goffman and Geertz (the last, of course, is not actually a sociologist, but my hunch lately is that cultural sociologists cite him at this point more often than do cultural anthropologists).  You can also see this change in the way (much) older years of sociology journals have more essayistic feels.

So this is on one hand a question about how certain academic forms have changed not just the production of intellectual life but also how we define its requirements and content.  In other words, there’s a sociological–and, I’m sure, organizational and institutional–argument to explain this change.  As usual, I’m sure a certain kind of conservative wants to blame the fact that we can’t all quote Seneca on the cultural left, when it’s at least my hunch that the right’s own love of the market-with division-of-labor as a constitutive good-is much more to blame.


Written by jeffguhin

January 5, 2017 at 12:01 am

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Arendt opposed the sociologists, Marx, Weber, Frankfurt, etc., over the problem of reification, or the imbalance between work and labor, and action. Arendt claimed that action was not affected by the overdetermining forms of work and labor, e.g. alienation, isolation, inequality, etc. Her understanding of social action, or communication, was problematized by modernist forms of living, e.g. consumption., but was merely a problem of subjectivity, not whole-hog reification. Habermas’ concept of communication action is somewhat similar to Arendt’s notion of communicative power. But, in the case of these two latter thinkers, the issue really boils down to the distinction between communication and discourse, or theoretically-informed action and argumentation which is a rare thing; communication as some kind of coordination between subjects does not necessarily transcend the nonconscious realm of sociology and is typically stuck in subjective value orientations!

    Liked by 1 person

    Fredrick Welfare

    January 5, 2017 at 6:48 am

  2. In terms of scholarly style, why not consider the following hypothesis: in many ways, we don’t need to cite classics to be good social scientists? The ancients didn’t have sampling, any quantitative methods, ethnography, any decent notion of social causation, etc. It doesn’t mean they were bad. Rather, it means they simply didn’t have the tools that social scientists need.

    Note that in fields where the ancients got it right, we still use their tools. Mathematicians still use Euclid and Pythagoras, philosophers still talk about syllogisms, etc.

    Liked by 1 person


    January 5, 2017 at 7:37 am

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