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technicians and intellectuals in sociology

I’m teaching a graduate course this quarter on the self and subject in history and theory, or so I call it.  It starts with Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, then moves into the Enlightenment, with Smith’s Moral Sentiments, Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education, and Rousseau’s Emile. After that, we move to the US, looking at selection of Emerson essays, Dewey’s Experience and Nature, and DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk.  We end with two and a half generations of feminism, going through de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. DuBois is a sociologist, Hirschman is an economic historian, and Mahmood is an anthropologist, but everyone else is a philosopher (and even for those three, these books are all pretty theoretical). Why teach this?

Well, partially because I find those books interesting and helpful in my own work. And this gets to an ongoing tension in the social sciences and, to some degree, also in the humanities, a tension I’ve written about here before. Are you a technician are you an intellectual?  You can be both, of course, and nearly all academics are very much intellectuals in their overall careers: we’re curious people (in both sense of the word I suppose), interested in lots of things outside our usual wheelhouses. Yet if you look at academics’ work, it can often take on a certain kind of normal science efficiency, marked by increasingly impressive methodological chops and theoretical parsimony. And, to be clear, that kind of work is really helpful. It’s good to know the kinds of things this research helps us know. I’m simply pointing out that such work is less about big questions or broad synthesis than it is about very particular questions and increasingly effective ways to answer them.

This isn’t a hard dichotomy: most of us are somewhere in between technician and intellectual, and different projects will call for different skills and approaches. And to be clear: I’m not saying one is better or worse, or smarter or more creative than the other. Intellectual and smart are not the same thing. Some of the most clever and compelling arguments I’ve ever seen in sociology have been exactly the kinds of arguments I’m describing here as technical.  And there’s a lot of wide-ranging intellectual explorations that ultimately take us nowhere (insert meta joke here). Yet that might explain part of the reason it’s so hard to be an intellectual in the way I’m describing it: it’s pretty common to try an impressive dive and land with a bellyflop. Better to stick to the straightforward stuff you have a good sense will work.  As my colleague Jacob Foster has written about regarding the hard sciences, going against normal science is high reward, sure, but it’s also very high risk.

(By the way, I wrote about this a bit in the piece linked above, but there’s an interesting way in which a kind of normal science approach can be accompanied by a commitment to solving social problems within sociology.  Which is to say the burden of big theory–or intellectualism–is often on sociological work that isn’t clearly about X or Y social problem. If you’re writing about a big social problem, there’s more permission to be a technician, whether qualitative or quantitative, rather than an intellectual. There’s no need to justify your empirical site theoretically; it matters on its own.)

So what do I mean by intellectual?  I mean people who read really widely, who bring in all sorts of non-sociological stuff into their writing, who use their empirical work as leverage to make really big arguments.  People like Claire Decoteau, Dan Winchester, Monika Krause, Courtney Bender, Julian Go, Omar Lizardo, Isaac Reed, Iddo Tavory, and Erika Summers-Effler*, among many others. They read and cite a lot of stuff that isn’t sociology. So do I. And so, I hope, will my graduate students.

*sorry for a typo in Erika’s name earlier!

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Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2017 at 4:16 pm

23 Responses

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  1. Nice post. This is inevitable because sociology is ultimately about the meeting of theory and data, and data means you need technicians.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    October 23, 2017 at 5:22 pm

  2. Jeff, one of the things I enjoy about reading your stuff is just that breadth of reference. But I’d be reticent to identify intellectualism only with that kind of breadth, and to contrast it only with technicality. Big ideas come from lots of different corners, and I’m not sure there’s a hard-and-fast way to distinguish narrowness from focus. Steve Vaisey’s recent thinking about interdisciplinarity, and the directions of sharing across academic fields, is useful too; big ideas can come from within sociological fields as well. Perrin’s taxonomy of university-dwellers might be of some interest here.

    Liked by 1 person

    andrewperrin

    October 24, 2017 at 12:36 pm

  3. Put me down for technician. A technician who spends a lot of time engaging with the public and talking about how to interpret data and think about its implications for social policy and understanding how the world works.

    Liked by 1 person

    olderwoman

    October 24, 2017 at 2:28 pm

  4. Olderwoman, Andy, and Fabio: thank you all for your comments. Andy, I think you’re right (as usual!) about how my categorization here doesn’t quite work, especially regarding how we define intellectuals. As I was trying to make clear, there’s a kind of creativity and intelligence that isn’t captured by what I’m talking about regarding intellectuals, but I think you’re right that there’s a kind of *intellectualism* I’m missing here too. I think it’s worth thinking harder about what defines an intellectual, which obviously lots and lots of people have thought about, as well as distinguishing between kinds of intellectuals (Berlin’s foxes and hedgehogs; Strauss’s Athens and Jerusalem, etc, etc.). So there’s a lot there. And olderwoman, you raise another important point, that there’s a skill I’m also not getting at here, which has its own genius and forms of creativity and intelligence: communication to non-specialists (whether to the public, or students, or anyone else). And then, of course, there are all the other skills: committee-work of various kinds, mentoring of various kinds, and all sorts of other things. One of the things I like about being an academic is there are a lot of ways to do it well, kind of like playing baseball (go Dodgers!).

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    jeffguhin

    October 24, 2017 at 5:22 pm

  5. Productive distinction but no cigar. But lets run with it for a little. What is success for the two groups?

    A “technician” is successful where he/she publishes in top journals, as defined by the discipline.

    An “intellectual” is successful where he/she attracts an intellectual audience beyond sociology. While hitting top sociology journals may help this, the real measure is being discussed in places like the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Washington Post etc. Why? To be an intellectual, you need to be recognised as such by other intellectuals.

    On these terms, it is difficult to identify sociologists who are also intellectuals in the United States. Certainly economists and political philosophers have achieved this status in recent years – consider Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Picketty, and, most influential of them all, Milton Friedman. To be sure, sociologists-as-intellectuals are prominent in other countries. The French public seems to demand intellectualism of its top “technicians”, hence the public status of Pierre Bourdieu and, earlier, Raymond Aron. In Germany too sociologists like Ulrich Beck and Jurgen Habermas are widely discussed. In this respect, to be an “intellectual” is not about using diverse sources, theories, and sources, nor is it about asking big questions. After all, the best technicians ask big questions. Being an intellectual demands being recognised as one. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    Balthazar

    October 24, 2017 at 8:29 pm

  6. Hey Balthazar. Thanks for your comments. This is interesting, of course, and gets at a question I’ve thought about a while regarding the difference between intrinsic goods and extrinsic goods. I’m actually not at all convinced audience matters, at least not regarding the distinctions I’m intending to make here. Recognition is of course tricky (I’m working on a paper about how recognition works with MacIntyre’s distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic goods: e.g. do you need some level of recognition to enjoy the intrinsic good of writing poetry?) but I’m willing to venture that the intellectual/technician distinction I’m making, at least for my purposes, can bracket any kind of recognition (even job placement or publication) and think purely about the content of the writing. So for my purposes, success for an intellectual is writing or even just performing to self or others good intellectual work; likewise for a technician. I pretty firmly believe that being an intellectual doesn’t demand being recognized as one, at least not on the level you’re describing. Some of the intellectuals I most admire do not write much at all but read widely and think very creatively. I’m interested in the internal goods.

    It’s also tricky because I would not consider On the Run or Evicted to be intellectual books in the way I’m describing them, but those are books with exactly the kinds of recognition you’re describing. (And to be clear, they’re both important creative books. Evicted deserves its awards. I’m not saying it’s better or worse than others kinds of books, like, say, Claire Decoteau’s work. They’re just clearly very different.)

    Now I’m entirely willing to acknowledge that this distinction might be productive, but without a cigar, but even if I were to consider the kind of attracting intellectual audience you’re describing, it wouldn’t get at what I’m talking about here, which, to be honest, is perhaps best captured by the normal science/paradigm shift distinction. I didn’t use that mostly because I don’t think of what the people I listed as “paradigm shifting” only because, well, what’s the sociological paradigm anyway?

    And you’re right that technicians ask big questions too although differently than the people I’m calling intellectuals. A technician asks a big question, but it’s usually not a *new* big question. Maybe that’s the difference? That intellectuals suggest the questions as well? Yet this is still a tricky thing, a (meta) big question itself: what the hell is a big question anyway? Who determines it? How perspectival is it? How easy is it to recognize?

    Thanks again for this. It’s really helpful to think with.

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    jeffguhin

    October 25, 2017 at 12:41 am

  7. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t include A. Goffman or Desmond in the class of intellectuals I noted. They have each written one book that has attracted some attention. Major intellectuals shape the way other people think and talk. Hence the enormous significance of Milton Friedman.

    Perhaps we can translate all this into Macintyre’s terms. A man who plays basketball in the park will enjoy some of the internal goods associated with his preferred game. But his appreciation of those goods pales against an NBA player. Indeed, we’d chuckle if our man dubbed himself a “basket baller”, even if he plays basket ball in the park for hours every day. Likewise intellectuals…. although there may be a middle ground. Perhaps we can acknowledge that some sociologists do hope to shape the way other people think and talk. But usually we’d just call these folks “theorists”.

    Liked by 1 person

    Balthazar

    October 25, 2017 at 1:48 am

  8. Note: Balthazar – Desmond is well on the way to being an “intellectual” in the broader sense in that he’s actually written three separate books on very different topics, each of which attempts to move the conversation in some way (in org theory, race, and stratification). History will judge how much the needle is moved in this case.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    October 25, 2017 at 2:00 am

  9. Jeff, I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but technician is often used as something of an epithet. As someone who everyone else probably calls a technician, we have to read widely, too. There aren’t a whole lot of advancements in applied inferential statistics or measurement happening from within sociology, after all (few of us would get much credit for that sort of work if we did it). Heck, most of my professional niche borrows heavily from another field (psychometrics), but only because we as a discipline let it be that way. I have reasons for this level of specialization – I think that without measurement validity, empirical results are nearly nothing – and nobody else seems to be giving it the attention it deserves. Some people think this is reductionist or simple thinking. Those are usually the people that call me a technician, for what that’s worth.

    Liked by 2 people

    micah

    October 25, 2017 at 12:40 pm

  10. Hey Micah,

    Thanks for this, and I don’t mean it at all as an epithet, though I can see how it can be taken this way. And of course you’re right about the need to read widely. And you’re also totally right that measurement validity is really important, and itself a big series of very big questions. What you would say distinguishes what you do from someone like, say, Isaac Reed?

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    jeffguhin

    October 25, 2017 at 7:47 pm

  11. (I should also be clear that I don’t think the separation here is even something like AJS/ASR, both of which often publish stuff that would here be classified as technical. I have to work out more of what I mean here…)

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    jeffguhin

    October 25, 2017 at 7:59 pm

  12. The only work by Reed I’ve read is Interpretation and Social Knowledge, so I can’t really say I know terribly well what he does. I’d like to think I am just as interested in big questions as the next sociologist, but I’m stuck at the point of trying to make a decent reusable mold for the bricks on which to build all that cumulative knowledge we’re working on. I think we can and ought to have some better instruments, so I guess I need to do that to my satisfaction first. I’m pretty committed to the scientific realist/pragmatist camp (talking through that overlap is fun), so it is a natural progression. As far as I see it: few enough of us are doing it, and it needs to be done.

    Liked by 1 person

    micah

    October 25, 2017 at 8:18 pm

  13. I prefer hybrids to the poles. I have often been called a hybrid, but I think too often we narrow our conceptualization of the intellectual to one who “ought to speak beyond their data” or as a connoisseur of the esoteric. To me the chasm between the instrumental and the intellectual “disinterested” is one constructed to reaffirm existing boundaries in our field. These boundaries are better embodied in these sorts of distinctions than open claims to superior levels of sophistication or class of education, given our passive commitment to social justice. Yet, the distance between those who have an academic socialization affording them to think and pose questions without concern for practical or concrete applications and those who see such concerns as a part of their social existence are increasingly stark. The degree of correspondence to SES and other hierarchies that these dispositions evince are far too painful and contradictory for our fields claims toward egalitarianism to fully digest. Hence, this sort of dancing around the edges of it. Of course, there is a tradition in American pragmatism that eschews these sorts of dualisms for something more innovative and creative. I tend to like the hybrids over the dualists, especially in the Age of Trump where the pragmatic has been displaced by the inane.

    Liked by 1 person

    pragmatistme

    October 25, 2017 at 8:26 pm

  14. I don’t know man, that sounds pretty intellectual to me, even if it’s about techniques. Maybe the difference (or one of the differences) is a question of how meta you get?

    Liked by 1 person

    jeffguhin

    October 25, 2017 at 8:35 pm

  15. Thanks pragmatistme. And I agree that poles are only helpful to the degree they help us think (rather than box in our thinking)

    Liked by 1 person

    jeffguhin

    October 25, 2017 at 8:37 pm

  16. Jeff, agreed, it is but it is pragmatic in the sense that you should know how audiences within your field operate and make distinctions versus the broader society. And, thus, how to interpret reactions to your work that “recognize” how boundaries are made and maintained. For example, I have learned not to get angry that I cannot find an audience for my work at the ASA, while giving talks at the National Academies of Science, with the Capital Building flanking my power point clicker. If you don’t understand these dynamics, you might buy into the illusion that sociologists have good metrics for differentiating quality of work rather than understanding the much stronger analogy to an art gallery.

    Liked by 1 person

    pragmatistme

    October 25, 2017 at 8:50 pm

  17. Again, I prefer the reality to the illusion and with the austerity constraints that higher interest rates and massive federal deficits will surely supply us, my disposition may very soon resound like a bell toll.

    Liked by 1 person

    pragmatistme

    October 25, 2017 at 8:56 pm

  18. Now, I take your point, that the “technician” is also building a boundary based on a “cult of complexity,” which is damaging on not pragmatic. However, I think we need to be careful here with these sorts of broad strokes. Or, to put another way, we need less exclusionary strategies in our discipline, ways of fencing off some folks from participating in the creative motion of the discipline–but we seem to supplant old exclusionary modes with new ones (i.e., quantitative sophistication vs. theoretical sophistication etc).

    Liked by 1 person

    pragmatistme

    October 25, 2017 at 9:14 pm

  19. Hi pragmatismme, thanks for this and point very much taken. The tricky thing is the degree to which analytic distinctions and ideal types can help us think but not create reified forms of exclusion. I’m entirely willing to agree that the analytic distinctions I proffer here are imperfect though I think there is meat here for a paper!

    Liked by 1 person

    jeffguhin

    October 25, 2017 at 9:56 pm

  20. Jeff, thank you for the kind words, and I should say that their is much to like in your post (or that I agree with). I just wanted to add some additional food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    pragmatistme

    October 25, 2017 at 11:22 pm

  21. To avoid redundancy and repetition, and give credit where it’s due, we ought note that Perrin’s taxonomy of university-dwellers really does anticipate this discussion and resolves or avoids most of the problems raised. Perrin’s term “scientist” is preferable to “technician” in having fewer negative connotations, and allowing for scientists to ask big questions (which they obviously do). His “intellectual” is well-characterised as constructing “syncretic” and often cross-disciplinary knowledge. His “scholar” is also a readily identifiable university type. That said, his category “academic” may be better characterised as “player” or “gamer”.

    https://scatter.wordpress.com/2010/06/06/intellectual-scholar-scientist-academic/

    Liked by 1 person

    Balthazar

    October 27, 2017 at 12:45 am

  22. Balthazar, I’m entirely comfortable with Andy getting this one better than I did. This is a common occurrence in my life.

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    jeffguhin

    October 27, 2017 at 12:57 am

  23. I can’t argue with Andy’s taxonomies, he is pretty great at these sorts of distinctions and I have first hand experience of theorizing with him. Reminds me a bit of Merton.

    Like

    ggauchat

    October 31, 2017 at 6:52 pm


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