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foxes and hedgehogs in sociology (inspired by James Scott)

I’m about halfway through James Scott’s Against the Grain, and it’s really an amazing book. Scott has admirably gathered research from a dozen different disciplines, telling a story about the founding of civilization, a question that has haunted humans as long as civilization has existed, and that has formed one of the central research poles of early sociology and early modern philosophy. It turns out a few things we assumed were true actually aren’t: sedimentism doesn’t automatically lead to states, and neither does agriculture. Even more importantly, early states weren’t necessarily in opposition to non-state actors: even if there was tension with “barbarians” who didn’t appreciate the forced labor to which they would often be subjected, the relationship between those in the state and those out of it was often one of mutual benefit, with, if anything, the state much more parasitic on the barbarians than the reverse.

James Scott is a political scientist whose work has been incredibly influential for a variety of other academic disciplines, not least sociology. His books Weapons of the Weak and Seeing like a State both provided pithy concepts (in the titles no less!) that have proven immensely influential.  In many ways, Scott’s interests are quite wide-ranging—from South East Asian peasants to the dawn of West Asian city states—yet there is an ongoing commitment that goes all the way back to Weapons of the Weak in looking at how marginal peoples interact with powerful organizations, nearly always the state.  The work manifests an anarchist sensibility which Scott enthusiastically endorses, and maybe that underlying political passion is what keeps the common interest moving.

Yet this has me thinking about academic careers, and in a few senses. First, why do we seem so suspicious of people with wide interests?  Part of the answer, I assume, is that we are suspicious of dilettantes: the purpose of academic research, we seem to think, is not to learn more about more, but rather more about less, with the hope that these crystalline insights will then be broadly applicable, going all the way down to come back up again.  Yet there’s no self-evident reason why “more about less” is a superior way to do academic knowledge, and a more materialist analysis would probably reveal the way in which the micro-specialization of academic knowledge helps to maintain a division of labor that creates more opportunity for distinction and, therefore, positions, departments, and broader organizations and institutions that can leverage resources and status.  And of course, the nature of academic organization and distinction is not a new thing to study.

Yet I’m also interested in how we sociologists think about Berlin’s distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. Are we interested in lots of things or one big thing?  That question could fairly be asked of sociology itself, and one of the attractions for many of us to sociology is that we can study lots of stuff, not beholden for all of our careers to a particular subject area or research interest. And indeed, this is one of the reasons area studies folks or historians are suspicious of sociologists jumping into a research question, using only secondary sources, not mastering the languages, all in the service of some theoretical question that, to the specialists, seems far too sweeping and sloppy. Historical-comparative sociologists have been sensitive to that charge for decades now, and many do the sort of research that would make historians proud: going to the archives themselves, learning the languages, engaging with the historians as well. That takes more work, sure, but it also produces more substantive research.

But what about people who want to study lots of things? I think a lot about Gary Alan Fine’s incredible productivity, and how he seems to go from thing to thing, looking at whatever he finds interesting. He would tell you there’s an overarching theoretical interest that unites all of his work (or just about all of it), and I think that’s right, but I wonder about why we seem to demand such an answer. What’s wrong with having lots of interests, apart from the fact that the more interests you have, the more it could start to be done shoddily?  This concern about shoddiness is usually what you hear, but people like Gary Alan Fine, Craig Calhoun, Rogers Brubaker, Ann Swidler, Randall Collins, and Orlando Patterson (among others) write about a stunning amount of topics, and they do so with a really high quality. All things being equal, do we think that’s better than scholars who laser in on a certain sociological topic and add as much to it as they can?  Most might answer that both foxes and hedgehogs are fine, but I’m not sure that’s how it plays out in search committees, tenure reviews, and award decisions. Yet, at least to me, there’s no self-evident reason why a certain way of being an academic is better than the other.

 

 

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Written by jeffguhin

February 17, 2018 at 9:05 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Added to my to reads list

    Liked by 1 person

    TheSociologicalMail

    February 19, 2018 at 11:08 am

  2. Specialists tend to feel threatened by cultural capital that they don’t possess, because they’re afraid that if it’s recognised in their field, they will no longer be able to compete.

    But the problem for people with wide-ranging interests isn’t just that people are suspicious of them, it’s that the institutional structure of academic disciplines makes it hard for such people to get jobs. Search committees want to see a PhD in the field that they’re hiring, along with a long list of publications in that field.

    Levels of openness also depend on the field in question. Political science is perhaps more open than others. I’m thinking also of Timothy Mitchell, whose work on Egypt could have made him solely an area-studies scholar, but whose career has spanned area studies and political science. No doubt it helped that both Scott and Mitchell did their PhDs at very prestigious universities (Scott at Yale, Mitchell at Princeton).

    Yes, area-studies people bristle when outsiders use only secondary sources, not mastering the languages. But I think the barriers to someone with a PhD in sociology or history getting an area-studies job are actually much lower than the barriers to someone with an area-studies degree getting a job in history or sociology. It’s easier to move down the hierarchy of fields than up.

    Liked by 1 person

    Benjamin Geer

    February 28, 2018 at 9:49 am

  3. Agreed, and I’m not at all sure it’s a good thing the status hierarchy works out the way it does, though I recognize it benefits me…

    Like

    jeffguhin

    March 2, 2018 at 12:12 am


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