could sociology ever canonize a non-progressive intellectual?

Not a good look…

I’ve now taught social theory at the undergraduate level for over a decade, and I am now teaching social theory at the graduate level. I am also conversant, but no means an expert, in the history of what is considered canonical social theory. Here is an observation. While non-progressives do actually have fabulous careers in sociology (e.g., Robert Nisbet), their work tends not to “stick.” It doesn’t get remembered or canonized and seems to fade rather quickly.

For example, you might think some of the major figures of late 19th century laissez-faire, such as Herbert Spencer or William Graham Sumner, might be candidates for sociology’s “hall of fame.” Spencer’s evolutionary theory certainly feeds into Durkehim and Sumner was president of the American Sociological Association. Later, you might pick up on someone like Robert Nisbet whose book, The Quest for Community, is considered a touchstone for mid 20th century social thought. Yet, these figures are ignored and forgotten within the sociological profession.

Why? One hypothesis is that social theory written by non-progressives is simply bad and not worth thinking about. This doesn’t really persuade me that much because most sociologists reject Parsons’ structural functionalist framework as pretty bad yet he appears in tons of books. Sociologists are also willing to entertain the best parts of Parsons, such as his theory of the sick role in the sociology of health. Another hypothesis is simply that these figures are not prominent enough to merit continued attention. This is clearly not true as Spencer was a major figure of this time, Sumner was a leader in the ASA and Nisbet was an Ivy League professor.

Here’s my hypothesis, and it borrows on theories of how reputation is built by folks like Gary Alan Fine. You need a team of people who are interested in actually creating a canon and building on it. Right now, conservative sociologists are not really in this business. Since I am not conservative, I can’t really read into their minds, but when I look around, I see conservatives in sociology doing one of two things. First, they are really excellent sociologists doing top notch “normal” work. Second, in other cases, they are chasing conservative audiences. There is something to be said about each of these activities but they don’t build up the scholarly capital needed to change the intellectual profile of sociology.

Right now, we live in a sociological world where leading practitioners can’t even name someone in their field with a differing political point of view, as the video at the head of this post shows. That’s the sad part. The positive side of things is that this is an opportunity for a group of scholars to step in and make a new canon.



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Written by fabiorojas

November 4, 2019 at 3:43 pm

Posted in uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. Just off the cuff, I guess I would ask 4 questions:
    1. Is sociology a science, or supposed to be a science?
    2. Does conservative mean the same thing as non-progressive?
    3. Does conservative today mean anything near what it used to mean?
    4. Does conservative mean anything at all today?


    Jon Awbrey

    November 4, 2019 at 4:20 pm

  2. Isn’t Parsons himself a counterexample?

    And to second the above comment about shifting meanings, I don’t think my students read Weber or Durkheim (say) as especially progressive (and Durkheim reads quite conservative on eg gender).


    Dan Hirschman

    November 4, 2019 at 5:57 pm

  3. @Dan: Here, I am talking about the person’s actual political views, not what students read into them. For example, Durkheim was a social democrat. In his encyclopedia entry: “he supported a number of socialist reforms, and had a number of important socialist friends.” Definitely not conservative. Also, Division of Labor is a book that rather clearly critical of the market economy.

    Parsons? Not close. The wiki notes that he was a John Kennedy fan.

    Parsons also rejected laissez faire social theory (see The Str of Soc Action, page 1 – literally!)

    Weber? This is probably your strongest point… but it’s complicated. Weber was anti-monarchy (a key issue for German conservatives, who were pro-Kaiser). The wiki ( mentions contradictory tendencies. It says he was pro-market, but then it also said he was pro-union and pro-strike and often evaulated political positions in terms of whether it helped the working classes.

    Liked by 1 person


    November 4, 2019 at 6:08 pm

  4. @dan: re – weber: I don’t know how many people read Protestant Ethic and see the iron cage argument as a ringing endorsement of the market economy!



    November 4, 2019 at 6:12 pm

  5. Off topic, but not off topic:
    4 speakers in the approx 4 minute video.
    2 women (Ayça Çubukçu, Suzanne Hall) and 2 men (Sam Friedman and Nigel Dodd).
    Approximate speaking time:
    Ayça Çubukçu – 30 seconds
    Suzanne Hall – 15 seconds
    Sam Friedman – 1min 16 seconds
    Nigel Dodd – 1min 58 seconds

    Not that the time has to be exactly equal, but please.



    November 4, 2019 at 7:06 pm

  6. Uh rodney stark, arguably there’s a ton of (social) conservative-leaning stuff in the sociology of religion field, depending on what you consider conservatism

    are there any marxist-leninists published in ‘canonical’ economics journals these days?


    Eustace P MacGregor

    November 11, 2019 at 8:35 pm

  7. @fabio
    The english Wiki on Weber’s political views is muddled and confused. Until the end of WWI Weber was a conservative national liberal. In his younger days he voted for the Free Conservative Party: monarchist, pro unification, pro free trade, in favour of a modern industrial economy, unqualified support of Bismarck. At the same time he was always somewhat sceptical of the nobility, especially agrarian “Junkers”. At the beginning of WWI he was very enthusiastic about the war. In private correspondences he complained that his age bars him from fighting at the front. At the end of the war he became disillusioned with the old institutions and supported the Weimar Republic, joining the left-liberal DDP. However, he mainly did so because of pragmatic patriotism.


    A guy

    November 23, 2019 at 1:56 am

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