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on the victory of “American” sociology

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Over at the “Fake Nous” blog, philosopher Michael Huemer has an interesting post on the analytical/continental divide in his field. He thinks that despite its flaws – and they are big flaws – analytical philosophy is the way to go. In summary, Huemer thinks that analytical philosophy dominates because it focuses on trying to offer clear statements of philosophical problems and then trying to deduce answers. In contrast, Continental philosophers can barely even state their arguments and their books tend to be long and confusing.

I think a similar dynamic is at play within sociology. In our field, people will often complain about “American” sociology. Sometimes they refer to geography, but usually, they are referring to a style of sociology that is positivistic in nature and presented in terse, but relatively jargon free prose. In contrast, we have many people who are committed to critical social theory. Sometimes it makes sense, but a lot of it is truly tough to follow.

American sociology rules the day for many of the reasons Huemer cites in his essay about analytical philosophy. The biggest is that problems are solvable. For example, if you think personal wealth is correlated with being a Republican, you can state that hypothesis, get relevant survey data and see if it holds up. Try to verify Luhmann? Good luck with that. Luhmann even states at the beginning of his major book, Social Systems, that if you can’t understand this, that’s your problem.

Huemer also identifies a problem within philosophy: an obsession with history of philosophy. He, correctly I think, says that it’s nice but irrelevant. A philosopher should use all information to come up with the best arguments. Re-reading old books really doesn’t do that. In sociology, we have “social theory.” It’s misleading as much of it is history of social thought. Fortunately for us, most sociologists don’t endlessly read Weber or Durkheim but rather focus on testing some of their ideas with modern tools.

The underlying issue is that philosophy and sociology, and other fields as well, probably are undergoing a similar evolution. Before the rise of positivism as a general framework for doing scholarship (e.g., focusing on clear concepts, measurements, testable ideas, clear tests of validity of argument), we had “magnus opus” scholarship where you were paid to write long books that used epic, if confusing, terminology (e.g., autopoeiesis, species being, habitus, hysteresis). The more scientistic approach to scholarship won out, but there’s still a big audience for the older style. It’s a Pax Americana in sociology and that’s probably a good thing.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 7, 2020 at 12:14 am

Posted in uncategorized

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