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Posts Tagged ‘normal science

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!

Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2017 at 4:16 pm