Aug 18 2009

Is there such a thing as conservative sociology?

Category: higher education,societyharmonicminer @ 9:24 am

Some of have suggested that “conservative sociology” is an oxymoron.  Sociology at most universities, even ostensibly more conservative “Christian” universities, is essentially a free bully pulpit for faculty bent on “progressive” social change, meaning let’s all move Left in quick march, double-time.  That’s the norm, like it or not.  It seems that having Karl Marx as one of the founders of your discipline does have a certain effect.  Here are a few excerpts from a very interesting conversation between some “conservative sociologists” on the topic (conservative being a relative term, of course).  But compared to the run of the mill sociology prof, these folks do seem a bit more reasonable, and I recommend the whole thing for a fuller flavor:

Conservative sociology: what is it ?

what’s happening is a certain kind of leftist orientation is expanding, and it’s that leftist orientation which has really colonised sociology and now has very little opposition. In fact sociology is so leftist oriented that most people in sociology are kind of unaware that that’s what has actually happened, it’s so run-of-the-mill.


Steven Thiele: Could I say something about Marx? To a large extent Marx himself has disappeared from sociology to be replaced by kind of a generic position which is really about inequality, so you fill class, you replace class with whatever pair of collective actors you wish. So when you’re talking about race, the collective actors are blacks and whites; when you’re talking about gender, the collective actors are men and women. So you shift from one of these generic stories to the next, but you never tell all those generic stories together because they are all put forward as universal theories.

So the focus on sociology is about difference rather than similarity, it’s about the distribution of wealth rather than wealth creation, it’s about equality rather than, say, quality of life. So there’s been a shift. And then if you add to that notions like the sociological imagination which actually orients people away from the question of evidence, away from the question of investigation, and then you add to that the idea of critical sociology, then that’s the kind of map that you’ll get if you read, say, a first year text.


The politicisation of the academy which is a kind of post-’60s phenomenon has tended to fragment the academy. It’s led to a series of rather trivial ways of framing important questions so that you tend to get statements like, ‘Well, we’re not interested in culture, we’re interested in the politics of culture. We’re not interested in art, we’re interested in the politics of art,’ et cetera.


But I do feel that perhaps conservatives could play a very important role in restoring what I might call a civilised level of discussion within the social sciences, where you don’t start from a kind of pre-existing position that all our truths are relative to whether we’re Marxists or feminist or poststructuralist. There’s a kind of perspectival logic that I think unfortunately academics tend to instil in students who then become, in their own turn as honour students and graduate students or even undergraduate students, experts in spouting back to us these various perspectives that we’ve been training them in.

And one final point on this question of politicisation. This might seem unduly harsh. I think that in a sense it makes up for the very little progress that sociology has made in explaining social life. And what I mean by that is that I think that economists…and where I had my first training as an undergraduate was in the field of economics, a field that has a very bad reputation amongst sociologists, but I do remember that within economics, for example, there are certain assumptions that are largely shared by the practitioners of the discipline. Say that if price goes up then the level of demand for a particular good is likely to go down. Sociology has found it incredibly difficult to even come to an agreement about those very simple kinds of propositions about social life.


to return to this theme of where the politics of academic sociology lies, there is empirical data from the US, there was a survey conducted of the members of the American Sociological Association that found that in the 2004 presidential election, 86% of sociologists had voted Democratic. I would imagine that in Australia that if you tallied votes for the ALP and Greens amongst academic sociologists I think you would similarly find that 85% to 90% of academic sociologists are voting either centre-left or hard-left. Now, is that where the rest of the population is at?


There are areas of the humanities and social sciences that are heavily politicised and have been colonised by the sort of radicalism that we’ve been talking about, but they’re pretty small these days. Terrorism studies comes to mind, which is one area today where…virtually everyone in that area is a ‘blame the west’, ‘be soft on radical Islam’ within the radical Marxist tradition, although Marx may not be read…I think Steven is quite right, Marx is actually not referred to, but in effect this is the Marxist tradition.

And studies of gender I think are still heavily politicised where you get such absolute nonsense that there’s no fundamental difference between men and women. I mean, which normal person in their right mind could believe that? For one thing, all the evidence of anthropology is against it.


like the Catholic who loses his or her faith, that when the gods fail, what are you left with? And if you’re intellectually predisposed and given to reflecting about yourself and your life, and people in the academy are more inclined this way than people outside the academy in general, then you’re taken into what has become the mainstream of high culture in the sense of the most perceptive artists, writers, philosophers, thinkers over the last 150 years in the west, most of them have been nihilistic, they’ve portrayed life as absurd, as a sort of Waiting for Godot living death, a sort of Heart of Darkness absurdity and horror.

This is really a consequence, to go back to Max Weber and Nietzsche, of the death of God. Tolstoy put it; ‘If death loses its meaning, then life loses its meaning.’ In the Christian tradition, once the faith diminishes and a sense of that image of the cross and resurrection (whatever that may mean) fades into the margins, then what are you left with? You’re left with Duchamp’s urinal and death’s a bit like a dead fish rotting and stinking on the beach. So understandably at that point one becomes glum.


They’re [“conservative sociologists”] so damn convincing compared to some of the more trendy theories of change that we find in post-modernism and so forth. And I think Daniel Bell in particular has been very good at explaining that in a sense some of the loss of meaning that’s associated with contemporary culture springs, for example, from the tension between defining yourself through work and defining yourself through consumption or self-gratification. I think that Bell’s right. I think that if the only choices are the discipline of hard work or self-expression through pleasing myself through consumption, then where am I going to find sources of meaning?

To put it succinctly, people need Jesus.  Are sociology departments (and their close allies, global studies departments) in Christian universities any less left than their counterparts in secular or state schools?  You would be hard pressed to tell, I think.

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