The Art of Sociological Argument
Palgrave Publishing, Basingstoke
This latest book by Graham Crow offers us more than a mere introduction to the some of the major sociological works. Crow's book fervently works its way through the ideas of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Charles Wright Mills, Erving Goffman, Michel Foucault and Ann Oakley – and includes a full chapter on each theorist. However, his overall aim is not only to introduce the readers to the content of their works but rather to the form in which their arguments have been presented. For the style in which an argument is being presented plays an important role in engaging an audience in debate and convincing the public of the relevance of sociological ideas. Throughout history, Crow argues, sociologists have found difficulty in relating to their audiences in a constructive manner. This has not only resulted in ideas being unnoticed by the wider public, but where they have been noted this has often result in a disillusionment on the part of the sociologists.
The rationale of Crow's book is therefore to consider what might be learned from this history. So Crow reflects on the writings of the above-mentioned thinkers and illustrates what tools and tricks these thinkers have used in order to illuminate their ideas. This art of the sociological argument, Crow remarks, cannot be reduced to a single formula that fits all sociologists but rather consists of a plurality of possibilities. One of the tools employed is a rhetorical device, and consists of engaging the public in dialogue by prefacing a remark with an expression such as 'As is well-known' or by employing the term 'we'.
Another trick involves locating one's argument within the sociological field through reference to the works of a predecessor. Here one could think of Marx's presentation of his work as an inversion of Hegel, or to Weber's assertion that Marx and Nietzsche were his dominant influences. Yet, this reference to a predecessor could also be more ambiguous – as in the case of Foucault who never really acknowledged any of his predecessors with the exception of Nietzsche. Reference to a predecessor whilst important by no means guarantees the attention of the reading public; so another more rhetorical trick frequently employed is the use of paradox. For a statement that seems contradictory requires further consideration.
The usage of paradox has often gone hand in hand with the employment of metaphors and analogies, such as the term 'Mr Moneybags' employed by Karl Marx to depict the capitalist. Crow further points out that a sense of humour and seeing the funny side of things has also been an important skill in sociological research, as well as breaking taboos and discovering the hidden dimensions of social life.
Crow's book is well written and covers an extensive field, which should be interesting to students as well as teachers in sociological theory. The book could also be of potential interest to young researchers or doctoral students in the beginning of their academic career – for it offers one a chance to reflect upon how one could try and ensure the relevance of one's research in the wider field of sociology. The book is nonetheless specifically aimed at students of social theory, and is particularly useful for teachers who would want their students to reflect not only on the content of particular works, but also on the tradition of sociology as a whole.
The relation to our ancestors is of course essential to this tradition, and it is here that any teacher might want their students to reflect on the issue of referencing. For at the end of each chapter on a particular theorist, Crow provides us with a list of works undertaken by each thinker. These works, however, are not referenced according to the standard Harvard style, but rather only contain the title of the book and date. Since we all know that accurate referencing in student essays often remains something to be desired, one might fear that students – when noting these lists – will assume it is correct to reference writings in their own essays accordingly.
Another critical point one will have to make is that - whilst acknowledging that Crow's aim was to discover what can be learned from past sociological writings - the fact that he starts each chapter with the date of birth and year of death quite literally makes sociology seem as a rather dead discipline. For Ann Oakley is in fact the only person discussed still alive today. Here one wonders whether not some attention should have been given to influential and contemporary theorists such as Jürgen Habermas, Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman. And indeed, in terms of the overall argument of the book, Anthony Giddens also comes to mind, since he so forcefully reshaped the tradition of Sociology according to the works of Marx, Weber and Durkheim.
University of Liverpool