Fallacies in the Critique of Disciplinary Sociology

by John Scott
University of Essex

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 8 Sep 2005     Accepted: 8 Sep 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


1.1 In a recent article (Scott 2005) I set out a particular view of sociology and its future. Articles by John Urry (2005) and Benet Davetian (2005) have criticised, in whole or in part, the idea of sociology that I set out and the conclusions that I drew. These critics make a number of extremely important points but are, I believe, based on misunderstandings of my own position. I must accept some of the responsibility for these misunderstandings if the points that I made were not set out with sufficient clarity. I would like, therefore, to discuss the points raised in these critical papers and use them to clarify the view that I sought to defend in my original contribution. I will argue that the criticisms are fallacious and that most of the points made are actually amplifications or corollaries of points that I sought to establish myself. Although there are areas of disagreement amongst us, the debate illustrates that our assessment of the current state and future prospects of sociology depend upon whether we choose to see the situation as ‘half full’ or ‘half empty’.

1.2 The crux of my argument was well summarised by Urry in his opening paragraph: I reject both the ‘Queen of the Sciences’ and the ‘parasitic’ views of sociology and elaborate a view of sociology as grounded in the general idea of society as a specific form of intersubjective association characteristic of human beings and I see it as the elaboration and defence of this as the core element in the pursuit of sociology as a vocation. This is the basis from which sociology can engage in interdisciplinary collaboration without bringing about its own incremental fragmentation.

1.3 Five principal arguments have been made against this view in the papers by Urry and Davetian, each accusing me and, by implication, other ‘mainstream’ sociologists of engaging in forms of closure that aim to establish ‘fortress sociology’ as a ghetto for increasingly irrelevant academic work. These forms of closure are isolationism, nationalism, purism, cognitivism, and privatism. I will argue that these criticisms rest on a misconception of my argument and that I was not seeking to defend a sociological autarchy or protectionism. I was, on the contrary, seeking to defend an open and outward-looking discipline; a discipline that can fruitfully engage with its others from a standpoint rooted in its own strengths. The important points made by Urry and Davetian under each of these headings serve to amplify and further clarify the claims that I made in my original article.

Fallacy one: isolationism and disciplinary closure

2.1 Urry presents me as the advocate of a discipline that seeks to erect boundaries around a distinctive subject matter and to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ to protect its disciplinary autonomy. Such a standpoint, he argues, does not allow for a proper space of contestation and debate with other disciplines. Nowhere in the paper did I advocate or seek to advance such closure. He is wrong to suggest that I ‘lament’ the development of an engaged discipline. Indeed, I agree with Urry that disciplinary closure and isolationism would be undesirable and unhelpful. It is essential that sociology establish and maintain the transdisciplinary networks through which it can contribute to — and learn from — intellectual debates across the social sciences. My point was that such engagement and interdisciplinarity can be most fruitful if it is undertaken from an intellectual base that involves a firm and clear awareness of the distinctive point of view that sociologists can offer.

2.2 Without such an autonomous and firm intellectual base, engagement with other disciplines will tend to result in an intellectual dissolution as sociologists attempt to learn from others without an appreciation that they also have something to offer. If sociologists do not protect and promote the sociological imagination, then who will? This was the point that I attempted to make in the original article. It is certainly not incompatible with Urry’s desired space of contestation. On the contrary, it is Urry’s own denial of the distinctiveness and autonomy of the sociological perspective that undermines such debate and dialogue. Only a secure discipline of committed proponents can contribute to the collective, interdisciplinary production of social scientific knowledge.

2.3 Urry attempts to buttress his position with the contention that there is ‘no simple “centre” to sociology’. This is true, but the point criticised is not implied by my argument. The fact that sociology has enlarged its concerns to take account of new technologies and new domains of study does not mean that there are no enduring concerns. Sociology has always extended itself in this way — as Urry notes in relation to the ‘founding fathers’. Urry argues, however, that the period from the 1920s to the 1960s was one in which the discipline sought to contract around an assumed, but actually non-existent, centre. The globally dominant American sociology of the period, he argues, erected rigid professional boundaries that divided a vacuous sociology from its others.

2.4 Whatever the failings of this particular mainstream sociology may be, disciplinary closure can hardly be regarded as one of them. Central to the sociology of the period was Talcott Parsons. One of his major achievements — admittedly in the face of much opposition from his colleagues — was to transform the Department of Sociology at Harvard into the interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations, making it the institutional base for a dialogue in which the ‘boundary interchanges’ between sociology, psychology, and cultural anthropology could be explored. In doing this, he built on his own earlier investigations into the relations between sociology and economics and his continuing explorations into the relations between the social and the political.

2.5 The success, or otherwise, of this venture is not the matter at issue. What is important is that — in precisely the period in which Urry depicts a disciplinary closure — the leading protagonist of mainstream American sociology was engaged in a transdisciplinary dialogue aimed at the creation of a disciplinary network of intellectual interchanges. The sociology of the period that Urry sees as responsible for our contemporary woes was not defending a fictive ‘centre’ but was promoting an intellectual field of cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Fallacy two: nationalism and national closure

3.1 The second plank to Urry’s argument is that I rely on a conventional view of the national society as the focus of sociological analysis. This argument, however, misreads ‘society’ as necessarily meaning ‘national society’. I do not believe that I equated these terms in my article, and I certainly had no intention of doing so. Urry’s contention is that the very use of the word ‘society’ involves the smuggling in of the image of some particular national society, and the very idea of the national society is a feature of a highly specific period in western history. Any reliance on a particular national society — and Urry seems to think that I rely on an image of British society — is unfounded. Urry stresses that each society is temporally and spatially unique, and he concludes that ‘there is no single “society” that can be taken as the basis of Scott’s centre for sociology’.

3.2 This assertion completely misinterprets the point that I was making. I held that the concept of society has been and should remain the central concept for sociological analysis. I accord no privileged position to national societies, nor do I privilege any particular national society. Rather, I would emphasise the diversity of the societal types in and through which human beings have lived their lives. These range from tribal bands through patrimonial empires to contemporary world systems. For some reason, Urry questions whether an empire can be a society — perhaps because he assumes that ‘society’ always implies ‘nation’ and so feels the need to abandon both concepts. My own view is that the important thing is to recognise the diversity of human societies, without abandoning the general — and, yes, central — concept of ‘society’ as such. Talk of such societies is not incompatible with a recognition of the existence of transnational and inter-systemic relations. Indeed, the recognition of such relations is nothing new. It has been an integral feature of almost all the approaches to macro-sociology that I can think of, while micro-sociologists have employed the concept to refer to the intersubjective, relational context within which people interact. To talk of ‘society’ is not to imply a cohesive, integrated, and sharply bounded social entity. Such social entities do exist, but most are embedded in complex networks of relations that tie them to other societies and many exist as the very dispersed, interpenetrating, and fragmentary structures that are held to characterise ‘post-national’ social life.

3.3 Such an awareness is the basis on which we can pursue the very comparative goal that Urry advocates. Holding that the general concept of society is imprecise, he points to global diversity and the fact that ‘there are many different societies being analysed by colleagues from a huge diversity of places’. Let us leave aside the fact that even Urry cannot avoid using the word ‘society’ to describe his vision of social analysis, and let us focus instead on his emphasis on diversity and the need for comparison. This latter view is, I believe, fundamentally correct, yet it is something that has always been central to sociology and certainly central to my own view of the subject. Indeed, I took it to be so self-evidently true that it did not need to be stated explicitly. To avoid any further misunderstanding, however, let me state that the sociological concept of society must be retained as the base from which we can recognise the diversity of social forms under which people have lived, and will live in the future, and that a comparative analysis of cultural, economic, and political differences — including, but not exclusively, national differences — must figure as a central concern for any social theory worthy of the name.

Fallacy three: purism and material closure

4.1 The next plank in Urry’s argument is to take up my contention that sociology is defined by its focus on the social and to turn this against me by claiming that this involves a denial and rejection of other legitimate objects of sociological attention and, in particular, of the material world. In my original paper I held that intersubjectivity is the mark of the social and that sociology has been successful precisely to the extent that it has placed this at the centre of its attention. Nowhere in my paper, however, did I claim that sociology is or should be exclusively concerned with the intersubjective.

4.2 Urry rightly contends that ‘social’ phenomena are more than merely intersubjective. Social relations are not ‘pure’ intersubjectivity but are intertwined with ‘technologies, texts, objects and environments’ that stretch social relations across time and space as complex aspects of a multi-layered reality. With all of this I agree. Nothing in my paper denied it. What I was seeking to show was that the distinctive feature of sociological attention is the intersubjective and it is precisely an awareness of this that allows it to work with these other objects. Without a sociological focus on the intersubjective, there might be disciplines concerned with technologies, texts, objects, and environments — cultural studies, science studies, geography, etc. — but they would be far more likely to work in isolation and would be less likely to recognise the crucial part played by the intersubjective in constituting their own subject matters.

4.3 Sociology has grown and expanded, as I argue elsewhere (Scott 2006), by entering into dialogue with other disciplines and by building an awareness of the interdependence between the intersubjective and the material. Sociology has long been concerned with nature, environment, and spatial organisation, and it has engaged in debates with geographers, environmentalists, and others about these processes. In return, it has spawned new ideas and approaches in which the intersubjectively organised construction of these material conditions takes centre stage. These are developments that both Urry and I would welcome. Where we differ is in my belief that they can be kept alive only to the extent that a strong disciplinary emphasis on the intersubjective is maintained.

4.4 There is nothing in my position that implies a ‘purified realm’ of the intersubjective as the sole object of study in sociology. Indeed, I know of no one who would seriously argue this. It may be appropriate, for certain purposes, to analytically distinguish such ‘pure’ social relations and to treat them as isolated objects of analysis. This is what Simmel (1908) most famously did in his formal sociology, programmatically establishing a focus for sociology’s distinctiveness. But this kind of intellectual work does not rest on a belief that a pure sociology of intersubjectivity exhausts the realm of the social. Even the pure sociologist Simmel realised — and explicitly stated — that the intersubjective exists only ever in the concrete contexts and under material conditions through which its meaning and significance is shaped.

4.5 I would strongly agree with Urry’s concluding statement, with a couple of small, but crucial, qualifications. In the following quote from Urry I have interpolated my qualifications in italics:

‘sociology seeks understanding of the nature of our social life, how social connections face-to-face and at a distance are contingently enabled and performed. And it does this partly through scavenging from insights and approaches thrown up/out elsewhere and articulating these in relation to its own specific conceptualisation of the social’.

4.6 That is to say, sociology, as Urry recognises, cannot concern itself with the intersubjective alone. It must not establish a sociological purism. However, neither should it abandon the intersubjective and concern itself only with scavenging from other disciplines. Sociology has contributed to our knowledge of social relations partly by its borrowings from its others, but also because it has maintained a strong and clear awareness of the distinctively social element in these relations. This was the point that I sought to defend in my paper.

Fallacy four: cognitivism and emotional closure

5.1 A related criticism is raised by Davetian. His interesting discussion of embodiment, in which he also responds also to the recent interview with Nicholas Gane (Beer and Gane 2004), makes a number of important points. His argument is that the Durkheimian view of social facts and their sui generis character rests on a Cartesian dualism of mind and body and that, as a result, the conception of sociology that I relate to Durkheim’s arguments suffers from a failure to conceptualise the body in general and emotions in particular. The focus of sociological attention, he argues, has been on the cognitive aspects of the intersubjective formation of the self. This criticism can be seen as an extension of Urry’s point about the alleged neglect of nature: where Urry is concerned about technology and the material environment, Davetian is concerned with the natural, material attributes of the human body.

5.2 Davetian argues that issues of body and biology have been advanced in other disciplines and that sociology must learn from them. Sociology, however, has apparently failed to learn in the way that many other disciplines have. These other subjects ‘are now daring to walk on grounds left untouched by a “disciplined” sociology anxious to carve out a turf particular to itself while side-stepping extra-curricular information vital for its coherence and survival’. This is a non sequitor. The ‘coherence and survival’ of sociology does, of course, depend on its willingness to engage with information and ideas from its others, and my agreement with this view should now be apparent. However, it is simply not the case that a ‘disciplined sociology’ must neglect the body and emotions.

5.3 The claim that sociology has ignored the body and emotions rests on a very particular view of the history of sociology that fails to recognise that the leading sociologists of the classical period engaged in constant and fruitful dialogue with those in other disciplines and made major contributions to an understanding of the body. Davetian’s account of the classical tradition focuses particularly on symbolic interactionist writers, but neglects to mention those who engaged with and contributed to psychoanalysis and other forms of social psychology and biological psychology. An understanding of sociology’s history that reduces it largely to Durkheim Weber, and Mead marginalises the work of other equally important writers. If recent sociologists have failed to engage in debate over bodily emotions this reflects their inadequate appreciation of their own disciplinary history and traditions rather than any disciplinary closure.

5.4 Let me give just one example. Davetian highlights the important recent work of Turner (2000) and his engagement with evolutionary psychology, but he fails to note that such an engagement also took place 100 years before in the work of the British sociologist Hobhouse. He developed a view of sociology as the study of the development of intersubjective phenomena (see the statement in Hobhouse 1924), strongly influenced by the same Hegelian ideas that informed the works of Cooley and Mead, yet he allied this with a discussion of the social formation of the emotions and other bodily capacities through ongoing socialisation (Hobhouse 1901). This work was developed through discussion with psychologists and from Hobhouse’s own laboratory work in physiological psychology. His arguments were taken up in the work of McDougall (1908) as a systematic account of ‘instincts’ and emotional formation that Mead was to acknowledge as a major influence on his own work. More recently, of course, Talcott Parsons sought to relate his work on the social system to studies of the body through an engagement with both biology and psychoanalysis. Indeed, Parsons had himself undergone psychoanalysis in order to learn how better to incorporate its insights into his work.

5.5 Sociology, then, has not closed itself off to the study of the emotions and the body. The success or failure of previous endeavours to understand the body and emotions are not the key issue here. The crucial point is that those sociologists who look for an understanding of the body have as much to learn from their own discipline as they do from other disciplines. A critical engagement with our own history (if only we understood that history better) would provide an important basis for even more productive dialogue with our others.

Fallacy Five: privatism and political closure

6.1 Urry highlights, and lauds, the diffusion of sociological ways of thinking into other disciplines and into the world of practical affairs. This is, of course, something of which we should be immensely proud. It is both a significant intellectual achievement and a major contribution to more effective public policies. As Urry recognises, this was something that I claimed in my article to be one of the most important consequences of the growth and influence of sociology. Urry holds, however, that I tend to see this as a ‘failure’ for sociology. This is an extreme misstatement of my position. Such diffusion is a problem only if the spread of sociology leaves the discipline itself empty of content: only if diffusion involves the dissolution of sociology per se. My reason for holding to this view is that a sociological way of thinking has had its influence and impact because it has been nurtured and developed by a strong and vibrant discipline.

6.2 Before sociology was established as a university discipline, its influence was limited and other disciplines were able to proceed without any significant consideration of the properly social dimension to their subject matters. The building of a sociological perspective and its establishment in departments of sociology during and after the classical period went hand-in-hand with its growing influence on other, more established disciplines. The diffusion of sociological understanding was a hard-won battle, but this battle would be lost if sociology as a discipline — the guardian of the idea of the social — were to disappear. If sociology were to disappear as a discipline, through intellectual absorption into other disciplines and through the migration of its practitioners to interdisciplinary specialisms, there would no longer be an intellectual base committed to nurturing a distinctively sociological perspective. This has not yet happened. I identified it as something to consider if some current trends were to persist. To argue this way is not to argue for a closure towards the outside world, merely for the continued protection and promotion of specifically sociological ways of thinking. Privatism on the part of sociologists would be counter-productive for both sociology and its others.

6.3 Urry, on the contrary, feels that it does not matter if disciplinary sociology disappears, so long as sociological ways of thinking are apparent in other disciplines, in transdisciplinary work, and in practical affairs. To substantiate his case he employs the Foucauldian image of the archipelago: ‘sociology has gone underground and pops up like the islands of an archipelago in unexpected places’. His analogy belies his conclusions. If sociology has ‘gone underground’, it must still exist somewhere apart from the ‘islands’ in which it is manifest. Islands in the ocean exist only as the pinnacles of the submerged land mass that connects them: they cannot exist as an archipelago without that land mass. A better image is the Deleuzian metaphor of the rhizome: apparently isolated plants grow and prosper because they spring from the underlying tuberous root that gives them their life and allows the plants to spread. If we are to let a ‘hundred flowers’ bloom, as Urry’s mixed metaphor requires, then the sociological rhizome must be cultivated in its nursery beds so that it remains available for spread and transplantation to other less well-cultivated fields.

6.4 This is nowhere more apparent than in the practical, political impact of the sociological approach. Urry notes the undoubted success that there has been in the establishment of sociological ideas in policy debates and political discourse in the countries where sociology has prospered. What would happen, however, if there were no sociologists to continue to proselytise on its behalf and to ensure that its influence persists? The adoption of a sociological orientation by politicians and those involved in social practice is fragile, as is their adoption of any ‘scientific’ basis for policy discussion. Without strong, publicly supported scientific disciplines there would be no scientifically informed policies. If sociology were to disappear as a discipline, and its influence in other disciplines were, inconsequence, to weaken, then it would not be long before policy ceased to have any significant sociological dimension to it.

6.5 We can, perhaps, see this as one of the dimensions of Burawoy’s (2005) argument about a public sociology. Rejecting the idea that sociologists should simply be the practical architects of policy or the disengaged critics of practice, he argues for the building of a strong and articulate sociological voice in policy matters. Sociology can play its public role only from the standpoint of a strong and vibrant disciplinary base from which its advocates can argue for and demonstrate its importance.

6.6 A closure of sociology to its public and political audiences would be disastrous, and I made no attempt to argue for such a position. Defending the disciplinary autonomy of sociology does not involve a strategy of privatism and isolation. It involves, rather, building and supporting the kind of intellectual base that will allow sociology to continue to exercise the kind of influence that has been built, with such great difficulty, over the last 100 years or so.

Conclusion: the importance of disciplinary sociology

7.1 I hope I have now established that the criticisms of my original article rest on a misconception of my own position, a misunderstanding of the history of sociology, and a faulty prescription for sociology’s good health. My argument was that sociology as a discipline must defend and articulate a sociological imagination and sociological perspective that recognises the distinctively intersubjective character of all social phenomena and human societies and that seeks to promote this recognition in other disciplines, in interdisciplinary work, and in matters of practical policy. To achieve this task sociology must have a firm disciplinary base from which the building of its ideas and the recruitment and training of the future generations of its practitioners can be ensured.

7.2 This argument does not imply or require any of the closures identified by my critics. Sociology has always been, and must remain, a discipline open to outside influences and willing to engage with outsiders. As I argued in my original paper, sociology has developed as a discipline only because of its willingness to do just this and to contribute to the expansion of new specialisms and interdisciplinary areas. The discipline of sociology must hold its place in an extensive and complex intellectual division of labour in which all social sciences, and many natural sciences, participate. But this must be a participation of equals if sociology is not to be dissolved entirely and to disappear in an otherwise laudable expansion of transdisciplinary or post-disciplinary work. Sociology must, of course be reflexively critical of its work, identifying lacunae in its understanding and engaging with others in an attempt to rectify this. It must also, however, be proud of its own achievements. It should not approach its others on the basis of an inferiority complex rooted in a misunderstanding of its own history and achievements. It must not assume that we have all the problems and they have all the answers. It was the success of disciplinary sociology that made possible the sociologising of history, geography, and politics and that substantially contributed to the development of cultural studies and other interdisciplinary areas. It would be a tragedy if the success of its intellectual progeny were to lead to the destruction of the parental discipline that could continue to nourish them in the future.


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