Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe

Dickens, Peter and Ormrod, James
Routledge, London
2007
9780415374323 (hb)

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Cosmologically speaking, Cosmic Sociology: Towards a Sociology of the Universe brings humanity back into the big picture, which (since Kepler, Copernicus, Newton and the gang) has been progressively occluded from the grander scientific worldview.

The authors, Dickens and Omrod, take their cue from Best and Kellner's (2001) reconnection of the missing human link between what is perceived through both the microscopic and the telescopic lenses of scientific instrumentation. In this book, they take sociology on a trip across the universe - the cosmic order - in which the place, status and future of homo sapiens appears increasingly threatened and at risk. In this context, what we have made out of the technological capital available since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution is an epoch in which sociology becomes history or perhaps a tragic-comic tale. And, as in any other ancestral saga (being part-myth and part-autobiography) 'we, the people' are holding out and holding forth on the verge of species extinction. The scope of this, one is tempted to say, earth-shattering text Cosmic Sociology is indicated on page one:

In a sense, this is both a book about different cosmologies from the visions of Aboriginal tribes, for whom the universe was alive with souls, to those of today's United States military, for whom outer space represents the new high ground from which to control Earthly warfare and a movement towards a new cosmology in itself.
Cosmic Sociology had something of the same effect on me as the speaker experiences in Keats's sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer: '(L)ike some watcher in the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken'. For Dickens and Omrod open up a new world for sociological exploration and reflection, a larger vista of enquiry beyond the conventional borders and boundaries of the subject. They stretch the sociological imagination to the point the breaking-point for some, I would imagine where all possible worlds become susceptible to sociological intrusion or, better, hospitable to a sociological excursion in which 'we, the modern people' shrink or magnify yet further in our own eyes. Having inherited or conquered the earth, we stand poised to inherit or destroy a boundless universe. As humans, we are like that.

Astrosociology (Pass 2004; Omrod 2005) takes us on an expeditionary voyage of cosmic discovery that carries the potential payoff of global recovery by getting us to see in true perspective our human frailty and vulnerability, on the one side, and our terrifying overkill capacity, on the other side. As a veritable 21st century traveller's tale, this is a book designed to enthral and excite those who cling on to the pioneer sociologists' hopes of 'salvation through social science'. This 'sociology of the universe' - eschewing hubris, defiantly committed to a soaring, searing, far-seeing sociological ambition to tell it like it is and how it might become - breaks out of the confines of the urban-industrial heritage of the discipline and reaches for the skies, literally and figuratively, where new worlds are being staked out, designed and part-built for future colonisation. Little wonder that 'imperialism' occupies one of the most packed items in the detailed index. Indeed, in his hortatory front page remarks, Bryan Turner commenting on 'the modern period of cosmic colonialism', ('cosmic imperialism' is the author's own expression, p. 179), refers to Dickens and Omrod as 'as it were, the Marx and Engels of the political economy of space and consequently their publication is the Grundrisse of the mode of space production'. With Cosmic Sociology we leave behind the trusty methodological anchors and reliable 'first, second, third, fourth worlds' signposts of the founding parents to float in the unchartered virtual spheres of cyber-space in search of post-sociological bearings.

The authors' trenchant remarks on what might be called terrestrial, earth-bound sociology, a version of 'flat earthism' in the making if we miss the point of this challenging book, are a prelude to their quest for an exploratory, rather more than an explanatory, critique of 'space humanization' (p. 189). Precisely how the relentless 'weaponization of outer space [as] the first part of space humanization [is] to be abandoned' (pp. 189-90) is by no means clear. But courageous voyages of discovery into matters of this magnitude and urgency where, as it were no sociologist has gone before, are wonderful intimations of the immortal desire in humankind to seek 'alternative' visions and missions to all-too-familiar sociological tourist guides. Beam me up, Dickens and Omrod!

References

BEST, S. and Kellner, D. (2001) The Postmodern Adventure: science, technology and cultural studies at the third millennium. London: Routledge.

OMROD, J. S. (2005) 'The case for astrosociology', University of Essex Graduate Journal of Sociology, 5: 104-6.

PASS, J. (2004) 'The definition and relevance of astrosociology in the 21st century' available at www.astrosociology.com/iessay.html (accessed 27 August 2008).

William Keenan
Nottingham Trent University