Martyn Hammersley (1999) 'Sociology, What's It For? A Critique of Gouldner'
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Received: 19/7/1999 Accepted: 28/9/1999 Published: 30/9/1999
2Nelson (1984) provides a constructionist account of child abuse as a social problem; I am indebted to David Silverman for this reference. It is striking, though, that she nowhere suggests that child abuse is merely a construction, but focuses rather on how it came to be placed on the public policy agenda. Closer to a radical constructionist position is Davies' work on the discursive construction of childhood sexual abuse; but she explicitly brackets the question of its existence in order to focus on the way it is formulated in Sylvia Fraser's autobiographical account (see Davies 1995).
3There are several places where Gouldner implies that sociological analysis should be applied reflexively in a fully consistent manner. One of these is at the start of his article 'The sociologist as partisan', where he writes: 'Sociology begins by disenchanting the world, and it proceeds by disenchanting itself. Having insisted upon the non-rationality of those whom it studies, sociology comes, at length, to confess its own captivity' (Gouldner 1973:27). However, he does not follow through the implications of this.
In the final chapter of The Coming Crisis, Gouldner addresses the question of whether his own views should themselves be subjected to the kind of sociological critique he has applied to the work of others (Gouldner 1970:481-2). However, he argues that he is not the person to do this, and goes on to point out that the fact that his views may be a product of his biography does not invalidate them. This is true enough, but his criticism of others' work does rely on the assumption that validity is implicated in social origin and functioning (see Hammersley 1999:ch4). Indeed, this seems to be central to his whole notion of reflexivity.
The final section of the final chapter of The Coming Crisis is entitled 'Reflexive sociology looks at itself', but the concern is with why this approach emerged at the time that it did, not with how its content is socially constituted. The explanation given is that 'as [sociologists'] most immediate work environment - the universities themselves - become drawn into the coalescing military-industrial-welfare complex, it becomes unblinkingly evident that sociology has become dangerously dependent upon the very world it has pledged to study objectively' (Gouldner 1970:511). Thus, reflexive sociology is presented as a response to the reality it documents, rather than as serving some latent social function. This is analogous to constructionists' treatment of what they take to be 'genuine' social problems.
4An interesting example of this kind of table-turning occurred in the debate over postmodernist anthropology: see, for example, Roth (1989).
5As this indicates, I see no problem with appeals to 'death and furniture' in defence of realism, contrary to Edwards et al (1995). These have the same status, it seems to me, as Wittgenstein's appeal to those things which there is no point in questioning: see Wittgenstein (1969). For a defence of realism, see Hammersley (1998).
6The grounds for this association are spurious, in my view, since the two main forms of sociological explanation - appealing to aspects of actors' social backgrounds and to features of the situations they face - inevitably involve causal analysis and therefore (at best) set limits to freedom and equality. Furthermore, denial both of the existence of a universal human nature and of normativity - which is central to sociological imperialism - undercuts the basis for critique. We might describe this as the unintended lesson of poststructuralism: see Dews (1987, 1995).
7Thus, in Woolgar's case the realist folk methodology of natural scientists is taken to be similar in structure to the knowledge produced by the sociology of science, and can therefore be replaced by it. In this respect, while Woolgar draws on ethnomethodology, he has abandoned the ethnomethodological principle of indifference. On the relationship between constructionism and ethnomethodology, see Button and Sharrock (1993). See also Button (1991).
8On different interpretations of educational inequality, see Hammersley (1997).
9Some sociologists today even reject the idea that sociology can supply a superior perspective in terms of propositional knowledge about facts. Yet it is difficult to see how the discipline could survive without relying on this claim to superiority. If it does not, on average, provide superior knowledge in some respect - however fallible and qualified - what could be its justification? Even those who argue that the task of sociology is to give voice to the marginalised presumably rely on sociological analysis to identify the victims of marginalisation; as evidenced by the fact that they are selective in whom they seek to give voice to. Going back to an earlier example, few sociologists would wish to give voice to those perpetrating child sexual abuse; and yet there is a clear sense in which such people are socially marginalised. Presumably, this selectivity is based on theoretical analysis; as well as being open to the charge of moral gerrymandering.
10See also Holmwood's (1999) argument for the need for a lack of reflexivity in doing sociological work.
11For detailed discussion of Weber's conception of value neutrality, see Bruun (1972); Scott (1995). See also Shapiro (1978) and Eden (1987), who document the influence on him of Nietzsche's critique of Enlightenment thinking. Elsewhere, I have provided an account of the implications of this principle for how the research communities must be organised: see Hammersley (1995) and Foster et al (1996).
12We should also try to avoid ontological gerrymandering. However, contrary to Woolgar, this does not require us to abandon all claims to representational knowledge, simply to avoid treating the validity or invalidity of beliefs as relevant to their description and explanation.
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