(2002) 'Will Sociology find some New Concepts before the US
finds Osama bin Laden?'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 4, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/6/4/fuller.html>
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Received: 25/2/2002 Accepted: 25/2/2002 Published: 28/02/2002
The 'postmodern' period in sociology began in the final quarter of the 20th century, when the gap between rich and poor nations began to increase again, after having narrowed in the previous quarter century. This gap was mirrored in a bifurcation of sociological interest in, on the one hand, the role of advanced technologies in structuring social life in the rich nations and, on the other hand, the use of traditional forms of knowledge as a vehicle for identity formation in the poor nations. Curiously, the postmodernists rarely attended to the significant minority of people from poor nations who managed to acquire enough knowledge and resources from rich nations to use it to their political advantage - specifically, undergraduate training in science or engineering and the mobility afforded to an upper middle class income. It was perhaps the sheer ordinariness of these conditions in their own nations that blinded Western sociologists to what turned out to be the main determinants of global social change in the first half of the 21st century. Instead, they resurrected the distinction between modernity and tradition, on which the discipline had been founded in the late 19th century.
2Margaret Thatcher, 'Islamism is the new Bolshevism', Guardian, 12 February 2002, http://www.guardian.co.u k/Archive/Article/0,4273,4354290,00.html . The article was originally entitled, 'Advice to a Superpower'. To her slight credit, Thatcher is careful to distinguish the motives of various Muslim nations and groups. However, she also occasionally uses the phrase 'Islamic terror'.
3An informed and provocative source is Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2001).
4Samuel Huntington, whose 'clash of civilizations' thesis has now received a new lease on life, originally made this point in a remarkable book, The Soldier and the State (1957), which could end up explaining the 'latent wisdom' of Bush's appointment of a professional solider as US Secretary of State: Colin Powell, an ethical bulwark in a time of increasing shiftiness. An article that portrays Huntington in an extremely sympathetic and prescient light, but which is nevertheless rich in detail, is Robert D. Kaplan, 'Looking the world in the eye', The Atlantic Monthly, December 2001, <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2 001/12/kaplan.htm>.
5My view is contrary to that recently (and perhaps too conveniently) adopted by the author of a book about the launching of the first artificial space satellite. See King Kaufman, 'Out of the Blue', http://www.salon.com/book s/int/2001/12/13/dickson/index.html?x.
6Robert Worth, 'Agents wanted: Should speak Pashto', New York Times, 1 October 2001, ht tp://query.nytimes.com/search/abstract?res=F20610FD3E590C728CDDA90994D9404482.
7Stanley Hoffmann, 'Why Don't They Like Us?' The American Prospect, 19 November 2001, <http://www.prospect.org/print/V12/20/hoffmann-s.html>.
8I stress this point because it is easy - more for Western Europeans than Americans - to write as if the West does not have its own home-grown fundamentalism. It is also easy - more for Americans than Western Europeans - to write as if Islam does not have its own home- grown secularism. An excellent popular history that should dispel these misconceptions is Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God (London: Harpercollins, 2001). In the aftermath of 11 September, secular Muslims have come to the fore, calling for soul-searching in the Islamic world. Most prominent has been the pseudonymous 'Ibn Warraq', who has written a Bertrand Russell-inspired book, Why I am Not a Muslim (1995) and more recently has criticized Western captivity to Edward Said's 'orientalism' thesis, which Warraq regards as too 'politically correct'. See Chris Mooney, 'Holy War', The American Prospect, 17 December 2001, <http://www.prospect.org/print/V12/22/mooney-c.html>; Ibn Warraq, 'Honest intellectuals must shed their spiritual turbans', Guardian, 10 November 2001, <http://www.guardian. co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4295749,00.html>. In this light, I would seriously question the thrust of Benet Davetian, 'Moral Tensions between Western and Islamic Cultures: The Need for Additional Sociological Studies of Dissonance in the Wake of September 11', <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/6/3/dave tian.html>. One should not assume that ordinary Iranians have any greater understanding of what distinguishes themselves from, say, ordinary Americans than ordinary Americans would. The preoccupation with courtesy that Davetian finds so distinctive in the Iranians is also a cultural staple of the US South, the hotbed of fundamentalist Christianity. Recently, a useful term, 'occidentalism', has been coined to capture the demonising stereotypes of the West employed by non-Western cultures: Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma, 'Occidentalism', New York Review of Books, 17 January 2002. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/15100>.
9This paradoxical arrangement can be taken as either a tragedy or a wake-up call. The two interpretations, from the secularist side, are provided, respectively, in Edward Skidelsky, 'A liberal tragedy', Prospect, January 2002, <http://www.prospect- magazine.co.uk/ArticleView.asp?Accessible=yes&P_Article=8399>; Victor Davis Hanson, 'Why the Muslims Misjudged Us', City Journal, Winter 2002, <http://www.city- journal.org/html/12_1_why_the_muslims.html>. The British government is currently attempting to cut through the secularist paradox of tolerating the intolerant by attempting to pass legislation that would require the licencing of foreign nationals studying university subjects that could be used to inform terrorist activities: Charles Arthur, 'New laws to suppress academic research', Independent, 18 February 2002, <http://news.independent.co. uk/uk/legal/story.jsp?story=120601>.
10This point was grasped in Stephen Vertigans and Philip Sutton, 'Back to the Future: Islamic Terrorism and Interpretations of Past and Present', <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/6/3/vert igans.html>. See also Jason Burke, 'The last revolution: The US won the war in Afghanistan, but bin Laden's ideology lives on'. The Observer, 27 January 2002, <http://www.guardian. co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4343749,00.html>. On the social epistemology of the recent technoscientifically informed Islamic revivalism, see Ahmed Bouzid, 'Science and Technology in the Discourse of Sayyid Qutb', Social Epistemology 10 (1996): 289-304.
11Steven Weinberg, 'Can Missile Defense Work?' New York Review of Books, 14 February 2002. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/15132>.
12This point was subject to a lengthy examination, starting on the front page of The New York Times, 1 November 2001, which arguably could be used by would- be terrorists to weigh the pros and cons of waging biological, chemical, and nuclear warfare. William Broad, Stephen Engelberg, and James Glanz, 'A Nation Challenged: Assessing new risks, from nuclear weapons to chemicals and germs', <http://query.nytimes.com/search/abstract?res=F20D12FB3B540C728CDDA80994D9404482> . To his credit, one respondent caught sight of this issue and its implications for reorienting sociological attention: Simon Williams, 'From Smart Bombs to Smart Bugs: Thinking the Unthinkable in Medical Sociology and Beyond', <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/6/3/willi ams.html>. Perhaps the most interesting sociological point about the envisioned epidemic- based form of biological warfare is that it is parasitic on normal social interaction. In other words, any systematic policy of prevention would force people in the potentially victimized society to regard each other in a substantially different light (i.e. as possible disease carriers). This perhaps explains some of the grassroots resistance to government-led calls for vaccinations in the US and UK (although there are also more strictly medical reservations about physical side-effects).
13Some respondents appear to do this gladly, even though it would leave Marx and Weber turning in their graves. See Chris Rumford, 'Confronting "Uncivil Society" and the "Dark Side of Globalization": are Sociological Concepts Up to the Task?' <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/6/3/rumf ord.html>.