Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Stephen Vertigans and Philip Sutton (2002) 'Concept Development in Sociology: A Comment on Steve Fuller's, 'Will Sociology find some New Concepts before the US finds Osama bin Laden?''
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1, <>

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Received: 20/5/2002      Accepted: 21/5/2002      Published: 31/5/2002


An interesting issue is raised by Steve Fuller's 'Will Sociology Find Some New Concepts' in the previous issue of this journal. This is the extent to which the research programmes of sociologists are or should be influenced by particular, significant events. If this is a call for scientific open-mindedness in the interpretation of violent forms of terrorism and their causes, then it is good advice for us all. However, there is a danger that the interpretation of 'significance' will be shaped by the specific reception of events in the relatively rich nations, thus paradoxically tying sociological work to the vagaries of contemporary politics in similar ways to some of those contributions that Fuller rightly criticises. The main issue here we suggest, is not that of failing to see that real world events can confound our expectations, but of understanding and explaining events of many different kinds within ongoing research programmes, as this is what constitutes the real value of the sociological contribution to knowledge.

Involvement And Detachment; Meso-knowledge; Radical Islam; Secularisation; Terrorism

Not surprisingly, the events of 11th September and responses to them continue to attract widespread interest within the academic world as it seeks to understand and explain the events and to speculate about the future course of events. Steve Fuller identifies the inadequacy of contemporary sociological responses to such events, particularly criticising the exclusive concentration on the macro and micro levels, but ignoring the meso-level of knowledge production and use. This criticism is a valid one, which can be applied to the sociological analysis in other fields too. However, it is not clear how effective the concept of 'meso- knowledge' in itself could be in addressing this lacuna unless it is built into and forms part of a wider, more comprehensive framework of analysis aimed at understanding the development of interdependent social relations. Zygmunt Bauman (1982)[1] noted with respect to contemporary sociological discussions of social class, that many of these were based on empirically outdated and therefore misleading 'historical memories' of cohesive class-based cultures, which prevented us from clearly observing current trends in this area. Similarly, discussions aimed at showing the flaws in the new Cold War rhetoric of politicians and journalists remain framed by that particular historical figuration, now defunct, that restricts and misleads as much as it informs. Even when critical, these contributions remain trapped within the terms of the outmoded framework.

The example of a 'new Cold War' analysis highlights the need to distinguish between concepts very much designed for specific cases, which are therefore time and space limited in application and those general sociological concepts that are applicable across many differing cases. However, our main concern, which also relates to the general problem of sociology adopting a reactive mode to contemporary events, relates to the introduction of new concepts without the evaluation of existing theories and concepts, which may still have useful contributions to make to our understanding and explanations. In other words, the use of existing or new concepts needs to be determined through an evaluation of the theoretical and empirical research available. Reactions to, and attempts to explain events can be particularly problematic in the study of violent terrorist attacks, which Laqueur[2] (2001: 3) notes, when committed in Western nations, 'attract inordinate attention because of [their] dramatic character and [] sudden, often wholly unexpected, occurrence'. They also of course puncture the sense of social stability and safety in the pacified social spaces of self-defined 'civilized countries'. In this sense it is not unusual that acts of terrorism in the West are seen as not only 'barbaric' but also often as special and even unique events. This was evident in some of the immediate responses that suggested 11 September marked the shift to a new world, that the world will never be the same and so on.[3]

Nevertheless, in spite of and perhaps precisely because of this kind of widespread interpretation, sociological analysis needs to at least strive towards some measure of detachment (Elias 1987),[4] to achieve some measure of distantiation from current events, however unpalatable this may be to those with prior political commitments, if the discipline is not to be reduced to journalism by other means. This is not, of course, an easy task and one that is even more difficult to argue for at the present time. And whilst concept formation is obviously a key part of sociological work, this process cannot simply be event-led but has to be tied to ongoing research programmes which allow us to make that critical step of detachment that marks out systematic sociological work from that of our 'intellectual cousins'. This is not an injunction to 'reduce events to instances of already recognisable tendencies' (Fuller 2001; 1.1)[5] but rather to suggest that in a sense all events are 'reality checks' on sociological theories if sociology is a discipline that is, or should be, inherently theoretical- empirical, with theories developing in continuous interplay with empirical evidence of many kinds. Hence, it may well be that, as Fuller suggests, recent terrorism will lead to the development of new concepts, but this cannot occur in a theoretical vacuum and should be considered as part of ongoing research programmes. The import of this argument is that we should be careful about adding to the often criticised (sometimes unfairly) sociological lexicon unless existing concepts are demonstrably shown to be inadequate.

Much of the analysis of the 11th September has been journalistic in approach, providing snapshot analysis of the terrorist actions, their impact and underlying causes. Perhaps this is inevitable so soon after the events, but attempts to identify and explain the underlying reasons have tended to be limited, possibly tempered by the penetration of the 'For us or against us' perspective that often arises when national identities are seen to be under threat.[6] Whilst Fuller is correct to note and criticise the presence of relativistic postmodernism in some of the sociological responses and political dogma in others, which prevents a relatively detached, sober analysis of the present situation, in reality the explanations offered in some of this work owe more to the continuing influence of Marx, Weber and Durkheim than to Lyotard, Baudrillard and other postmodern thinkers. In this sense explanations of the recent attacks are broadly similar to other studies of the much wider Islamic resurgence, also heavily influenced by classical sociological theories, especially the pervasive modernisation thesis.

If we examine this kind of reasoning, it can be noted that the focus tends to be upon criteria of exclusion, as identified by an economic and cultural modernisation paradigm. That is, Muslims become radicalised as they lose or face the threat of losing power chances, employment prospects diminish, homes are under threat, security is compromised and so on. These sentiments are exemplified by Laqueur's belief (2001: 94) that Muslim terrorists consist primarily of the unemployed from poor origins and those unemployed who are relatively highly educated graduates. This apparently limited appeal of radical Islam is highlighted most vividly by Potter's argument[7] that 'the depraved, the mad and the disenchanted will sign up for jihad'. However, this kind of argument can also implicitly take the form of recommendations for Western states to take military action, and that this therefore gives a licence to use violence against those whose actions are 'irrational' and not amenable to rational discourse and argument. The roots of many of the contemporary explanations for the attacks lie within this secularisation perspective derived from the early sociology of religion and in some studies of Islamic movements,[8] but it is important to recognise that this secularisation analysis[9] is ultimately grounded in theories of economic and cultural modernisation.

Such theories partly stem of course from the classical sociological tradition, which continues to influence the analysis of the resurgence of radical Islamic movements, with Islam apparently appealing to the displaced, disenfranchised and 'relatively deprived'.[10] In this way it is not simply postmodernism that leads us astray but the whole variety of explanations rooted in a secularisation perspective, which in our view are not able to explain why such 'Islamic terrorism' has arisen recently or why radical interpretations of Islam appeal to a wide range of people and social groups, not simply the marginalized or 'relatively marginalised'. For reasons of space, we cannot take this issue any further here, but the central point raised is that many apparently 'radical' theories and explanations are traceable to the 'modernity vs. tradition' dualism, that too often descends into an ethnocentric value position impairing the necessary level of emotional detachment required to observe contemporary problems in a less involved way.[11]

In our previous paper in this journal, we sought to contribute towards an explanation of the rise of radical Islam and terrorism by identifying some recent developments that have laid the conditions of possibility for these. These included the expansion of the role of the mass media and education in Islamic and formerly Islamic nations, geographically expansive communication networks, new developments in information technologies, the unintentional opening up of political opportunities by measures at statecraft in countries such as Turkey and in Islamicist military and terrorist successes, which tend to reinforce the radicalised interpretation of Islam in the present period. These factors have all contributed to a growing 'dual awareness' amongst many radicals of local and increasingly global problems and radical Islamic solutions. However, whilst these factors help to explain the contemporary nature of the attacks they need to be analysed within a more integrated sociological framework that attempts to bring together different levels of knowledge and experience including the 'meso level'.[12] It is our view that this kind of longer-term project offers the best possibility of producing a sociologically adequate understanding and explanation of events such as those of 11 September.


1 Zygmunt Bauman (1982), Memories of Class: the pre-history and after-life of class,London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

2 Walter Laqueur (2001), The New Terrorism,London: Phoenix Press.

3 For example, see 'Reactions to Terrorist Attacks in United States', Turkish Press, 12 September 2001,<http://www>; Kemal Yurteri, 'A New Epoch: Construction of a new global order' Turkish Daily News, 13th September 2001,<htt p://>; BBC Newsnight transcript, 12 September 2001, 'The World has been Changed by a handful of Desperate Men' < stm>

4 Norbert Elias, (1987), Involvement and Detachment, Oxford: Blackwell.

5 Steve Fuller (2001) 'Looking for Sociology after 11 September' Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <http://www.socresonline.o>

6 This was exemplified by the nature of the criticism of Chomsky after he argued that the acts of terrorism were retributional. Details can be found in the Chomsky-Hitchens debate: < >

7 Henry Potter, (14 October 2001) 'Why we are right to fight', The Observer.

8 For example, Dessouki, A. (1982), The Islamic Resurgence: Sources, Dynamics and Implications in the Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World,New York: Praeger; Esposito, J.L. (ed) (1987), Islam in Asia, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Heper, M, (1981), "Islam, Polity and Society in Turkey: A Middle Eastern Perspective", The Middle East Journal, Summer, pp.345-363; Mehmet, O, (1990), Islamic Identity and Development - Studies of the Islamic Periphery,London: Routledge; Moussalli, A.S. (1998), "Globalization and the Nation State in the Arab World", MESA Bulletin 32, pp 11-14; Salt, J. (1995), "Nationalism and the Rise of Muslim Sentiment in Turkey", Middle Eastern Studies,vol. 13, pp.13-27; Taji-Farouki, S. and Poulton, H. (eds) (1997), Muslim Identity and the Balkan State,London: Hurst and Company; Toprak, B, (1996), "Civil Society in Turkey", in Norton, A.R, (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East,Volume ii. Leiden: E.J.Brill, pp.87-118.

9 Martin, D, (1978), A General Theory of Secularization, New York: Harper and Row, Wallace, A, (1966), Religion: An Anthropological View, New York: Random House, Wallis, R, (1975), Sectarianism, New York: Wiley, Wilson, B, (1966), Religion in Secular Society, London: C.A.Watts.

10 Fuller (2002) makes this point, implicitly in reference to our article, Stephen Vertigans and Philip Sutton (2001), 'Back to the Future: 'Islamic Terrorism' and Interpretations of Past and Present' in Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3,<http://www.socresonli>. Whilst it has validity for some radical Muslims it was not intended to apply for bin Laden and the majority of the al-Qa'ida leadership, nor was it used as a general explanation.

11 This supports Fuller's point that sociology risks resurrecting 'the distinction between modernity and tradition, on which the discipline had been founded in the late 19th century'.

12 Our ongoing research is aimed at making a contribution towards this. See for example, Stephen Vertigans & Philip Sutton, (2002), 'Globalisation Theory and Islamic Praxis', Global Society, vol. 16, no.1, pp.31-46.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002