Sociology Considered as One of the Fine Arts

Sociology has an evil reputation.  We might predict the future, mend broken hearts, cure cancer, defeat alien invasions and save the planet, but we Cannot Write.  Sociology is a by-word for jargon, abstraction, pretentiousness and convoluted curdled prose.

With some reason.  When I began in the trade, the greatest sociologist in the world was Talcott Parsons of Harvard University, whose idea of fine English prose was a literal translation of mutterings by Max Weber with a headache.  Later I discovered that one of Parsons’ predecessors in the professoriate at Harvard was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the world’s windiest poet, which seemed to explain a lot.

Still, if you boiled his prose down (C. Wright Mills, who had a sense of humour, once shrank a book of Parsons' theory into four paragraphs) it did say something you could sink your teeth into, and prove how bad it was.  Other theorists spent years building systems of definitions that said nothing substantial about anything, and couldn’t even be refuted.

This bothered me as a beginner, and to tell the truth, it still does.  Sociology deals with the most important issues in contemporary life.  Why shouldn’t sociological writing be noted for vivid description, crisp analysis, vigorous and witty argument?  Why shouldn’t our books be best-sellers, shaking the nation and attracting admiring reviews, questions in parliament, and furious television debates?

The topics that sociologists concern themselves with can be the subject of very fine writing.  Consider the delicate ethnography of country life in Ontario in the short stories of Alice Munro, who should have been awarded three Nobel Prizes by now.  Family dynamics, generational turnover, labour processes, gender relations, urban-rural relations, social change: it’s a whole textbook of sociology.

Or consider the haunting picture of a decayed imperial outpost and the corruption of power in Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee, who did get the Nobel Prize.  Or the terrifying evocation of illness, time and social dislocation in his Age of Iron.  Or...

But sociology is science, not fiction.  Its claim to attention involves empirical knowledge as well as capacity for critique.  We do research, we don’t dream up our facts.  We document our procedures and our sources. We compare findings in one study with those in another.  We have peer-reviewed journals, the worst method of scientific quality control except for all the others.

With all that, sociology is capable of good writing.  Consider Robert and Helen Lynd’s urban ethnography Middletown, a classic of US sociology in its period of greatest creativity, the 1920s.  Admittedly they didn’t have Alice Munro’s way with words.  But they did build up a memorable picture of a local social order, performing the eerie feat of making the familiar strange.

Or consider Michael Messner’s Out of Play, published just five years ago.  Messner is one of the leading sociologists of sport, and this book collects essays that go behind the glossy surfaces to questions of justice, gender stereotyping, violence and exclusion.  They include vivid description as well as reflection, they are written with passion and humour, and they are very good sociology.

Powerful writing can occur in unexpected genres.  Saskia Sassen’s Global Cities is structural sociology, tracing the concentration of power and wealth around transnational corporate headquarters.  But there is a fierce irony in this book, as Sassen shows the consequences: heightened exploitation in the urban hinterland, among the service industries and migrant workers who make possible the daily life of the privileged.

And if we are looking for irony, consider Michael Gilding’s Secrets of the Super Rich.  It sounds like an airport self-help title, but is actually a subtle sociological study of the new rich.  When a rising businessman has spent a lifetime defeating his rivals and building a fortune, what does he do with it at the end?  Hand it over to sons? Daughters? Managers? Bigger companies?  Will struggles over the fortune wreck the family it was built for? Read on – it’s a gripping tale.

Much of sociological writing, it’s true, does not sparkle.  University life in every discipline allows formulaic publications.  The neo-liberal managers who control higher education systems nowadays are ramping up competitive pressures that will produce more of this.  When sociology is dull, it’s usually because the authors are not thinking about who they are speaking to and what news they are bringing.

But the news sociology brings is important.  It’s about what people do and suffer in a world of giant institutions, massive inequalities, and complex differences. Working at its full capacity, sociology can produce accounts of human life as subtle as anything in mainstream literature, and more relevant to the decisions we, collectively, have to make.  Science, and art, both.
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