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Is academic sociology lost inside its own theoretical bubble?
January 21, 2011 6:36 AM   Subscribe

Real Men Find Real Utopias Historian reviews new book by bigshot sociologist Erik Olin Wright and gives it a thorough drubbing. Wishes sociology could be like it used to be, with more history and better English. Via ALDaily.
posted by Philosopher's Beard (34 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I know nothing of academic sociology, but I had fun reading that.
posted by HumanComplex at 6:48 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


My favourite bit: "...Erik Wright’s favorite source is Erik Wright. He has read all of his works and finds them remarkable."
posted by jokeefe at 6:56 AM on January 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm all for ridiculing turgidity, but so what if the guy has a golden retriever? Ad canis.
posted by Beardman at 7:00 AM on January 21, 2011


jokeefe, you omitted the charming-in-itself hook where that barb is found: the full sentence begins, "Apart from Mrs. Wright, Erik Wright’s favorite source is Erik Wright."
posted by wenestvedt at 7:11 AM on January 21, 2011


Less interesting than I expected based on the preceding juxtaposition of turgidity and golden retriever.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:12 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Personally, this hits a little too close to home for me, as I myself worry that I may, for my part, perhaps be susceptible to becoming turgid, vapid, and self-referential.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:18 AM on January 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


...his (Wright’s) critique reads like a lecture at the hootenanny weekend of the Socialist Hiking Club, Berkeley Chapter

This made me involuntarily spew coffee at my screen.

He offers no examples of such entities—what is deep democratic associational corporativism?—but he does introduce an acronym, without which a sociologist dies a miserable death in the profession.

...did it again, and I know next to nothing about sociology.
posted by lordrunningclam at 7:18 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


On preview:
"...did it again, and I know next to nothing about sociology." Neither does the author of this article, clearly, which is part of the problem.

Ok, I'm a historian, and I like to make fun of sociologists just as much as any other historian, but this article is the worst kind of anti-intellectualism. When an intellectual starts calling out another intellectual for being too egg-headed and not getting out of the classroom enough, then that critic stands on shaky ground.

So I've read the article and yes, he does come up with some good criticisms. The book clearly has some flaws, including the inexcusable (if accurately reported) switching up of axioms. That said, the vast majority of counterarguments raised in this article fall into three categories:

- This is confusing! He's using big words and complicated ideas, and I don't understand them. Therefore he must be wrong.

- He's egotistical! It's like he's summing up his life's work in a synthetic book or something, when really he should be quoting people I know about. Oh, having said that, I think it's great that he wants to make his book as accessible as possible without delving into descriptions of the literature. Please ignore the contradiction with the first part of this point. Thanks!

- He's not a historian! Why, it's as if this guy wants to spend all this time discussing broad, generalizable principles and modeling social structures and processes. Where are all the bits where he delves into the deep peculiarities of individuals and chronologically constrained socio-cultural milieu? It's as if he isn't even trying to write a history book!

But the bit that really got me, the bit that made me throw up my hands in despair, was this: "Wright doesn’t plot history, but Time itself". Really? The guy is more crazy because the axis on his graph is time, rather than history? Wow, this critic must really, really have a problem with physicists if he thinks that history is a more usable scalar quantity than time.

tl;dr: I have heard many accurate attacks on sociology works by historians. Hell, I've made a few myself. This is not only not one of them, but it's frankly embarrassing to read.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:26 AM on January 21, 2011 [18 favorites]


You're not paying attention.
posted by grobstein at 7:42 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dreadnought, I think the criticism is not that the ideas are too complicated and the words too big, but rather than intentionally and unnecessarily complicated verbiage covers up a lack of interesting or original ideas. As Type O Negative once said, "Don't mistake lack of talent for genius."
posted by 1adam12 at 7:45 AM on January 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


I am a sociologist*, albeit an economic sociologist at a business school, and therefore not quite the same sort of beast. First off, I should note that the die-hard Marxist sociologists have long ago falling to little squabbles, of which this is more representative than it is a critique of the field as a whole. One Marxist does not an academic field make, and these critiques are not even that good, as Dreadnought mentioned.

However, there is a fight in sociology that a lot of people are up in arms about, it just isn't this one. It is similar to the tension in political science (and related to similar arguments in other social sciences), between new, data-driven empirical work that is deeply informed by economics, and older purely qualitative work that is more focused on grand theories. For example, I study aspects of entrepreneurship and innovation using large data sets of start up companies, computer hackers, and industry statistics. It is almost a different field than the one in which Wright operates, even though I know my Marx and Durkheim.

This is a common debate in the social science (Big theory or big data? eDgage with ascendant economics or act as an alternative?), and worth discussing, but I think the idea in the FPP, that theorists can be navel-gazing, is neither the big issue in the field, nor is it a fair critique, for many of the reasons Dreadnought pointed out.


* Or, in MeFiSpeak, IaaS. Note: This thread is the closest I will ever come to responding to "Is there a doctor on the plane?" It fills me with strange amounts of joy.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:05 AM on January 21, 2011 [13 favorites]


He claims he wishes sociology was more like it used to be, but I wonder what this reviewer would have said about Marx....
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 8:06 AM on January 21, 2011


The book is startling and depressing evidence of what has happened to American academic Marxism, at least its sociological variant, over the last thirty years. It has become turgid, vapid, and self-referential.

Maybe just self-aware? The wholesale collapse of real world Marxism at the end of the 1980s (and the fact that only North Korea and Cuba remain really committed to Marxism) should have had an impact of "academic" Marxism.
posted by three blind mice at 8:10 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dissent a fine journal. But the historian belittling the sociologist should know that it was C. Wright Mills, a sociologist, who years ago made fun of the shabby writing of those in his field. This work being made fun of is simply a return to what has seemingly become the standard in sociological writing.
posted by Postroad at 8:13 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Erik Wright’s favorite source is Erik Wright. He has read all of his works and finds them remarkable.

Zing!
posted by phrontist at 8:14 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


If only old men could agree about terminology. Then we could end capitalism.
posted by regicide is good for you at 8:14 AM on January 21, 2011 [9 favorites]


Is a journal called Dissent actually allowed to publish a review agreeing with someone?

Disclosure: Erik Olin Wright's office is about 50 yards from mine. SEE I'M FANCY TOO
posted by Madamina at 8:24 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Academic bitchfights are really entertaining, but remind me why I'm not sorry I never got my Ph.D. IANAS (and IANAH, although I come closer), but nobody comes off well in that article, neither the subject nor the author.
posted by immlass at 8:31 AM on January 21, 2011


Seriously. Whoever wins this one, they both lose.

Except they probably have tenure.

SOB

posted by regicide is good for you at 8:41 AM on January 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wright is just warming up for his ensuing discussions of “interstitial” and “symbiotic” transformation, which are numbingly baroque and that he clarifies with diagrams that might as well be satires.

I have just decided that I need to buy this book.
posted by xingcat at 8:44 AM on January 21, 2011


He must have run out of colleagues and doctoral candidates to complain about. That was the way my doctoral department operated: "but I just don't see the relevance of your work, Miss Catlet" (which meant either "you didn't quote me/my advisor/someone I advised" or "I don't think anyone should bother with $TOPIC and thus you're wasting my time, but I shan't ask to be removed from your committee").

It's only after that enjoyable morning routine that historians move on to sociologists and political scientists.
posted by catlet at 8:53 AM on January 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Dreadnought, I think the criticism is not that the ideas are too complicated and the words too big, but rather than intentionally and unnecessarily complicated verbiage covers up a lack of interesting or original ideas.

I know, I know, but the thing is, that's exactly what historians always say they're doing when they really mean 'this is complicated'. Take the following passage:
In any event, Wright is most interested in how socialism leads to what he calls “social empowerment,” of which there are three types. He writes that social empowerment can be “over the way state power affects economic activity” or “over the way economic power shapes economic activity” or “directly over economic activity.” Is this clear, students? Any questions about the important difference between “affects” and “shapes” or on the technical use of “over”?
The substantive critique, here, is that no ordinary person could be expected to understand the difference between different words used in a specialist context. But this is how social science works. They are talking about ideas that can't be articulated using normal language, or at least which become horribly tangled using normal language, so they narrowly define terms in such a way as to make the meaning of the sentence absolutely clear and precise to a person who's read the stated definitions. Unfortunately, this is not how historians write, and this causes endless confusion.

Historians rarely define their terms, indeed history books are often elaborate meditations on the complexity of meaning embodied in a word. Take, for example, the broad literature on the meaning of 'fascism'. Sociologists would never have this literature. They'd simply say "for the purposes of this paper, 'fascism' means x, and if that leaves out some movements that historically called themselves 'fascist', then too bad".

This causes endless confusion, confusion which cuts both ways. For example, my wife (a historian) once got into a near screaming argument with an anthropologist over third world development. Anthropologists, it seems, have some obscure technical definition of 'development' which is subtly different from the word as it is used in day to day speech. Neither side understood that the other was using the word differently, so my wife thought that this anthropologist was sounding like some kind of crazy dogmatist -- "how can you say that development is this or that; it's a hugely complex and nuanced issue!" -- and the anthropologist thought that my wife was being some kind of perverse contrarian -- "how can you say that about development, when it's obviously not true by definition!?".

Having said that, as a historian, I think that we're the worst offenders in this particular silly argument. This guy clearly has a lot of contact with sociology, clearly knows that sociologists have this way of defining the terms they use, and is still prepared to go on about how stupid and opaque they are. I've actually read a historian arguing that a statistically-rendered argument is meaningless by presenting an equation with none of the terms defined, and saying (essentially): "see, that doesn't mean anything! The argument must be garbage!".

If you carefully read the above passage, the argument being used by the author uses exactly this rhetorical construction, whatever the actual merits of the case. I can totally imagine that the three notions of control over economic activity are distinct in important and meaningful ways. They might not be, of course, but we have no way of knowing, because the writer is simply throwing the terms at us without defining them, and then having a good chuckle along with us because the terms are meaningless without their definitions.

Ha, ha! "f=ma"! How can 'f' possibly equal 'ma' when it's half as long and a completely different part of the alphabet!? Oh 'force' equals 'mass' times 'acceleration'? I don't see what armies can possibly have to do with Catholic religious rituals and something to do with video cards. You scientists and your use of alienating, obscure verbiage to cover up the fact that you have no real ideas!

On preview: catlet, I know exactly what you mean. One very senior reviewer of my work once pointed out a section of the study which was already being adapted by my collegues into a muliti-million Euro grant proposal and declared it to be 'novel, but completely uninteresting'. He wasn't being mean, either. He was completely sincere in the belief that because he didn't understand it, therefore nobody could ever care.
posted by Dreadnought at 9:26 AM on January 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


This article is terrible.

There's nothing wrong with citing your own work. There doesn't have to be a reason for having precisely eleven propositions (as opposed to five or fifty) other than that you have … eleven of them. (If Jacoby thought there was something wrong with six of them, or that there were more propositions to be stated, fine. But he says nothing like that.)

Does Wright just completely fail to explain what he means by "strategic logic"? If your wife suggests the term "interstitial", is it bad to thank her? (Frankly that part came off rather sexist—thanking his wife! As if she could contribute anything! Ha!)
posted by kenko at 9:30 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


But it sounds like the reviewer is right when he says that Wright fails to write a publically accessible book.

And I would say this for historians: because we tend to eschew jargon, this leads to some fuzzy use of language. But it also means that academic history is somewhat more accesible than most academic writing.

Ideally, an academic writing for a mixed audience (as it seems Wright intends to) would have clear use of language, but also a clear definition of said language. Eg, an index that says "McGillicuddy" is that feeling you get when you know you've forgotten something, but you can't remember what.

But back to Wright's book: even taking a critical view of Jacoby's review, I don't think I would want to read it or find it useful. It sounds like one of those academic works which does muddy the waters and make things more confusing.

of course, I don't really even understand what Wright is trying to research. Maybe's it's because I'm a "big-data" historian like blahblahblah is a big-data (aka empirical) sociologist, but it would seem to me that Utopias are by their nature fictional, and that the study of Utopias would be the study of fictional contructs of ideals as they differ by time and culture (like how does Thomas More's ideal differ from Huxley's?). If you were to do real life attempts at planned socialist communities, then you would do as Jacoby says and study kibbutzes, etc.
posted by jb at 9:50 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I worked for Mr. Olin Wright on the Quebec part of his project, and although I have not yet read the book I've been subjected to the Powerpoint version. It was my impression that the man wants his name attached to something, anything. The model he presented, which is derided in the Dissent critique, was pretty thoroughly smacked around in discussions with social economy researchers, but he was desperate to make the data fit that neat diagram he came up with.

In his defense, he was working with some of the best researchers in the field and paid several visits to social economy practicioners, but he seemed too wrapped up in his theoretical modeling for the actual experience to be of much use.

So, This: "Wright’s gargantuan theoretical edifice, with its multiple appendages, add-ons, and attachments steals all attention from “real utopias,” about which he shows little enthusiasm. He is more eager to pronounce on how to think about how to approach the preconditions that underlie the claims that support “real utopias” or on the numerous principles and subprinciples of social transformation they infer than to tell us anything about these practical ventures." This! It's endemic, and it is killing sociology by turning it into a self-absorbed, coinage-crazy enterprise.
posted by Freyja at 9:58 AM on January 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, getting your name attached to something, anything! is how one succeeds in academia. Actually, getting your name attached to something controversial is even better than getting your name attached to something which is true.

It's sad -- what succeeds in academia is not necessarily the best academic research. The system is just not set up that way. It's the loudest research, most often stated and (in the humanities and social sciences at least) most extremely stated research which leads to career success.

Otherwise, we'd all be reading Margaret Spufford instead of Niall Ferguson. (Spufford is dry. But such excellent research!).
posted by jb at 10:17 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wonderful review.

The argument above concerning specialized language reminds me of a wonderful set of cover stories int he late Lingua Franca: Is Bad Writing Necessary? In any case I don't see Jacoby abusing Wright for high-falutin' words but rather for failing to define his terminology. But the most severe criticisms follow later in the piece, where Jacoby accuses Wright of not knowing the literature, of not being able to build a coherent argument, and basic errors of fact. These are all mortal sins for an academic, and Jacoby should have led his piece with these.
posted by LarryC at 11:28 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


The wholesale collapse of real world Marxism at the end of the 1980s (and the fact that only North Korea and Cuba remain really committed to Marxism) should have had an impact of "academic" Marxism.

Nobody with any understanding of Marxism gained by reading Marx instead of hearing about him regards the USSR, China, North Korea, or Cuba as Marxist states. They more closely resemble(d) feudal states in their economic and political structures than anything to be found in the recommendations of Marx, and their use of Marxist rhetoric is more of a self-flattering sick joke than honesty.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:28 AM on January 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Nobody with any understanding of Marxism gained by reading Marx instead of hearing about him regards the USSR, China, North Korea, or Cuba as Marxist states. They more closely resemble(d) feudal states in their economic and political structures than anything to be found in the recommendations of Marx, and their use of Marxist rhetoric is more of a self-flattering sick joke than honesty.

Seriously?

Marxism isn't just Marx, any more than Christianity is just the four Gospels. Marxism is the steady evolution and branching of Marx's ideas in the works of innumerable thinkers and activists, some of whom made their way to power in the aforementioned states and applied their own take on things (Lenin, Mao, Castro, etc.) They share certain vital elements of what Marx considered prerequisites for societal transformation, the collective control of resources and the means of production, the union and centralization of power in a government (nominally) operating in the interests of the class he identified as that which held the capacity and will to usher in the new society, the working class. These states were formed in the clash between the ideas of Marx and his successors and the realities of human social psychology and the distinct histories and cultures of the states in which communist revolutions took place, realities which Marxists either couldn't or didn't want to face and incorporate into their plans because they weren't easily reconciled to the texts of Marx and Engels, or to their own interpretations of such. How and why these failures came about should have some impact on how academic Marxists look at the world and at their own ideas, if they're actually serious about ever applying those ideas outside their favorite journals.

As for the communist states' "feudal" nature - no, not really. Dictatorial, bureaucratic, centralized, industrial - they were all these things, whereas the classical feudal state was congenitally decentralized, ruled by kings whose power was usually pretty weak outside their personal desmene due to aristocratic and church privilege, and who could call on the aid of a few hundred household servants and scribes to help them run their domains - which were primarily agricultural. The difference between feudal and non-feudal societies and the transition between them was actually something Marx wrote a fair amount about, oddly enough.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:56 PM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Marxism isn't just Marx, any more than Christianity is just the four Gospels. Marxism is the steady evolution and branching of Marx's ideas in the works of innumerable thinkers and activists, some of whom made their way to power in the aforementioned states and applied their own take on things (Lenin, Mao, Castro, etc.)

When your ideology directly contradicts the fundamentals of Marxism, as does Leninism and its descendants (i.e. all the versions of "Marxism" which have produced states), it's simply wrong to call it Marxism. If the workers aren't in control of the means of production, it's not fucking socialism or communism, and the story of the psuedo-Marxist state-capitalist states is one of central, authoritarian control of production by a professional, ideological manager-class. That is not simply "impure" or "slightly different"- it contradicts at a basic level the tenets of Marxism.

They share certain vital elements of what Marx considered prerequisites for societal transformation, the collective control of resources and the means of production, the union and centralization of power in a government (nominally) operating in the interests of the class he identified as that which held the capacity and will to usher in the new society, the working class.

Bullshit. The Bolsheviks and their descendants took every effort to slander, tear down, and kill efforts to give control of the means of production to the workers rather than to a manager class selected primarily for their ideological purity. The so-called "communist" or "socialist" states were authoritarian hellholes run for the benefit of party elites. They spat on the corpse of Marx and pissed on his grave.

These states were formed in the clash between the ideas of Marx and his successors and the realities of human social psychology and the distinct histories and cultures of the states in which communist revolutions took place, realities which Marxists either couldn't or didn't want to face and incorporate into their plans because they weren't easily reconciled to the texts of Marx and Engels, or to their own interpretations of such.

Or- and I'm just throwing this out there- the sorts of people who think of themselves as revolutionary leaders are the sort who are unlikely to embrace the sort of egalitarian, worker-centric, worker-led society Marx describes. That Lenin used and abused the language of Marx to justify himself doesn't make him a Marxist any more than a Third Positionist who calls himself a Republican isn't a fascist.

How and why these failures came about should have some impact on how academic Marxists look at the world and at their own ideas, if they're actually serious about ever applying those ideas outside their favorite journals.

If you believe that this shit is unexamined by the socialist left, you're even more ignorant than the rest of your comment indicates.

The difference between feudal and non-feudal societies and the transition between them was actually something Marx wrote a fair amount about, oddly enough.

Pretty funny that Bolshevism and its descendants looks at Marx's depiction of history and just throws it off a bridge in favor of trying to raise agricultural societies straight up to communism, huh? Almost like they ignore Marx when he doesn't say things that let them do whatever the hell they feel like doing. That's sure the mark of adherence to an ideology, rather than being a sign that one is simply doing as one pleases and using an ideology to justify oneself.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:16 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or to be more blunt: when a cult leader tells women that Jesus says he needs to sexually exploit them, blaming Christianity is seen as crass and inaccurate. When a dictator claims he's oppressing the working class because Marx says it's cool, it's evidence that Marxism is shit.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:24 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


more importantly: The academics who are interested in Marx are interested in the ideas of Karl Marx himself, as he was the foremost early historian of the transition between feudalism and capitalism (for one thing, he was among the first to point it out). Saying that Marx's ideas = Pol pot is like saying Adam Smith's ideas = Enron, and therefore shouldn't be studied.

There has, of course, been a lot of excellent research done since the 19th century on the transition from a feudal (or pre-capitalist) economy to a capitalist and some of this has overturned Marx (no one seriously argues that the English Civil War was a bourgeois revolution). But other research has supported/expanded on his ideas (that increased landlessness lead to the lower classes being wage-dependent and more reliant on the market for the necessities of life, though in England - Marx's main example - it looks like parliamentary enclosure was the final straw rather than the primary blow in this regards).
posted by jb at 7:47 AM on January 22, 2011


Russell Jacoby wrote a delightful book on public intellectuals and the academy, making the convincing case that the academy tended to stifle thought rather than encourage it. It made students less willing to take risks. It does make me wonder that if sociologists were to speak in plain English, wouldn't their conclusions seem obvious?

Would Marx be a Marxist? Marx was anti-utopian, and the strength of his ideas derived from his description of capitalism, not his normative sensibilities.

I'd also add that one can talk about Marxist traditions, of which there are a variety. As in religion, practice and dogma are two very different problems.
posted by john wilkins at 9:22 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interesting comment on the review here:
Prof. Jacoby snarks that Wright “has read all of his [own] works and finds them remarkable.” Clever. My riposte: If Prof. Jacoby was in fact “startled” by what EOW wrote, then Prof. Jacoby has either not read all of his own works, or has perhaps found them unremarkable...

He might have mentioned, oh, that he’s been going after the “new left” (including EOW), with exactly the sort of attack he makes on Envisioning Real Utopias, for at least a good quarter century. In The Last Intellectuals (Basic Books 1987: p. 187), Jacoby finds it “perhaps … laudable” that Wright (1978) “wishes to ‘engage in debate with mainstream social theory.” And yet, poor Prof. Jacoby lamented then, EOW 1978 ultimately failed because his “theoretical preconditions derive from the French Brand … in which vapid definitions and pronouncements decorate occasional examples and baroque diagrams.”

Prof. Jacoby, from his own positions at UCLA and similarly high-profile places, has made many a broadside against those left intellectuals from the 1960s who ensconced themselves with tenure in the academy and — unlike the Startlingly Startled Prof. Jacoby — have turned inward and gotten self-referential (and remembered their own work). He has also written his own book about real utopias, er, pictures imperfect — which, unlike EOW’s book, does cover the history of Utopian thought (and which does give attention to a Kibbutz movement...)


Perhaps Prof. Jacoby just thinks such (self-referential?) disclosures are unnecessary. No need to mention that he’s a near lifelong antagonist of the author he is reviewing... No need to mention that he wrote a book that might be a competitor...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:51 PM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


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