Sociology, model minorities, pornography

What Sociology?

Dear Editors,

“Too Much Sociology” (The Intellectual Situation) describes the diffusion of ideas from the sociology of culture into the elite worlds that sociologists of culture study. In your account, this crossover marks, at best, the exhaustion of sociology as a critical project and, at worst, active collaboration between elites and their supposed critics. This view significantly overestimates the influence of the sociology of culture and misunderstands the intentions of the elites who borrow from it.

Sociologists laid the intellectual foundations for the New Left, neoconservatism, and the Third Way, but the discipline has no comparable political influence today — that belongs to the economists. Quite simply, not every educated person is a sociologist or even sympathetic to sociology. Most sociologists, in turn, are not sociologists of culture. That particular line of theory, while dear to me, does not constitute the mainstream of American sociology. Keeping these facts in mind, the problem addressed by the essay appears quite differently: Why have certain elites adopted a reductionist reading of a small subfield of a discipline with diminished public influence? I would suggest that there are at least two explanations.

First, theories of specific capital are performative and can become real for groups who take them seriously. No sociologist I have read, Bourdieu included, believes that art is merely precipitated social structure. Some cultural producers, however, may adopt this view in the interest of their own advancement, taking The Rules of Art as their version of The Prince. The doldrums of contemporary art may owe in no small part to the widespread use of an overly deterministic version of the sociology of culture and related bodies of scholarship.

Second, contemporary elites who view themselves as open and meritocratic must engage in self-criticism in order to justify their continued existence. Structural self-criticism can provide legitimacy for nonclosed elites by reaffirming the claim that individual merit is, or should be, the only basis for success. As personal merit remains closely related to social structure, this individualistic rhetoric can be an effective disguise for group privilege.

But critique is not meant to grant the privileged license to seek their own interests in the belief that social structure is immutable. To draw this conclusion, as the essay nearly does, is to think socially about everything except one’s own existence, repeating the mistake of the “critical critics” savaged in The German Ideology. The essay contends that universities are both a source of critical ideas about society and a key institution for authorizing and reproducing inequality; its criticism of sociology is a permutation of the magazine’s long-running critique of higher education. Though one must acknowledge some truth in the criticism, it does not follow that universities, and academic ideas, are irredeemable. Rather, this criticism should be the basis for practical intervention in controversies within the academy and without.

I suspect that the disillusionment of the editors is also common to many of the magazine’s readers and to those who spend any amount of time engaged in social criticism. The danger is for this feeling to harden into a sense of powerlessness or indifference. For all its critical maneuvering, the essay leads me to a question that it does not attempt to answer for sociology or for n+1: What constructive possibilities can be realized when addressing people teetering between cynicism and commitment?

— Ben Merriman

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