Sociology – Is it necessary to take sides?

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The editors of n+1 magazine have gone whacking at the weeds that have grown in sociology as a discipline in their recent issue. Too Much Sociology discusses what is wrong with the nature of knowledge produced by sociology and the way it is used, appropriated or more often, tapped into, by arts, literature, politics and culture critics to their ends. They note that sociology has always rested itself on universalisms and depersonalized individuals with its interpretations encapsulated it into theories like agent-structure, habitus, unfreedom and other such ideas which are now the keywords for the critics in other disciplines like arts, culture and social sciences. The closing question on why does sociology requires one to take a side is something which we must now ask even more assertively to the masquerading social scientists. The editors make a tough note with – “It elaborates rules for a never-ending battle in which there are winners and losers, dominators and dominated, but nonetheless fails to persuade us why we might want to take sides in the first place.”

A year into a graduate program which packs in a major paper in sociology and then keeps it close to the core curriculum, I have experienced the power and curse of sociology at the same time. Sociology in this graduate program in development, is meant to aid a better understanding of people, society and institutions. So I might perhaps be making a rather early observation here, but then, these too serve a purpose – of charting the course of one’s learning.  There is a gradual frustration level that I was building up attending lectures in a course called ‘Categories in Art’ and then more heavily in lectures on theory and philosophy of development. The reasoning offered by instructors in both these courses was much like a plain polarized light which oscillates on a single axis alone. Although enough ‘disclaimers’ were given that the views put forth are one’s own and should be approached with caution, I felt that these did no good to my understanding of the subject. For instance, in categories in arts, the instructor could read only political statements and motivations in works of art. Seriously? Is that all that one can say about works of artists from different tribes and regions of India? Perhaps this was her key concern but that sure doesn’t make a complete appraisal or introduction. It is coloured, perhaps, anthropocentric and if I have to take it further, flawed. The instructor – a trained art historian had a knack of seeing only schemes, collusion and vested interests in dance forms, paintings and literature. While this may certainly be true, what happened to aesthetics? That too if a question is raised, is explained as an acquired, learned, influenced taste or style of the artist. Is there nothing that one can say about the aesthetics of such art? Aesthetics as a theme was for all purposes emasculated out of the arts in this course. (The obvious result – I dropped out of the course.)

Similarly, theory and philosophy of development lectures were a needless, quixotic time travel into ancient Greece and Rome. The farthest it came along the history scale is Hegelian dialectics. And all this to train a mixed bunch of graduate students into development professionals? The instructor would deep dive into the Renaissance period like an earthworm running into the dark end of the tube which was partially subjected to a glowing bulb. No attempts to bring him back to pursue discussion on contemporary works and trends in development practice could liberate the lectures out of the ancient clutches. After several such lectures, I felt that N+1 editors raise a very critical question which in my opinion must be asked – Can we no longer really provide good-faith reasons for our cultural preferences, reasons rooted in private and idiosyncratic experience but articulated in a common language, and therefore also capable of non-coerced, voluntary change?

The two instructors I took lectures from are examples of professors hard coded into the highly technical and often superfluous styles of practicing sociology. And this intellectual muscle flexing is seriously threatening sociology which could be of use to our world without laying conditions on who can participate and who cannot and which is not dominated by such single strands of theory that applies a singular elitist scale of interpretation, projecting that as the universal.

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