The borders of sociology’s object

Another round of debate within sociology about objectivity, another attempt to revive the distinction between object and subject – ultimately a debate about sociology’s relationship to government and its borders.

The American Sociological Association’s President-elect, Mary Romero, recently called upon sociologists to dispense with “false notions of objectivity,” and instead embrace the principles of social justice. Those remarks have precipitated at least two responses, as far as I’ve read, though I would also recommend her “Reflections on ‘The Department is Very Male, Very White, Very Old, and Very Conservative’: The Functioning of the Hidden Curriculum in Graduate Sociology Departments.“.

The first of these, by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, “Stirring a Storm In an Electoral Teacup,” was written in defense of Romero, in the wake of a series of somewhat anxious and conservative responses to her election. The other, by Barış Büyükokutan in an article entitled “Will Sociology Build the Wall? On Objectivity in Social Science,” argues that sociologists should insist on an independently-existing reality independent of our perceptions. As Pardo-Guerra points out, much of this turns on the boundary-making practices and assumptions of the discipline. The problem with Büyükokutan’s epistemological realism (or the phenomenology that permeates the humanities for that matter) is that it sets aside any critical reflection on the coherence and independent existence of its objects, and therefore our responsibility to do more than operationalize methods of a discipline.

Firstly it sets aside the very history of the discipline, which begins from a metaphysical, a priori assertion about the coherence of its disciplinary object and then proceeds to ask how to restore that object’s coherence. (That, aside from the historical detail regarding international credit, labour and theories of social efficiency, is the argument I made here with regard to the history of Australian sociology.) Put another way, sociology begins when there is anxiety about borders, the borders of something called ‘society,’ which is oftentimes a euphemism for ‘culture‘ and more often than not something that follows the contours of the nation-state, and which it takes as its tacit epistemic object. The worst kind of sociology, that is, a positivist or ahistorical sociology, treats that a priori coherence as if it stretched back into time immemorial.

Secondly, it treats society and social facts as if they exist independently of the apparatuses of knowledge and practices which simply observe that purportedly independently-existing reality from another, hypothetical place. The entire history of statistics should suggest a very different approach, not one that jettisons concepts of truth and falsity but, instead, understands the implications of an apparatus of knowledge, its link to policy and state power and therefore the transformation of its putative object in the process of ‘observing’ it. Pardo-Guerra’s remark on the history of the sciences is on the mark.

But it’s not simply that contemporary science – indeed, quantum mechanics and relativity since the beginning of the century, and therefore, curiously, concomitant with the spread of sociology as a discipline – has taught us to think differently about the relationship between the apparatus of observation and the object observed. It’s that the classical link between the a priori knowledge of an independently-existing, coherently-bounded object and social policy (norms and laws) cannot be sustained given the incompleteness of that knowledge. That informs much of this essay, on the history of precariousness – much of which turns on the relationship between sociological objectivity and the increasingly tenuous categorical borders of its object. This does not make it impossible to say what is true or not, depending on the scope of the statement and what it requires in terms of evidence. It is, for instance, untrue that the concept of précarité emerged within the movements and not among French statisticians and family sociology as it demonstrably did, and that statements which say otherwise obscure the construction of a link between statistical, sociological knowledge and the state, in the name of linking knowledge-claims to the exercise of (state) power in presumably necessary ways. It does, however, mean that realism often obscures the truth by dehistoricising facts, because realism occludes the selective mechanisms and tumultuous history through which facts and reality are made, including by instruments of observation that are treated as if they were neutral instruments.

That is how I read Romero’s remark on “false objectivity,” in any event. If Romero’s election to ASA signals a renewed, critical emphasis on sociological methods and responsibility within and outside the discipline, that should be applauded. The way in which the election of someone with an impeccable record of scholarly work on migration, care work and racism, gender, criminalization and more has been greeted is not at all unrelated to a debate about the way disciplines delineate their objects and, thereby, the purported objectivity of laws and norms. But to say that this draws us away from a scientific understanding of truth surely ignores almost a century of changes in the so-called hard sciences of physics.

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