Review of Joan Huber’s 1995 Centennial Essay for the American Sociological Association
JoanHuber’s 1995 Centennial Essay for the American Sociological Association presents a view of sociology as a discipline in which there are two unbridgeable intellectual approaches. In the first group are the scholarly, viable academics, the true scientists capable of producing replicable research who, as
“disinterested observers seek[…] objective truth with universal validity that is based on the notion of a reality independent of human thought and action (Searle 1993:69 cited in Huber).”
On the other side of this intellectual chasm are the academics who have postmodernist tendencies, which for her encompasses feminists, anti-rationalists and relativists. They operate mostly in the humanities seeking to discover truth about the universe while rejecting the rationalist philosophy that has sustained Western European civilization for centuries. They infiltrate sociology because of its interdisciplinary nature. Huber’s believes sociology’s status as a science is in direct correlational to its status within academia.
For Huber the solution lies not in negotiating a larger space for “who?” but in compliance to the expectations of administrators. To “get busy” producing data invokes an image of pencil pushers who do not have time to ask the larger questions (Huber:212-3).
My question is, who then will ask those questions? And who is “we”? For Huber the survival of sociology as a discipline depends on the exclusion of those academics whose research does not conform to her definition of science. Whereas in more prosperous times, the interdisciplinary nature of sociology was seen as a strength, in a period of crisis within the discipline, Huber views it as a weakness.
Models of Profitability Impact on Sociology, Cultural Representation and Identity Issues
Max Weber’s statement about endemic bureaucracy creating an “iron cage of the future” proved to be prophetic. Current debates in social sciences reflect the contradiction inherent in the late 20th century in which increasing bureaucratic process in all forms of governance collides with theoretical enquiries demanding constant reappraisals of these same processes. In the university setting, sociology as a discipline is situated at the centre of these debates. In practice sociologists as civil servants can become trapped into working on narrow, exclusive and specialized enquiries that allow them to operate only with hard facts such as statistics that resemble scientific methods. At worst this transforms them into bureaucrats operating in a safe and acceptable environment while investigating short-term answers to questions they did not formulate, questions that were not informed by a contemporary theoretical framework. It indeed becomes Weber’s cage.
Antirationalists, which for Huber meant anti-science, undermined the credibility of the entire discipline of sociology. Relativism in Britain and postmodern anti-rationalist tendencies in the late 1960s examined the social sciences from within. Knowledge producers, including social scientists were accused of being ‘eurocentric’ and by extension “parochial”. Huber rejects these anti-rational tendencies and feels they should not be tolerated within a discipline already in crisis (Huber:205, Gulbenkian 1995:52). Huber feels theoretical debates are hollow and they contribute to the crisis in sociology since the 1970s with the closing of departments of sociology, the increase of stress among sociologists and skepticism on the part of the media and by extension the public on the role of the sociologist. This has led to a lowering of moral among sociologists as well as a lowering of median professorial salaries (Huber:209). University administrators, already under pressure because of fiscal restraints, became increasingly critical of sociology departments which in their view were centres for leftist radicalism attracting student activists and creating units that were increasingly difficult to control, administer and manage.
She argues that sociologists have to recognize the feasibility of their research. Academic teaching and research facilities require funding which is currently highly competitive. Funding is not just based on ability but on a legitimized ability to provide something that no one else can. The question then is, “What do we do as sociologists) that no one else does as well?”
Current trends in many academic and cultural institutions’ policies are strongly influenced by business models of profitability. This could prove detrimental to issues of identity and representation and to an adequate reflection of the complexities of society and culture.
Huber’s uncritical positivism and objectivism reflects sociology divorced from its implications. Huber grants the safe acceptable forms of knowledge a privileged status. She concludes her paper with a call to sociologists to produce “solid facts” about the way societal organizations function and change in order to clarify the the problems experienced by individuals and groups. Giving it a comparative advantage, sociology supplies the knowledge needed to run welfare states. Sociology needs practical problems that will stimulate pressure for action, attract resources and test theories. The data produced by sociologists should be generated through the sharpest theoretical and methodological tools, while maintaining historic continuity (Huber:203).
Joan Huber is more concerned about the question “What do we do as sociologists, that gives us the right to make a claim for legitimacy as a scientific discipline ?”
My question, “Who are we as sociologists?” should be at least recognised and investigated before we just “get to work” and produce these “solid facts about the way societal organizations function and change in order to clarify the experistates, to stimulate pressure for action, attract resources and test theories (Huber:213-4).”
It is not enough, declares Rorty, to be willing to run welfare states, stimulate pressure for action and attract resources if there is not a fundamantal belief that it is feasible economically (Rorty:1996). This feasiblity is based on belief. By its very nature it cannot be a solid fact.
Huber, Joan. 1995. “Institutional Perspectives on Sociology” American Journal of Sociology
Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1999. Review of
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