Monday, May 9, 2011

What Would Foucault Do? Rethinking Thinking in Sociology

             Sociology is losing cultural capital as America experiences cultural transformation. The postmodern culture is being transformed by increased globalization, changing modes of production, increased speed of information, and technological shifts in the formation of the self that intensify domination while opening new means of freedom. Sociologists can still guide Americans through this postmodern reality by thinking philosophically about our past to understand our present and open new possibilities for the future by taking courageous risks to redefine the discipline.

Thinking Philosophically About the History of Sociology

In order to regain cultural significance, Sociology must first understand its history as a discipline. For Michele Foucault:
the aim of philosophy is to question the ways in which we think, live, and relate to other people and to ourselves in order to show how that-which-is could be otherwise. Understanding philosophy in this way opens up a space of freedom: it exposes new possibilities of thinking, perceiving, and living. (Oksala 10)
Sociology developed as a philosophical response to modernity. The early sociologists, Emile Durkheim, Herbert Mead, Karl Marx, Auguste Comte and Max Weber, would have agreed with Foucault as they looked beyond the visible social problems to ask more fundamental questions (Oksala 9). Their interrogation of the fundamental questions shaped the political, social, and cultural discourse of the industrial age. The early sociologist’s study of economic, political, historical, and scientific theory enabled them to explain the industrial transformation and construct creative theories to confront the social problems of modernity. Foucault stressed that “since things have been made, they can be unmade, as long as we know how it was that they were made.” (Oksala 15) The early sociologists thought philosophically and were able to “expose” the “new possibilities of thinking, perceiving, and living” (Oksala 10) that today’s sociologists rely on.

Understanding Why Sociology has become Insignificant in Contemporary Culture

Instead of interrogating the world philosophically, today’s sociologists rely on applying the sociological theories of modernity to the social issues of postmodernity. Graduate sociology programs require students to take “classical” theory courses to master the dominant sociological theories and learn how to apply those theories to the social problems of today. Foucault would disagree with this method of instruction because:
His histories are not about the past, they are about us, today, and they represent an attempt to show not only how we have become what we are, but also how we could become something else. (Oksala 11)
Foucault would advise sociologist to study an “effective history” because:
the point is not just to understand the past, but also to change the way in which we see the present. The aim is to liberate not only the marginal groups… but also the rest of us, by showing the contingencies at play in the formation of what we hold as inevitable, scientific truths. (Oksala 54)
The declining significance of sociology is a result of graduate programs placing more significance on entrenched sociological ideology and publishing in main stream journals than on the process of thinking and theorizing about the causes and solutions of individuals living in today’s reality. Complex, postmodern social structures are simplified and forced into the modern specifications of interaction, conflict, and functional theories. Meanwhile, society is facing the uncertainty of a time where computers are more important than assembly lines and where the line between capitalism and socialism is blurred even though public perception of the two is not. Sociologists in the postmodern era have lost what made sociologists significant in the modern era. Sociologists have lost the ability to think philosophically. Sociology is not providing adequate theories to help society navigate new social norms and it is failing to liberate minds with new vocabularies to envision a better future.

Taking Courageous Risks to Shape the Future of Sociology

Sociologists must courageously step outside of the defined boundaries to develop philosophical ways of thinking and provide society with the necessary tools to make sense out of their changing world. Foucault argued that this is the role of an intellectual:
The role of the intellectual is to expose new ways of thinking: to make people see the world around them in a different light, to disturb their mental habits and to invite them to demand and instigate change. The intellectual is not the moral conscious of society, his or her role is not to pass judgments, but to liberate us by making alternative ways of thinking possible. (Oksala 8)
Although sociology does demand change it no longer helps people see the world in a new light. Sociology continues to interpret the world according to dogmatic paradigms structured to prove old theories about race, class, and gender. Sociologists act as the moral conscious of society as they pass judgments on how they think people should be instead of understandings how all thought is “always constrained by deep, discursive structures beyond our control.” (Oksala 44) Sociology can still be relevant by stretching the vocabularies of postmodern society through “avant-garde writing” (Oksala 44) that creates alternative ways of thinking about the self and society. Stepping outside of the acceptable boundaries of sociology is risky. Sociologists need to be courageous as they test new theories and employ new paradigms to social problems. The courageous sociologists that take this risk may not be offered tenure or get published in the right journals but they will save sociology by meeting the challenge of solving new problems with new solutions.
Courage, Aristotle tells us, requires the ability to face up to reality, to exercise good judgment, and to tolerate danger in doing so. (Lear 133)
Jonathan Lear (2006) tells a story about how Plenty Coup (the leader of the Crow Indian tribe), when faced with the cultural devastation of his people, was forced to rely on a “radical hope” that gave him the courage to reconceptualize the changing reality of his world and take courageous steps to make new decisions for his new reality. Because of Plenty Coup’s psychological flexibility, he was able to negotiate a deal with the American government that protected the Crow from facing the same hardships as other tribes. The Crow had to part with the cultural norms that made life meaningful, were saved from devastation, and able to create new norms to make life meaningful.
Similarly, budgets cuts continue at universities throughout the United States and states are looking at sociology programs, wondering whether sociological research is significant enough to keep funding. Our society is “at a time of heightened sense that civilizations are themselves are vulnerable,” (Lear 7) and it needs sociologists to be courageous and step outside entrenched sociological ideologies to develop new ways for sociologists to think and provide answers for changing dynamics of society. These courageous risks may mean that sociology programs will have to forsake the methods and solutions of its old white men. Sociology may have to move past the rhetoric of the 60s or delete its extensive databases of statistics. Sociology may have to become more interdisciplinary and engage economics, politics, philosophy, English, and science. Sociology may have to start from scratch and reconceptualize, like the Crow and the early sociologists, itself as part of the greater discourse of historical and social philosophy. Sociology programs may need to stop emphasizing publication and start emphasizing philosophical thinking.
The postmodern turn has made many people, including sociologists, uncertain about the future. Postmodernity has deconstructed the vocabularies that have provided societal meaning but sociology has insisted on retaining vocabularies of modernity. Sociologists must be willing to take courageous risks, the think philosophically, and create sociology anew. If successful, sociology can provide new postmodern vocabularies that expose “new possibilities of thinking, perceiving, and living.” (Oksala 10)

Works Cited
Lear, Jonathan. 2006. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Oksala. Johanna. 2007. How to Read Foucault. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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