By Michael McQuarrie (LSE)
Sociology has a Trump problem. And a Brexit problem. And a Populism problem. And a white people problem, and a class problem, and a man problem. What does this mean? Confusion is expected because, unfortunately, sociology has these problems in numerous ways. For example, sociology has a real Trump and Brexit problem in the straightforward sense that it is institutionally dependent on higher education and research funding which are directly threatened by Trump’s election and Britain’s secession from the EU. It has a populism problem in the sense that populism’s assertion of popular authority against elites, including elite “experts”, sanctioned to speak by their sheepskin credentials, moves sociologists from being observers of society to an interested position in political struggle and even a political adversary for many of the people we might want to study. It has a white, privileged, male problem because too many elite academics are white privileged males and the effect is that their distinct dispositions and views become normalized while others are reduced curiosities. And that is just to name a few of the dimensions to these problems. But worthy as these are for consideration, these are not the problems that I want to address.
Sociologists should be at the forefront of explaining Trump and Brexit but we aren’t. The (tacitly white) working class is hardly a novel political subject. It was the focus of social scientific attention for decades both because of its political importance, but also because of a Marxian and socialist theoretical framework that viewed the white working class as either the agent of history, or the relevant target of social interventions and economic redistribution. But just as in politics generally, there has been an identity politics revolution in sociology since the 1960s and, especially, since the 1990s. Scholars have convincingly criticized normative racial privilege in sociology. Their work is extensive, revelatory, and damning. The growing interest in post-material politics in sociology has resulted in declining attention to economic issues. While we are attentive to globalization, global cities, new elites, and the politics of the young, those suffering from economic decline and marginalization, the elderly, and Old Economy geographies tend to only receive attention from demographers and scholars of public health.
From one perspective Trump’s election only magnified the importance of this shift in sociology. Trump’s overt appeal to racist and misogynist sentiment did not prevent millions of Americans from voting for him and certainly excited white supremacists and neo-Nazis. But the attention to race and gender does have its blindspots. Too often it operates in a cultural framework that rates political progress in terms of multicultural tolerance rather than economic inclusion. This has coincided with a radical economic and cultural shift that has privileged diverse, cosmopolitan, and affluent territories where people are increasingly like-minded—which also happen to be the territories where lots of sociologists live.
As politics has been reframed around the issues and challenges of globally connected, diverse, and cosmopolitan cities, so has sociology shifted in its priorities. When I attend the ASA meeting I find that there are still excellent scholars of political economy, labor, and working class communities, but there aren’t many of them. The number of scholars studying race, identity movements, racial and ethnic subjectivities, and sex and gender, is not small. This disciplinary emphasis has not armed the discipline well to understand the people who voted for Brexit and voted for Trump.
The institutional organization of sociology is not the only barrier to understanding this sociological moment. Horrified at what is at best a willingness to overlook the damage a candidate like Trump will cause to people of color, LBGTQ people, immigrants, and so on, scholars are quick to assume that blue-collar and poor white people are ideological racists. That generalization is understandable, though mostly wrong. More problematic is the idea that efforts to understand and analyze such people is itself morally problematic. It is as if understanding Trump voters amounts to moral complicity with their most odious views. The reverse is also true, studying the kind of politics that is valorized by urban-dwelling academics has a moral worth which is disconnected from the epistemic value of the research.
This is strange. Critical theorists and liberals used to study fascism. Atheists used to study the bible and religious movements. Studying poor white people today somehow seems parochial and backward, if not ideologically suspect. Is this overblown? Maybe, but I know people who work on such subjects who have been protested by graduate students because their books did not condemn their subjects. I know others who have been accused of racism for attempting to honestly explain and account for people who are almost never heard in our political conversations. I take this as the most obnoxious expression of a more fundamental politicization of sociology which will blind us, indeed has blinded us, to the circumstances and motivations of the people who have pushed their way back to political relevance.
At moments like these we need to remember that sociological luminaries like Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu were not simply giving us a set of methodological guard rails in insisting on verstehen or the demand that we “win” our social facts. They were both aware that sociology and academia generally carried with it circumstances that produce dispositions, orientations, biases, and blindspots that are overdetermined by the institutional and intellectual organization of the discipline. This is why Weber’s “understanding” of meaning is not merely a guideline but an ethical commitment meant to require sociologists to move beyond their socially-determined orientations. Bourdieu, borrowing from Bachelard, tells us that achieving an “epistemic break” with our orientations, assumptions, and dispositions is a necessary step in understanding what we want to analyze. Such sensitivity towards others is not moral complicity but a necessary tool for sociological understanding and winning social facts, especially when we find our subjects to be different or objectionable. Achieving the insight that Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb did in The Hidden Injuries of Class, or that Lisa McKenzie did in Getting by, or that Arlie Russell Hochschild did in Strangers in Their Own Land, takes active work and a constant awareness and objectification of how our assumptions, orientations, tastes, and attitudes intrude upon our work. Mere “observation” is not capable of delivering these insights. We will need to lean heavily on these practices and traditions going forward and we will need to have a collective commitment to the value of understanding as a tool for sociological explanation and analysis if we are to get a handle on the political moment.
About the author: Michael McQuarrie is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the LSE. He is primarily interested in urban politics and culture, nonprofit organizations, and social movements. He has recently been awarded a Hellman Fellowship at the University of California and a Poiesis Fellowship at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University.
What I would like to see is more sociological studies of how people are persuaded to be anti-racist and/or to welcome diversity (there was an excellent study of that, actually, at the University of Oxford). More studies of how people are motivated to resist the rise of fascism; more studies of the impact of poverty, austerity, and the widening wealth gap on levels of unhappiness.
You presume that to study race means not to study whiteness; you also presume that intersectional theory scholars don’t study class. There’s a lengthy list of scholars stretching back to the late 19th Century that you are either ignoring or haven’t read.
The study of the gradual social construction of whiteness is important, definitely.
Well done, Michael. An important perspective and set of arguments to add to the conversation. This will provoke predictable responses that will ironically illustrate the point.
Yes, we have problems for sure. The real question is how the oecd nation with the highest wealth and income inequality can’t manage to study that consistently and go where the data leads them. After all, Donald trump has an “identity” and a”standpoint.” We’ve hired academics by the hundreds that have nothing except an identity and a standpoint. They lack even a thimble of sociological imagination and definitely wouldn’t know what verstehen was if it hit them over the head with a cricket bat.
There is not a single solitary social scientific theory of attitude change that suggests that calling people racists changes their minds. I’m forced to conclude that the people that did this actually didn’t want the change they advocated. If they did they almost singlehandedly picked a means of going about it that would fail.
I would hope this problem is fixed but I’m not confident. The people that produced it are paid to claim that th r y have an identity and all of our identities are irreconcilable. Well we just elected someone with an identity and little else. We deserve it.
A lot if this is fair comment. I have in the past researched white racism and you’re right that there is a view that to research it is to replicate it and somehow privide it with legitimacy. This is wrong but actually a minority view in my experience. There is another issue though. Focus on identity and consciousness is only going to get you so far. In particular it won’t explain voting volatility which we’re seeing in Europe and US. This requires understanding the degeneration of the public sphere by commercialisation of which Trump is an exemplar. Where does reality TV end and politics begin? Does politics actually still exist? Also the alt Right have created a parallel universe of communication in which opinion is fact and fact is opinion. This means the old structures of debate and communication no longer exist and we are literally talking past each other. An important question is what happens when the promises of the Trumpexiters come crashing down and in particular where does the mobilization of hate go next?
I believe there’s a problem that’s not just in sociology at the moment but in wider society and that’s that people are increasingly talk about each other, past each other, at each other, very few people are actually talking to each other.
Sociology like everything else right now is still dealing with this new thing we call the internet.
Sociology itself can be accused of similar problems as the alt-right, regressive left, Christian-right and pretty much everything else.
Because the people they see as a problem are on the internet it’s very easy to dismiss them, because they themselves are on the internet it’s very easy to slip into an echo chamber. As with any other great philosophical ideas the work of sociologists really needs to be read in full and in context, when the primary form of discourse is conducted in 140 character sound-bites then all intellectual disciplines suffer.
This has a number of unfortunate effects; the first is that ideas are communicated in very simplistic terms to people outside that specific intellectual discipline, (this is not to disparage the reader, they just may not have the background knowledge of the exact work that goes into the idea that you’ve boiled down to 140 characters), the second is that the ideas can be expressed by people who lack that background and simply want to paint society in terms of “goodies” and “baddies” and the third would be that it gives the false impression that people are engaged with the ideas (unless each tweet is a link to a much longer article/ blog post as a response).
In many places sociologists helped to encourage a form of identity politics and were then surprised when the one group they consistently rejected (the cis, het, white, middle class, male) decided to create it’s own identity and attach it just as strongly to race and gender as do the left wing movements such as feminism, BLM etc.
It should never come as a shock to anyone that an idea applied to one group may be adopted by another group, so perhaps one of the key failings of sociology is that many of the solutions that come as a result of it’s intellectual produce are of some (not as much as they often think) value to one group but may be of immensely negative value when adopted by others. By opening the can of worms that says marginalized groups can form an identity based around an arbitrary characteristic sociologists have paved the way for the majority demographics in society to claim their own identity based on those same characteristics.
Encouraging various groups to engage in what could be considered a modern form of bloodline politics the sociologists have by default left the door open for white people to look at their own past, not with a sense of impartiality as all groups should, nor with the sense of shame that is often encouraged, but with a sense that “it was all better back then” and that is incredibly dangerous.
Reaching for the past is a worthwhile pursuit for any who wish to know their story however the use of history as a political weapon in the modern age is an incredibly dangerous activity. either this applies to all groups or it applies to none, even if sociologists specify particular groups of interest, the long-term lack of equal scrutiny of both good and bad achievements of all demographics will lead to some fairly obvious questions and they will quickly be answered by demagogues with horrible and simplistic but populist solutions.
The problem with McQuarrie’s statements here are that they seems to lay the problem of sociology’s blind spots on the Trump phenomenon on our supposed “too heavy” shift towards “identity politics” research. Assuming that McQuarrie’s assertion that sociological studies of race and gender focus too much on culture and not enough on economic inclusion is valid (and I don’t think it is), the question is WHY would sociologists of race/ethnicity/gender end up having this “cultural” focus. I suggest that the answer is NOT that gender and race scholars only see “culture” as the important terrain of research, but that the sociology of class/politics research is overwhelmingly dominated by white men who don’t understand intersectionality, and intellectually are incapable of making room for women and scholars of color who are trying to make intersectional arguments. Go to any sociology of labor conference, or organizational meeting, and you will find that the people there are overwhelmingly white lefty males. People of color are especially scarce. At the last ASA, Aihwa Ong and Kim Crenshaw spoke on exactly this issue.
The field of rural sociology has been studying rural marginalized populations and the impact of capital in replacing labor in agriculture, mining, fishing, and forestry, as well as the impact of globalization on rural places in the world. Work on “rural masculinities” has also shed light on a phenomenon only recently on the radar of most people, including sociologists. Rural sociologists do not have all the answers, but we do have a handle on some of the questions.
I missed this until the republication in Global Policy. We tried to do what you suggest in the book I edited on Brexit.