work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

sociology and the bearded bourgeois white men

10.05.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized
It has become a common exercise in sociology introductory classes to show students a lineup of the classics (normally Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim) and ask them what these three have in common. Answer: they are all bearded middle-class white males.
This is, of course, a valid reminder of one of sociology’s core messages: that our ideas and views are perspectival – if not determined at least influenced by our place in the social order, our social backgrounds etc. – and this must be equally true of sociologists themselves. But the conclusion that sociology is therefore, from the beginning, a white male middle-class social science in the same way that anthropology and human geography used to be (the two social sciences of Empire, hence coming with Royal Societies), is mistaken. I give you male and middle class – but the issue of “race” is more complex. Of the line-up mentioned two are members of an ethnic group that, in Europe, had experienced a centuries-old history of ethno-religious discrimination and persecution that preceded colonialism and the crusades. An ethnic group, also, that in the middle of the 20th century was to face the racism-of-the-deed that was the Holocaust. From the beginning, many sociologists had a very immediate experience of what it means to be marginalised, discriminated against, measured by different standards. My favourite classic, Georg Simmel, for a long time was not able to find an academic position despite being strongly supported by the most respected sociologist of the time (Max Weber) – undoubtedly a symptom of the antisemitism of the Second Reich that saw the ideological transformations that would lay the ground for the antisemitism of the Third Reich. Emile Durkheim lived through the Dreyfus Affair and some of his best writing is inspired by the experience of rabid antisemitism of the Third Republic.
So while I still think it is important to understand how sociology is one response of middle class academics to the upheavals of 19th century social transformations – it is also important not to forget how the marginality of its founders informed an original outlook that is worth preserving. Even the least marginal of the three great ones, by the way, made good for his lack of marginality by immersing himself in a circle of outsiders (such as the mad psycho-analytic Otto Gross, the left-communist dramatist Ernst Toller… people like Georg Lukacs etc etc)
That does not, of course, mean that sociology always was on the side of the marginalised. It often was, but occasionally sociologists very manifestly conducted their discipline as a, well, disciplining one. Like the colleagues of the Ford Motor Company Research Center established to spy on immigrant workers…

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