Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Real Dystopia

Oh, is this utopia? Well,
I beg your pardon. I thought it was Hell.
-          Max Beerbohm
I am still trying to decide whether to attend this year’s annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver this coming August. For a long time, I have been growing increasingly discouraged with the state of academic sociology and with the association as an expression of the discipline. The systematic study of human society, as many texts define sociology, could offer the exciting intellectual possibility of bringing together ideas from history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, biology, and statistics; ranging broadly over vast areas of human thought and knowledge in order to consider the sources, nature, and consequences of our interactions and institutions. Instead, contemporary sociology, with only occasional exceptions, is little more than social activism, morally self-righteous, ideologically conformist, and completely driven by unexamined political assumptions and confirmation bias.
This year’s ASA theme, proclaimed by this year's president, Erik Olin Wright, is “Real Utopias,” derived from his “Real Utopias Project” and his book Real Utopias.  For a review of the book, I highly recommend Russell Jacoby’s. “To call this book dull as dish water,” Jacoby remarks, “maligns dish water.” Apparently, a “real utopia,” for Wright, is any social arrangement that has his approval, and he approves of all large and small efforts to move toward socialism. 
I’m not necessarily opposed to social thinkers engaging in socialist theorizing, any more than I am opposed to their engaging in libertarian theorizing, corporatist theorizing, or, for that matter, monarchist theorizing.   John Stuart Mill once observed, “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,”  so I think it is fine that Wright has tried to lay out his case, even if I agree with Jacoby that the resulting work is insipid and badly written. My problem is not with the fact that Wright has a socio-political agenda, but that his agenda of “emancipatory sociology” has been set up as the official dogma of an organization representing an entire academic discipline.  Even worse, few of the ASA’s members seem to have any problem with the reduction of a field of study to an activist creed.

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