Notes on: Denzin, N (1987). The Death of Sociology in the 1980s: Comment on Collins. American Journal of Sociology 93 (1): 175 – 180.

Dave Harris

Apparently Collins had discussed the state of sociology, and suggested that a sociological science is possible instead of particular knowledge or local ideologies and preoccupations with metatheory and method. We should theorise other people's work in order to accumulate. Collins says that a lot of the subjective stuff has got stagnant and repetitive. His theory the emotions would rest on 'cognitive and physiological formulations' while sex and gender needs 'the political theory of sexual inequalities and gender ideologies' (176). But this is 'localistic, partisan, imperialistic, theory driven' itself.

Theories of the social have been developed by symbolic interaction lists and others (Hall is cited here). There is a large body of interactionist work on the emotions, other interactionist have addressed micro-macro connections [a big list including Becker and Blumer]. Recent developments in post-modern theory challenge the efforts to think of society as totalities and that there is a science of the social based on rationality. Recent theory in Marxists semiotics critical sociology and post structuralism makes these points.

Let us focus on what he says about symbolic interactionism. The first point is that nearly all of them have looked at how social order is constructed in given meaning, and they do see society as 'a conflict riddled negotiated order' (177). There is Marxist oriented work that talks about material substrata. This work put self emotion allergy power ideology and violence at the centre. Collins does not seem to be equally concerned are the human and just ignores this work. His own work is a matter of a comfortable position, theorising about theory.

If we look at the emotions, there are 'exchange- based physiologically grounded theories', where emotions and cognitions intertwine. Collins misses that even Durkheim said that the social orders emotional as well as moral, and that emotional understandings are important for the development of intersubjective structures. It is not just a matter of behavioural exchange as Collins thinks

Collins adheres to 'restrictive, Goffmanian view of language, sociolinguistics and social interaction'. He thinks that eventually even the emotions will become subject to the procedures of AI. These are simplistic assumptions, based on representational view of language, a stimulus response theory of meaning, ignoring the emotions and self reflexive thought, and not seeing interaction as emergent or conflict ridden. It is typical of a 'behavioural mechanistic theory of human action' which Collins has. There are too many simplistic assumptions. We need instead proper theories of the human subject, interaction and the semiotic complexity of language, and the lived body. Avoiding the body helps develop parallels with AI, seeing the emotions for example as external. It also means the sociologist can be positioned above human affairs — 'coolly and coldly objective and sterile' (178).

We can only understand micro-macro links after 'careful study of human interaction', in particular historical contexts, since we do not make history in circumstances of her own choosing there always background 'larger cultural, economic, legal, religious, and political orders'. Understanding this is the task for interpretivist. Overall society is always interaction, and the micro-macro distinction can be dispensed with. We can understand macro effects as '"experience – near" formulations'.

There can be no sociological science of the social. Interpretive sociologies should not be consolidated into some grand theory. Human society does not rest upon grand narrative structures. Like Giddings, he is 'the keeper of this ramshackle house called sociology' that is already collapsing. Sociology is 'a dying organism' (179), and all this effort to synthesise and cumulate is but an attempt to keep it alive. We need overall more contact with the empirical world, but Collins does not show us how to do this, how to move forward. His optimism lies in hope that the fields relegated to the margins will carry on doing the work that sociology has been doing, on the 'flanks of the discipline'. He has shown us 'where not to go'.

Collins R (1987) Looking Forward or Looking back?: Reply to Denzin. American Journal of Sociology 93 (1): 180 – 84.

It is not easy to convince each other, so he addresses the 'not – yet – committed'. Advice to beginners include finding a field that is opening up and moving ahead, not stagnating. That includes probably anything talked about 'in the same terms for more than 20 years'. We should not simply forget everything published earlier, but there is 'intellectual cumulation' and we should seek out 'buried treasure', including the classic works.

Areas that become stagnant and repetitive are different. First they keep repeating 'general prescriptions, polemics, meta-theories', helpful to critique older positions, eventually we should show we can actually produce something that is more impressive. However, people become 'emotionally committed to the polemic, especially when it has political overtones', or if it puts the human and living against the 'dead hands of alienated science' (181). The first people can get credit as pioneers, and disciples can sometimes get a hearing by addressing new audiences, but they drift further and further from the centre of the intellectual field. What is the point of repeating the polemics of the 1960s — is anyone left to be impressed? [New kinds of students?]. The same goes for general theory including Frankfurt.

Positive ideas are stagnant, but, 'regretfully' so is Denzin and 'the humanistic, interpretive, and subjectivist positions' that were popular in the 1970s. It is true that positivist meta-theory, insisting on operational is random sampling and statistical confidence levels and so on are too rigid and not very interesting. Post positive is an make sense, but not '"post empiricism"' — that is ridiculous and it will kill off sociology and vacate the field for 'philosophical dogmatists'. We should still be interested in making discoveries [and the five areas of sociology in his own article were selected on that basis]
humanistic/interpretive positions are still hung up on metatheory and the polemic against science. Humanistic Marxism keeps saying that capitalism alienates man, that praxis is superior to theory, and also that 'Marx already settled everything'(182). The same goes with arguments that everything is locally produced or that we live in a universe of discourse. These are slogans and they should be taken as problems to be probed, elements to be incorporated in new theories. However, proponents have 'settled into a level of indeterminacy that they believe is morally superior', being able to attack inhumane and detached science by contrast.

'This is rhetorical politics', classically part of the 1960s ambience, where positivism was resented by those who 'wanted to expose the evil and fragility of the power structures' there was always a 'mythical aspect'. In other epochs, positivists were the avant-garde. We can doubt the claims of moral superiority in current advocates because those ideas were often put forward by conservatives, used to support tradition. There is a danger that today's humanists in particular rests are also going to 'flip-flop to a conservative position
This anti-positivist polemic prevents progress because it rejects the drive for accumulation, the development of useful generalisations, complex and dynamic models, new sources of data and methods. Symbolic interactionism has done this, so has ethno, and even French structuralism, but we have had to extract useful elements from the metatheory that makes them 'exclusivist'. One prop for this is denying generalisation or 'explanatory determinacy'. It lacks courage.

On the empirical level, research based on this approach does not accumulate, 'because it is too particularistic' and because there is a bias against science. Nothing is generalisable, comparisons cannot be made. We end with tedious repetitive studies, as in much symbolic interactionism — 'there is little to set off one study from the next', and obscurity beckons. Ethno is the same — it used to be revolutionary but now it produces local and serial descriptions. Luckily some have tried to develop generalisation.

Overall, it is the metatheory that produces 'doldrums', together with antagonism to scientific generality. There have been important contributions in the past. Some ideas are still alive. Denzin's own work has been cutting-edge, including his work on the sociology of emotion, which still seems capable of progress. But we must 'discover, generalise, compare, cumulate' (184). Research needs to be brought back together. We should stop thinking of people advocating science 'as if they were Dr Strangelove'

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