The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology
Recent Sociology No. 1
Sociology in its Place and Other Essays
The “new sociology” was proclaimed some years ago. Growing mainly out of the work of C. Wright Mills, it was connected, through him, with the doctrines and movements of the New Left in the later 1950s and early 1960s. But just as the New Left grew old quite quickly and was supplanted by still newer movements, so also the new sociology, without ever having established itself properly as a distinct style of social thought, has been pushed aside by yet more recent attempts to give sociology a fresh orientation. In less than a decade we have had “critical sociology,” “radical sociology,” and such innovations, less closely tied to political commitments, as ethnomethodology and structuralism—not to speak of the Sociology Liberation Movement, which is perhaps more a mode of feeling than of thinking. Now Alvin Gouldner offers us yet another diversion in the shape of “reflexive sociology,” or the sociologist contemplating his own navel.
This proliferation and rapid circulation of doctrines can easily be taken as the sign of an intellectual crisis, accompanying a crisis in social life which manifests itself in diverse movements of protest and opposition and in sporadic rebellions. The nature of such a situation is well described by Norman Birnbaum in an essay on the crisis in Marxist sociology, contributed to Dreitzel’s volume:
A doctrinal or theoretic crisis in a system of thought occurs when either of two sets of abstract conditions obtains. In one case the possibilities of internal development of a system exhaust themselves; the system’s categories become incapable of transformation; the discussion generated by the system becomes scholastic, in the pejorative sense of the term. In the other case the realities apprehended by the system in its original form change, so much so that the categories are inapplicable to new conditions. It is clear that these two sets of conditions often obtain simultaneously; particularly for systems dealing with the historical movement of society, the two sets of conditions of crisis are often quite inseparable.
Sociology has quite frequently experienced crises of this kind. Considering only its recent history we can see how the “progressive” sociology of the 1930s (represented by the work of Robert Lynd, for example, and of many Marxist writers) lost much of its vigor and relevance with the end of the economic depression, the outbreak of war, and the postwar reconstruction in which political debate and public policy in most Western countries came to be dominated by ideas of economic growth in the domestic sphere, and of conflict between democracy and totalitarianism in world affairs. Similarly, the postwar “conservative” sociology (of such writers as Parsons, Lipset, Ells, Shils, and Aron), which grew largely out of these changed conditions, began to lose its ability to interpret social events in a convincing manner when new cultural and political movements appeared which challenged or forsook established ways of life in many industrial countries.
The turmoil through which we have lived, at least from 1956 to 1968, makes it seem rather odd …