Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Could Sociology Have a Future?

Joost van Loon explores how we might conceptualize 'the social' today.

One cannot do ‘sociological theory’ without paying attention to forces that bring into being what we commonly think of as ‘the social’. A sociological theory that does not take into account the fundamentally historical nature of ‘the social’ is doomed to fail in explaining how the world we live in today is ordered and organized. More specifically, I want to claim that practices of social ordering today have been fundamentally re-arranged due to the arrival of digital technology. This is not in itself very spectacular, however, I want to add that in this ‘digital age’ something peculiar is taking shape: namely an empirical falsification of two major pillars of modernist thought: (1) the Cartesian separation of res cogitans and res extensa (with the first being primordial) and (2) the Kantian doctrine of the radical unintelligibility of Dingen an sich. The first is easily recognizable in the massive expansion of ‘the virtual’; the second is clearly manifested in the undeniable performative capacity of technology.

As the discipline of sociology is in essence a modernist project, the crumbling of its foundations will therefore also necessarily put into question what sociology is. Whereas until recently, it could be defended that sociology should exclusively concern itself with human behaviour and with the social structures that both emerge out of patterns of that behaviour but in turn also condition these patterns, there are now substantial challenges to these anthropocentric axioms. That is not to say that sociology is not about humans, but merely to indicate that it now has to justify itself if it wants to exclusively be that.

The key question for socio-logy remains the same as it always was, however. It still needs to be concerned with ‘the social’. Obviously, the question of what is the social is a defining one for contemporary sociology. It is that which has pre-occupied the works of, for example, Luhmann (e.g. the impossibility of communication), Bourdieu (the logic of practice) and Latour (actor networks). It has also resurfaced in, for example, the work of Beck on risk and individualization and Habermas’ theory of communicative action as a response to his earlier work on transformations of the public sphere.

Luhmann provided a useful intervention in the prevailing Durkheimian dogma of the seemingly self-evident existence of ‘society’. Although this intervention has been wrongly dismissed as a-political or even reactionary, it has made a huge impact on social theory over the last three decades, especially in German speaking countries. I believe that this was because it did something that is logical and common sensical: If we want to explain what society is, we cannot rely on the assumption that society already exists. Instead we have to ask: what is that makes it possible for us to speak of ‘society?’. Luhmann’s answer is well known: it is communication.

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