The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

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MAY 2018 Issue
Field Notes

Document 1:

Leaflet distributed by students at Nanterre

The transition from academic sociology, a vassal of philosophy, to an independent sociology with scientific pretentions, corresponds to the passage of competitive capitalism to organized capitalism.

Henceforth, the rise of sociology will always be more tied to the “social question” of rational practice in the service of bourgeois ends: money, profit, maintenance of order.

Proof abounds: industrial sociology above all seeks to adapt a worker to his or her work; the inverse perspective is very limited since the sociologist hired by management must respect the goal of the economic system: to produce as much as possible in order to make as much money as possible. Political sociology advocates extensive, mostly mystifying studies, which presuppose that the site of politics today is electoral choice, without ever asking if politics might not be located elsewhere. Stouffer studies the best conditions for the “morale” of the American soldier without asking about the structural problems of the army’s role in the society in which he or she lives. We find sociologists in advertising, in the thousands of forms of consumer conditioning, in experimental studies of the media, again without seeking to criticize the social function of the media, etc.

Moreover, what do sociologists in the U.S. think about the central problem of social classes? The concept of class and that of its disruption (class struggle) are eliminated and replaced by notions of classes and strata endowed with status, power, and prestige. There is supposed to be a continuous ladder, where each step corresponds to a defined quantity of power and prestige increasing as one moves closer to the top. Of course, each individual at the start has the same chances of climbing the pyramid, since we are living (as everywhere) in a democracy.

In addition to the theoretical refutations by Mills and Riesman, the practical refutations of the American sub-proletariat (ethnic minorities) and certain groups of workers against their union apparatus are enough to sweep away the dream of complete integration.

Very recently, riots by African-Americans have created such fear that sociologists have been awarded additional funds to study crowd movements and to furnish recipes for their repression (according to Le Monde).

Finally, bitter irony, when in 1964 the US Department of Defense launched a counterinsurgency project in Latin America (the famous Project Camelot), in seeking to hide it, it could not imagine anything better than to disguise it as a “sociological” study project.

And in France?

The rationalization of capitalism definitely began after the war, with the beginnings of economic planning, but it only became effective with Gaullism and its authoritarian structures. It was no accident that sociology officially became an academic discipline in 1958 [the year of an economic crisis and de Gaulle’s return to power]. The unequal development of French capitalism in relation to US capitalism can be found on the level of ideas: all our current sociology is imported from the other side of the Atlantic, a few years behind. Everyone knows that our most highly rated sociologists are those who most attentively follow American publications.


We have seen its close connection with the “social question.” The practice of organizing capitalism has given rise to a host of contradictions, and in each particular case a sociologist has been put to the task. One studies juvenile deliquency, another racism, a third slums. Each seeks an explanation for his or her partial problem and proposes solutions to the limited conflict under study. While serving as a watchdog, our sociologist will at the same time contribute to the “mosaic” of sociology “theories.”

The resulting confusion of the social sciences is manifested in the interdisciplinary mode so fashionable today (see Althusser). The uncertainty of each specialist, when confronting the uncertainties of other specialists, can only give rise to grand platitudes.

Behind this confusion, there is the seldom discussed absence of theoretical status for sociology and the social sciences. Their only point in common is that they constitute “mostly methodological techniques of adaptation and of social rehabilitation,” not to mention the rehabilitation of all controversies: the majority of our sociologists are “Marxists.” In support of this thesis, let’s mention the conservative character of the concepts currently used: hierarchy, ritual, integration, social function, social control, equilibrium, etc.

“Theoreticians” must explain local conflicts without reference to the social totality that has caused them.

This so-called objective approach implies partial and biased perspectives where phenomena are not related to each other (yet racism, unemployment, delinquency, and slums constitute a unity) and where the rationality of the economic system is a given. The word “profit” having become shocking, one speaks of growth, of adaptation to a hypostatized change. But where is this change going, what preceded it, who organized it, who profits from it? Are these questions too speculative to interest science?

These considerations lead us to conclude that the malaise of sociology students can be understood only by questioning the social function of sociology. In the current conflicts, it has become clear that sociologists chose their side: the side of company management and the State that assists it. In these conditions, what does it mean to defend the sociology that certain people advocate?



The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

All Issues