Is sociology a science? What are the problems of this presumed science? What are its future prospects?
The current state of sociology as a science
1. Sociology, a science in crisis or in decline?
Sociology has been going through a bad patch for the last fifteen years.
Three signs of the sociological crisis:
a) Sociology lacks notoriety among the general public. b) Decision-makers, government officials, are now disappointed in sociology c) Sociologists themselves doubt their work. Is it really scientific work?
Endogenous and Exogenous Explanations
The environment is not favorable to science. The scientists believe has been eroded. The ecological movements are an expression of this. Natural and cultural sciences are undergoing a crisis of legitimacy. Sociology suffers from a general crisis of sciences.
a) Endogenous explanations: in the field of sociology itself
In 2003, Raymond Boudon published an article entitled “Does sociology still exist? For him, if sociology is in crisis, it is its own responsibility. It is unable to concentrate on its scientific objective. It is scattered. Raymond Boudon’s typology of sociological works in 4 categories: – scientific sociology: (at the top), it is the true sociology, verified in the field. – the cameralist sociology: (less well) sociology of the rooms, sociology for the political decision-makers, the governors (with the INSEE, the INED), collection of data but one does not theorize. – militant sociology: (even less well) sociology that wants to put itself at the service of a cause, Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology. But sociology must be at the service of the scientist, not of the unions, etc. – aesthetic sociology: (the least good) sociology which tells the social story, but which is a mixture of sociology and social novel. Boudon prefers to read Honoré de Balzac, Flaubert, than this sociology. For example, Pierre Santos, who has done the sociology of train stations, campgrounds, and aperitifs.
Another endogenous explanation by Jean-Michel Berthelot. When I look in the rear-view mirror of sociology, there has been no new research program. Bernard Lahire was a disciple of Pierre Bourdieu, a professor at the ENS. He distanced himself from Bourdieu’s sociology to make an internal critique of it. He considers that sociologists are too lax towards amateurism in sociology. Michel Mafessoli accepted to direct Elizabeth Tessier’s thesis on astrology. Lahire takes offense to this.
For Michel Wieviorka, the current crisis of sociology comes from the fact that sociologists remain too attached to an intellectual baggage thought for the national society. This is no longer adapted to today’s society. Michel Wieviorka wants a renewal of the lexicon of sociology, a conceptual renewal, because we no longer have the words for contemporary society. His book Neuf leçons de sociologie (Nine lessons of sociology) : « to apprehend the world in which we are entering »
Summary: Lack of rigor, lack of ideas, lack of seriousness, lack of responsiveness to social changes.
b) Exogenous explanations: the fault lies with others
—Sociology is in crisis because it is in competition with other social sciences. In particular from two sciences in renewal, history and ethnology. Ethnologists, half a century ago, could go out into the field. However, the demography of primitive peoples has decreased, while the number of ethnologists has increased. Ethnologists have found themselves in the Paris metro, in hospital wards. The field of study of the sociologists was more and more invaded by the ethnologists.
Contemporary history, and now the history of the present time. Now the history of the present time is on the ground of sociology.
—The decrease of the credits allocated to the big sociological investigations.
—Globalization raises questions that sociology has difficulty in dealing with concepts that were thought for the national society. Durkheimian sociology, of the founders, is rather national. Alain Touraine questions the concept of society. The concept is useful at the national level, but loses its heuristic quality at the global level.
2. The scientific advances of sociology
The scientific advances of sociology appear in:
1. Its relation to ideologies: neutrality
The precursors of sociology were also ideologists. Example: Karl Marx (socialism, communism), Tocqueville (liberalism). A mixture of science and activism. Over time, sociologists have detached themselves from ideologies, from militancy, to implement neutrality. Less ideology, more neutrality, less notoriety.
2. His relationship to the field: anchored theories
Originally, two categories of sociologists. The empiricists (in the field) and the theorists (intellectuals) with an impermeable border. Raymond Aron never did any fieldwork. Over time, the border became more porous. Today, a good sociologist is able to theorize and go into the field. ‘If there is a theory, it must be built with the field, along the way.
3. His relationship to methods: perspectivism
All three methods can be used by the same person.
4. His relationship to theories: the medium range theories
The founders and precursors set themselves the goal of providing general theories, i.e. theories capable of allowing the analysis of social organization, social functioning, reproduction and social change. But these great theories are a failure and generate a retreat of ambition. The theories are now of average scope. They are about explaining a strictly limited social object: they cannot and do not want to be generalizable. It is better to have a small theory that works than a big theory that does not.
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