Two-Dimensional Sociology

Two-Dimensional Sociology
If Comcast was working, which it never is, I would have created this entry on my birthday (09.13.07). I turned 29, which makes me “in my late 20s,” that ambiguous age where you are still young enough to avoid total responsibility and old enough to feel confident, or where you are awaiting some marker of adulthood that will come next year. I’ve changed a lot in the last year, particularly in terms of curbing my idealism and trying to be more systematic, structured and pragmatic. I get up early, balance my checkbook and wear professional clothes. I feel not only in limbo between late 20s and 30, but also between student and professional, something that has been making me act more confident on the outside, but feel less confident inside.

Today, in a class I’m teaching on Culture and Power, we read Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. His critique of one-dimensional thought, which says we’ve lost our critical edge in the pursuit of positive fact, is inspiring to read. His critique of the use of technology for oppression during the cold war could not be more relevant to the War (without end) on Terror. Marcuse, though he didn’t want to be, was considered the father of the New Left. This movement, among others of the era, like feminism and Black and Yellow Power, resisted one-dimensional thought, acting toward alternative possibilities in an era of severe repression.

Being born in 1978 makes me late genX/early genY. I was always in awe of that previous era and its revolutionary power. But lately I’ve become disillusioned with the cultural celebration of the Woodstock generation because that celebration that has eclipsed their political potency. The energy of that generation, to me, has coalesced into complacent establishment liberalism. We were taught that we didn’t need to act because everything was already fixed for us.

But I know boomers, like my parents, who are still resisting one-dimensional thought, fighting for services for my adult disabled sister and speaking out in their church which has been commandeered by fundamentalists. Or like my friend Annie who has served in Americorps and is the president of NOW in Maine. At the same time, there are plenty of Gen X and Y folks who desire change but feel it so outside the realm of possibility.

Marcuse’s writing renews that possibility. In my race to professionalize and become part of the establishment, I have forgotten why I care about teaching and sociology itself – the possibility of transformation, the promise of dialog, and the capacity for science to interrogate prejudice and what Christina Brinkley (at Simmons College) calls dis-information, not just wrong information, but disempowering information.

I had stopped writing in this blog because I didn’t know what identity it should have – what about those who might read it, would they question my interests, my ethics? This worry about whether connection with the people and places I study will make me look like less of a sociologist, or somehow disqualify me in the game, is the result of falling into my own one-dimensional thinking about what the sociological enterprise means. This realization was reinforced for me by an experience I had meeting an engineer later that day at a professional development meeting.

She also asked me what my research was about. I told her its about musicians. She wanted to know – would I be developing any tools or applications for musicians so that they could more effectively navigate the music industry and local music scene? I immediately told her that if I did it could not be part of my project, which was to analyze the structures and values involved in the functioning of the music scene. If I did develop any tools, that would be on my own time. And it still wasn’t clear to me if and how that could happen.

As I thought about it more I realized that empiricism in sociology has come to stand in for “science.” Yet here I am, talking to a scientist who sees action, change, possibility, and public engagement as part of the enterprise.

Recent debates over public sociology and the sociologist’s role in society show a renewed interest in critical engagement with the social world. But at what point in the research process can sociology be public – is it only legitimate to engage the public after the research has been done in isolation? Does engaging the pubic during research disqualify the work as ideological? Exactly what is political about public sociology and why should it be assumed that public engagement reduces a piece of research into its author’s ideological interests? If sociologists see public sociology as political and private sociology as science, we have too simplified a view of science.

Sociologists can never be in a lab or experimental situation where we are not both affected by and affecting the things (i.e. people, groups, societies) we study. There is no perfect solution for non-reactivity in the social sciences. Sociologists have come to treat this as a flaw to be hidden by retreating from the social worlds we study. Why not recognize this ‘double hermeneutic’ as a particular benefit that sociology can contribute to intellectual knowledge and the world? To me, sociology’s value is its critical, scientific ability to analyze social relationships and institutions.

One-dimensional sociology is an impediment, not a virtue.