Book Review by Garth Massey, Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews July 2013 vol. 42 no. 4 630-632.
New Directions in Sociology: Essays on Theory and Methodology in the 21st Century, edited by Ieva Zake, Michael DeCesare . Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. Inc. Pub., 2011. 243pp. $45.00 paper. ISBN: 9780786463428.
After forty years of teaching and doing sociology, it was with great interest that I read New Directions in Sociology, a collection of essays by “new, youthful, energetic voices” providing “a blueprint for tomorrow’s sociology.” These essays on theory and methodology, edited by Ieva Zake and Michael DeCesare, are both substantive contributions and reflections on the state of the sociology today.
As has been noted often, sociology seems more obsessed than other disciplines with defining itself. What is and is not sociology? Discussions about sociology’s best practices and how well it is meeting its obligations to science, the public, and its students often turn into debates, complete with acrimonious finger pointing. This is curious and a bit misguided, though my shelves are lined with books asking, “What is sociology?”
Most sociologists come to the discipline recognizing its boundaries are wide and permeable. Being interested in many things, engaging in multiple methods, seeking insight into equally mundane and momentous phenomena—this is what attracted us to, and keeps us involved in doing, sociology. This collection affirms sociology’s continuing appeal, but also the frustrations it can generate.
The thirteen essays—seven on theory and five on research methods—are authored jointly or individually by four PhD candidates, seven assistant professors, and five associate professors. Much of the writing evidences a commitment to teaching, and several of the authors have contributed to Teaching Sociology. Sociology texts, especially introductory and research methods texts, are frequently cited, often to lament the current state of the discipline: its weaknesses, lacuna, and near-worship of advanced statistical techniques. While textbook analysis can be useful, several contributors risk equating textbook material with the discipline as a whole.
There are some intriguing and thought-provoking essays in this volume, most of them in “Part II: Methodology.” Natalia Ruiz-Junco and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz offer a first-rate survey of autoethnography that summarizes its emergence and promotes its value, especially in exploring topics fraught with identity issues that take seriously the role of emotion. Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur’s survey of historical comparative methods breaks no new ground, but competently covers it in a way that makes it accessible to, and a possible research strategy for, students.
Peter Moskos’ essay on participant observation—It’s okay to be a wallflower!—is based on his own excellent fieldwork and well worth reading by novice ethnographers. The most interesting part of DeCesare’s revisitation of concept validity or the measurement problem (“our measurements remain prehistoric,” p. 152) is his involvement in the Teachers for a New Era project. A foundation-supported effort, it fizzled after millions of dollars were spent. We need to know more. Todd Schoepflin and Peter Kaufman’s first-person essay on sociology through fiction written by the “researcher” is provocative and begins to breach the permeable border of sociological narrative. It suggests more than anything else an effective way to get students excited about sociological inquiry and writing with sociological eyes.
“Part I: Theory” of this collection is less interesting. The editors’ introduction and conclusion seem intended to turn back the tide of critical, conflict, feminist, and postmodern sociology. The editors’ comments are a bit hyperbolic and simplistic, replete with mischaracterizations and overstatements criticizing what they take to be both the dominant and threatening sociological paradigms. Still, they have given several young sociologists a chance to be read.
Though intended to be forward looking, the theory essays do not neglect the past. John Stuart Mills is there, as are Dilthey, Simmel, and Norbert Elias. So too are Weber, Durkheim, and Marx, but not much. Beyond their emphasis on culture and inquiry into the subjective, one’s first impression is that their assembly is an intended refutation of sociology as a critical engagement with social injustice, asymmetrical power, and “real utopias.”
Joshua McCabe and Brian Pitt survey Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises without explicitly enunciating the theorists’ opposition to progressive social change (or citing Hayek’s Road to Serfdom). Zake urges a reconsideration of Karl Popper, less on methodological than theoretical/political grounds. Curiously, she typifies contemporary sociology as attributing, “mystically strong powers to the abstract notions of the social” (p. 66) to the neglect of individuals and human agency—which I take to mean personal responsibility for one’s own success or failure.
Isaac Reed and Benjamin Lamb-Books provide a supportive roadmap to hermeneutics in sociology. David Boyns offers an understanding of culture that (re)inserts human agency in the postmodern analysis of culture that he believes is too often more “inspired by science fiction than by empirical experience” (p. 84). Keith Kerr’s essay shows the indelible smudge on Marx’s scholarship caused by his father’s rejection of his Jewish identity. These first five theory essays have the ring of graduate theory seminar papers both in topic and tone.
Not so the sixth and seventh essays. Patricia Snell falls short, but admirably surveys and argues for a greater role for the concept of social space. Not an easily measured variable, space to the author is both material and ideational, manifest in classical scholarship and ripe with research potential. This is undoubtedly a work in progress, and the concept of space threatens to include nearly everything. It is, however, a commendable effort to reorient sociological thinking.
Similarly, Debbie Kasper seeks to lay out an ambitious foundational theory that will redirect social inquiry by bridging many of the dualisms and divides that permeate conceptualization and theory building. Unfortunately, Kasper focuses on sociology textbooks and tends to dismiss or mischaracterize much current theoretical work that is strong and insightful. Still, I greatly admire the effort and am heartened to see the continuation of a good fight for theoretical coherence.
What I come away with from this volume, along its various paths, is not that young sociologists are doing anything surprisingly new. What resonates is the vitality and earnest search for a better way to make sense of social life. These young sociologists do not lack passion and, though often wearing youthful blinders, several are moving in interesting directions. Reading between the lines, I believe their frustration is with a discipline that stirs up such excitement in students, yet often fails to deliver clarity and understanding with the confidence students need to remain engaged with the sociological imagination.