Институт социологии
Российской академии наук

Oleg Yanitsky.Sociological Turn?

О.Н. Яницкий.  

Sociological Turn?

Oleg Yanitsky, Institute of Sociology Russian Academy of Sciences


On the eve of the All-Russian Sociological Congress I am presenting a digest of a recent Current Sociology issue (Vol. 56, No 3, May 2008) titled “Two dialogues: On Public Sociology and on Global Warming” (the authors: M.Burawoy, A. Martinelli, D. Smith, M. Wieviorka and other sociologists across the world) and my brief comment to it.

Key words: future of capitalism; third-wave marketization (neo-liberalism);  commodification of nature; subaltern groups of a society; social knowledge of what and for whom?; anger, fear, humiliation; social degradation and victimization; rich and poor countries;  working class.


Dialogue I: On Public Sociology

 Dennis Smith, Editor-in-chief of Current Sociology: “how should we treat powerful drives such as greed, fear and anger, both politically and sociologically” (p.347) And then: “The battle to get more will gradually be replaced by the fight to keep what you have, which will, in turn, …gradually become a more basic struggle for survival. This struggle is already central for the poor. Sooner or later, some middling rich join them in the same boat” (p.349). And, finally: “Public sociologists who engage with groups that are experiencing social degradation or other aspects of humiliation should bring with them (and later add to) the knowledge we are developing about dynamics of humiliation” (p.378).


Alberto Martinelli (Italy): “…when we are engaged in political activity we do not act as social scientists or teachers, but as political actors” (p. 369)


Michel Wieviorka (France): “Our conceptions of the demonstration of the validity of the  knowledge  we produce are not independent of our conceptions to what is known as the public sphere” (p. 388).


Adam Habib (South Africa): Public sociologists “must recognize that subaltern groups have insight into their subjugation, and solutions to transcend it. Public sociologists must deploy their skills in an inclusive way to engage the issue of political strategy: how to subvert power in favor of the agenda of subaltern groups.” (p.389).


Shen Yuan (China): following A. Touraine, “the most important mission of sociology is perhaps to push forward the production of  society”. Facing this problem, “sociologists must strive for a  transition from a sociology  of structure to a sociology of action” (p.399)…. “Perhaps our most important task from now on is to combine social practice and social knowledge together effectively” (p. 404).

Amita Baviskar (India): “Most social movements and social justice organizations want sociologists to champion their cause rather  than engage them in dialogue. They expect sociologists and other sympathetic intellectuals to lend their authority before the state and metropolitan reference public. An instrumental use of academic authority – to write an ‘independent’ report that corroborates the movement’s claims, to meet politicians and bureaucrats as part of a delegation of dignitaries, to appear on television talk shows – is mainly what social movements desire.” (p.431).

Michael Burawoy (USA) divided the articles in this issue into two groups: “an abstract universalism constituted from above (Burawoy,  Martinelli, Wieviorka, Smith) vs concrete practices knitted together from below (Shen Yuan, Zdravomyslova, Habib, Baviskar and Braga et al.). In fact, a global sociology has to be constructed from below and the question is whether this is possible.” (p.435).

“A global sociology from below involves a dialogue between a sociology of globalization with its context specific effects and a globalization of sociology, rooted in context-specific practices.”  (p. 437).

Burawoy on contemporary Russian sociology: ‘…it is deeply fractured discipline with four weak national associations. The titans of Soviet  sociology are still vying for influence, divided between the statists and reformists. There are new  divisions between cosmopolitans looking outwards to the West and locals looking inwards for nationalist inspiration. In this context, public sociology itself  becomes a terrain of struggle among nationalists, reformers and cosmopolitans.” (p. 439).


Dialogue II: On Global Warming <and Sociology>

Constance Lever-Tracy (Australia): “Most sociologists, outside the specialism of environmental sociology, have hade surprisingly little to say about the possible future social trajectories” caused by coming climatic changes(p. 445).  Lever-Tracy conducted a web search for the words ‘climatic change’, ‘global warming’ of ‘ greenhouse effect’ in eight major Anglophone, mainstream sociological journals as well as in influential New Left Review from January 2000 to mid-2005, and revealed that “There was not a single finding in titles or abstracts, not one article focused on the subject”. (p. 451). Since 1980, there is a sharp decline of academic discussions on future scenarios.  Sociologists are more inclined “to describe and understand a new social reality,…and have come to reject any long-term future orientation as ‘teleology’” (pp. 452—53). She calls for “a cooperative multidisciplinarity of social and natural sciences working together”. (p. 445).

Today, “business, politicians, and environmentalists are now internally split in novel ways between advocates of reduced consumption, of  efficiency and of a range of alternative energy sources, including gas, solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, biomass, geothermal, carbon sequestration, etc. The advocates of each accuse each the others of grandstanding without serious intent, or ignoring costs, needed time scales and technical feasibility or the negative impacts and dangers for society and environment.”

Most sociologists have not yet taken stock of these changes. We have already wasted too much time, and may awaken too late to have  any impact. It is now essential that discipline (i.e. sociology –O.Yan.) as a whole reorients itself, to overcome the two inhibitions described earlier – the old one against listening seriously to what scientists say about nature and the more recent one against thinking about the future.” (p. 459).

Yes, responded to Lever-Tracy Steven Brechin (USA), in his article titled ‘Ostriches and Change’, “Climate change poses the most significant challenge facing the world today and should be more than sufficient to mobilize the world and its many communities to respond meaningfully and quickly. However, response must be made to conditions not yet fully realized, presenting the challenge of preparing instead of simply reacting. It is likely that only after global societies are restructures by human altered natural processes will we see the rise of a new focal point for our discipline. Most people, especially in the rich and powerful Northern countries, do not really feel that they are living on the edge. Environmental concerns have become and continue to be seen as no more than background noise.’ P. 467).

Some, continued Brechin, things “that things need to get worse before they can get better. However, this is the most insidious aspect of the specter of climate change: if conditions get bad enough, there is no simple recovery, as Lever-Tracy correctly points out. Should positive feedback loops become engaged and push even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, this will encourage greater CO2 concentration at a pace beyond our reach to amend. Consequently, we maybe in a very unfamiliar terrain. Our social and political institutions must act before the ‘problem’ actually becomes a problem. Has this ever been accomplished? Do we have any precedents here? …Can market work on such a pre-emptive time-scale without  policy incentives?”

Mainstream sociology and sociologists have much to contribute to such a discussion. However, like society’s collective lack of significant progress on reducing climate-altering gases (as well poverty, inequality and racism and so on), I don’t see the discipline taking major steps in that direction either. Why? Some fundamental changes would have to take place first. Our discipline is not being seriously internally or externally challenged…Dominant coalitions and their status hierarchy remain intact. I see no impending shift in constellations of interests to suggests radical change is ahead. Global terrorism, like climate change, also possesses the potential to radically change our social worlds…I don’t see mainstream sociology reorganizing itself around this theme  either. Hence, it is not simply the subject matter of climate change or terrorism, or even globalization, which has had more success in becoming integral, but rather the current  arrangements and patterns of interaction work well enough for those that wield (обладают) sufficient influence. The current order stands.” (p. 471)

Terry Leahy (Australia): “Ecological modernizers see the environmental crisis as a stimulus to capitalist societies, providing new opportunities fro growth from re-tooling. Yet, sections of environmentalist movement envisage necessary social change as much more profound. A key to this debates is the likely costs of re-tooling. This technological and financial questions is a prerequisite for understanding the social implications. If the costs of re-tooling are huge, as can argued, some drastic social changes are quite likely.” …I defend the view that the changes necessary to halt global warming are difficult to contain within capitalism” (p. 475).

“Capitalism as a growth economy  is impossible to reconcile with a finite environment. While global warming is certainly the most problematic crisis at the moment, we are also faced with the coming oil shortage, the exhaustion of mineral deposits, just to get started…The environmental crisis, or indeed the belt tightening necessary to fix it, will put a major strain on the political accommodation that has sustained capitalism in the rich countries. It will also exacerbate tensions  in developing countries  where the hope of future affluence will evaporate as the rich countries go into crisis.  It would be premature to foresee the capitalist mode of production as proof against this political tensions.

These are the most obvious points. A less obvious one is to wonder what would actually happen if the ecological modernization vision, ore something like it, was to be successful. We cam envisage two broad possibilities.

In one, the capitalist class would agree to a new dispensation and direct much productive capacity to saving the  planet. To appease the working class of the rich countries,  they would have to redistribute at least some wealth so people’s effective income did not fall too far with reduced production and consumption – as energy prices went up. With (p.481) zero or negative growth, unemployment would increase year by year after an initial period of restructuring. Of course, with reduced growth there would be reduced hours of work and the experience of time affluence would fundamentally shift people’s orientations to work, undermining authoritative control of production. To prevent developing countries from using oil fossil fuel energy technologies, governments would have to tax the rich countries and supply energy re-tooling. Or individual capitalists could donate their wealth for this purpose. Is this still capitalism? I think not….Even the subordinate class of the reach countries would be implicated, as their own affluence fell and developing countries were bestowed with new technologies. All this redistribution would be quite outside the market economy, which would become something of a sideline. It would be like the end of feudalism in England. Then, kings and queens reigned, lords and ladies kept their titles and even the land. But year by year, the economy and political realm functioned less and less like feudalism. Ecological modernization could mean a similar fate for capitalism.

Or the second broad possibility, these problems could be resolved coercively. New fascist parties would preserve the affluence of the rich and poverty of the developing countries. There would be increasing unemployment in the rich countries and the dole would be minimalist. To maintain environmental goals, the armies of the rich world might attack coal-fired power plants in India and China – with nuclear weapons as necessary. Assassination squads could terminate timber barons cutting forests. Growth for the great majority would be stalled and party hacks would take over the running  of companies. Is this capitalism? I doubt it. This is a form of technocratic feudalism, which would be unable to solve environmental problems in the long run term and would be suffer the same kind of technological stagnation as the Soviet Union. It would be a way station  on the road to Somalia.

In fact, there is no path out of the present crisis that leaves the capitalist mode of production intact. A successful reformist approach of the kind envisaged by ecological modernists is just another path to end capitalism. Of course, the most likely outcome is that envisaged by Jared Diamond…. We will end up like civilizations in the past that have undermined their environment. A last day’s flurry of grand projects and expensive wars. The inevitable collapse in food production. A corresponding collapse in population. Finally, the ruling  class is massacred by an ungrateful populace”.


*         *         *

Comment: what I believe is important in the presented texts, especially before discussion at the forthcoming All-Russian Congress of sociologists?


(1) both the reformist and the power scenario of ecomodernization have been criticized. The question how capitalism in its present form can be made compatible with preservation of life on Earth remains open. In any case, there will be major changes in the trajectories of modernism and postmodernism, most likely leading to less consumerism, more discipline and more efforts at saving what is already achieved;


(2) these shifts will inevitably affect the very core of the method of sociology. Sociology cannot do without social interpretation of scientific knowledge and technological innovations within the context of culture and power relations. The concept of the common good should be rehabilitated;


(3) authors count terrorism as well as poverty and climate changes among the global threats of the present times. But unlike the two former, which are familiar to sociology, the latter has not proved out yet. The problem is that social consequences of climate change should be estimated before they become irreversible. No financial bailout could protect a society against global warming;


(4) theory and methods of forecasting and foreseeing scenarios for the world development and Russia as its part are extremely topical for the Russian sociology. If we fail to work in anticipatory mode and to work out social-ecological forecasts, we will once again end up playing the role of  those "catching up";


(5) it is time to assess, at last, the social and environmental losses caused by the third-wave marketization (neo-liberalism) in Russia; in other words, these losses should be calculated, especially concerning our key problem: the population--territory relation. A loss of ecological quality of life owing to total marketization is a threat to public health and safety;


(6) to do that, we will have to resume the sociological toolkit that was discarded in the late 1980s and 1990s (e.g. such notions as the capitalist mode of production and its subtypes, the common good, rich and poor countries, the working class, commodification of nature, humiliation and social degradation, and many others). As we saw above, these concepts work;


(7) all-round maintenance of local life linked to the natural and man-made landscape is crucial to the preservation of the people and the country and of their social identity. In my opinion, localists are not nationalists, but people who strive to preserve local ecosystems and human communities under the conditions of globalization.


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