needing a bigger n+1

As much as it cheapens me, I can’t help but respond to an n+1 article titled “Too Much Sociology,” despite it being clear link-bait. The ideas are these: everyone’s a sociologist, the core sociological idea we share is that taste is socially determined, so sociology ends up denuding any concept of agency, and thus of making one’s own aesthetic decisions.

Every single part of this is stupid, but I’ll explain it anyway.

1. Every one’s a sociologist.

Few things are less contested today than the idea that art mostly expresses class and status hierarchies, and only secondarily might have snippets of aesthetic value.

I am not only a person, who talks to other people, and teaches people, but I also study people. And so I can tell you with great confidence that almost no one I know is a sociologist.

People don’t think their tastes are a function of social structure. I don’t even know HOW you’d get this silly idea. There’s no evidence to support their claim, so I won’t give any to support mine, except EVERYTHINGALLTHETIMEEVERYONE.

Also, sociologists of taste don’t think “aesthetic value” is something we can assess outside of history. As a result, it’s nonsense to separate (heuristically or empirically) art that expresses hierarchies and that which has “snippets of aesthetic value.”

Also, using the word “snippet” there is nonsensical. I think the “backseat driver’s manual” suggests you use “iota” when suggesting others have falsely diminished a volume of something. Smartasses. Please also note the snide false modest in graph 4: “if we permit ourselves a value judgment…” in the same paragraph in which they’ll name-drop Giddens, Latour, Foucault, Bourdieu, and Derrida.

With all due respect, The Editors, you’re in a shit position from which to make value judgments like:

Sociology has ceased to be demystifying because it has become the way everyone thinks

I teach cultural sociology, day-in and day-out. Whether I’m teaching my students at Barnard/Columbia, speaking to colleagues in other disciplines, talking to the artists and creators I study, or to my family and friends, I can tell you with the full weight of my experience that people most certainly don’t think in sociological terms. They do acknowledge material and ideological structures in principle, and in practice, deny them all the way down the line. Their tastes are personal, their successes and failures individual.

Were YOU listening in class? Because I don’t know a single good cultural sociologist who “views any claim to “expertise” as a mere mask of prejudice, class, and cultural privilege.” Because that’s IDIOTIC. One of the things we social scientists do is make claims that we can support with evidence. One thing that The Editors do is make wild, unsupported, hyperbolic claims. The only people I see thinking that “everything is a scripted game” is you, dudes.

2. Cultural sociology ends up denuding any concept of agency, and thus of making one’s own aesthetic decisions.

It appears that The Editors are concerned that sociology students (which they, naively, think includes ALL OF US…would that were true) are made quiescent by the “demystification” of the social world that our science makes possible.

But the same critique has been made of education in the humanities classrooms for ages. “What good is art?” “What good interpretation?” when there is hunger in the world?

Insofar as the only good answer lies in a link between the two, it seems this link must be made by people. Some do, some don’t. Which means, in my mind, that just as some learn about injustice and act, so do some sociologists teach about injustice and teach their students how to act. It isn’t a disciplinary concern–the variation lies at the individual level.

Insofar as you want to make an institutional critique of sociology…well, I pay an extraordinary (for me) fee to a disciplinary association tasked with intervening in public debates and government policy. We have strong disciplinary traditions and mythologies of activism, including Hull House and the Feminist Wire. We give a fecking ASA award. I’m not saying our house is 100% in order, but if I have to shift into your all/nothing, everyone/no one idiom, I’m going to say we’re all clear.

Probably the gem I love the most here [by “love” I mean “rejoice in criticizing”] is this one:

Not even university professors are as explicitly careerist as the author-ideal that literary sociology puts before us.

I relish responding to this gem because of a recent experience I had publishing a work on the careers of rap artists. In response to the concerns of one reviewer that we were in danger of misleading readers into thinking our data on behavior could be used to interpret artists’ ideas or motivations, we had to add this enormous disclaimer:

In these accounts of innovation, the artist may sound like a rational and strategic actor with extraordinarily complete information about the field. This is neither objectively true, nor is it consistent with accounts artists provide of their subjective experiences at work (see Mears, 2011). Instead, sociological accounts of innovation like those cited above describe a system of allocating status positions that is sociologically coherent, but is decidedly disordered, contingent, and anxiety-producing for most actors within it. This is, by our reading, entirely consistent with Bourdieu’s argument that ‘‘the subject’s inability to state [the] rules of the game is not necessarily a measure of the nonexistence or lack of importance of such rules for the game being played’’ (Venkatesh, 2013, p. 6). [From Lena, Pachucki, Forthcoming in Poetics]

This is, I hasten to add, only one of three places in the article in which we remind readers that actors act, and they do so for many, many reasons.

Just in case you don’t want to read the whole diatribe, here’s where it lands:

There were certain aesthetic practices — classical music, for example — that cut through distinctions and could be appreciated by people — Bolivian peasants, in one instance — as long as they weren’t told that they were listening to “Western Classical High-Bourgeois Music.”

For some reason, the authors think sociologists would dispute this. We wouldn’t–I wouldn’t–but I’d certainly laugh at how pompous the example is, in a diatribe against sociology as

a high-culture spokesperson of power.


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8 responses to “needing a bigger n+1

  1. Peter

    Yes, agree, people totally believe their tastes are socially structured. Ha. I’m always reminded of when E, when talking about her upbringing and parenting, casually dropped ‘I think in terms of nature versus nurture, that it’s like 100% nature.’

    I would suggest that it’s not just that people are skeptical that their tastes are structured; they don’t even believe they are social.

  2. i know for a fact that not everyone is a sociologist because if they were, my former undergrads would have written much better exams.

  3. cwalken

    If anything, literary analysis suffers from too little sociology. If you talk to an English professor for five minutes, this becomes abundantly clear as they reject data and evidence in favor of poorly understood postmodern “interpretivism” based on a misreading and superficial knowledge of social theory.

    Ooh, did that sound harsh? Probably not as much as I wanted it to.

  4. Post-Veblen(!)

    It’s not just that the argument about cultural sociology is stupid and reductionist; they didn’t even seem to understand Bourdieu to begin with. Also it’s a surprise to discover that ANT is a “strenuous attempt to preserve some autonomy for the acting subject .”

  5. Jenn Lena

    My colleagues at Scatterplot also saw fit to respond to the piece ( and if you read the comments, you’ll see Shamus Khan describes some really obnoxious content in the gated remainder of the article, namely:
    “If no American minority but Jews is as powerful, surely no minority is as smug [as south asians].”


    “crimes are sources of unctuous pride for south asians”
    One of The Editors responded to Khan’s challenge on this inanity via twitter and apparently acknowledged the claims were “inflammatory” which is one strange way of accepting responsibility for (and here I quote Khan) “peddling in ethnic stereotypes to inflame.”
    The whole thing’s idiotic.

  6. Pingback: More, Better Sociology » Cyborgology

  7. Pingback: A meta analysis | Memoirs of a SLACer

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