A Hazard Called Sociology: Review of Stephen Turner’s Mad Hazard: A Life in Social Theory

Raphael Sassower writes:

* Years ago, I traveled on a sabbatical to South America and returned with what I thought was a derivative of my companion book on the trip, Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card (1987), thinking my thoughts and feelings deserved to be published. After a couple of rejections, a kind editor wrote back to say that if I were famous enough, they’d consider it … Steve Turner is, and that’s how we have his autobiography/memoir at the end of his long career, suffering, as he is, from stage four breast cancer.

* Among the issues that have consumed Turner’s professional career has been the statistical turn in sociology, which, according to him, exemplifies “physics envy” as a way to claim “rigor” in the training of graduate students and the presentation of data for public policy. As he says: “The elite professors warned, correctly, that it was impossible to get into the top journals, and therefore to get and keep a good job, without high-level statistical analysis, which at the time meant path analysis and structural equation models” (59).

* “The first illusion was that sociology was an important discipline, that the internal issues and conflicts within sociology were worth fighting over, and that one could actually influence the discipline from below, the position I was in” (64). The big gun he brings to the fight, the “leverage on sociology,” is the philosophy of science, because sociologists, “especially those in power, pretended to believe that sociology was a science, and this pretense left them open to arguments about the nature of science, or so I thought. That made the positivism dispute important [as] another huge illusion” (64-65). Moving away from the technical debates in sociology to the theoretical margins and challenging the scientific status not only of this or that hypothesis and its testing apparatus but entire theoretical frameworks required familiarity with and convincing expertise in the philosophy of science writ large.

The illusion about science (or physics) envy or the pretense that sociology is a bona fide science is accompanied by another illusion, namely, “that theory did matter.” Oddly, the main culprit here is Thomas Kuhn’s classic: “sociology may not have had any real ‘theories’ in the sense of physics, but it certainly had ‘paradigms,’ and that was [for them] the mark of science” (65-66). Paradigms displace statistics as the markers of scientific legitimacy and all the privileges associated with them, from logical rigor and empirical testing to professional credibility and funding opportunities. Weaponizing the “Popperian model” which “required respect,” was the “leverage” Turner was looking for in establishing the fact that “the scientization model implied that most of the discipline was undeserving of respect” (70).

* “[Y]ou can’t invoke logic to people who don’t understand logic. But people who understood logic wouldn’t have said the things one is trying to correct. So there is never an occasion in which it is possible to correct someone by appeal to logic. This was to prove to be the Achilles’ heel of all of my subsequent attempts to write on these topics, and there were many (77).”

* Turner’s “pivot” from the liberal left to the “Oakeshottian” right was not exclusively attributable to his upbringing or his affinity with Popperians, even though one reads Turner’s explicit homage to Popper, “with whom I felt a strong affinity” (168), calling himself “a good Popperian” (181). The book repeats an anti-elitist instinct at work, perhaps the kind we commonly observe in populist leaders. Whether the disdain for elites has to do with his professional trajectory or his difficulties with his university administrators is beside the point. Being a sociologist first and foremost and a philosophically minded critic, he gives the following explanation:

“My instinct was to find ways to constrain elite power, but to grant that the rule of the few was a given in politics and organizational life. The perennial political problem was to control the few. ‘Progressivism,’ as I had experienced it, was a moralistic mask for this power, not a corrective. Indeed, the very means by which progress was supposed to be achieved concentrated this power and made it more remote.”

* Struggling with coming up with a “big theory,” Turner says, he did have an “Aha moment,” one that “was as close to general theory as [he] got. He “pointed out that trust came from a kind of inference from the parts of the persona of the expert that people could trust to the parts that they could not understand” (124).

* he liked “to understand thinkers in terms of the problems they understood themselves to be solving, and this required understanding who they were responding to and why.

* “it was not the cognitive conditions of action and thought that produced the uniformity, but the uniformities of action and such things as training or actions in common that produced the uniformities (147-148).”

* “One was better off dealing with the dead. Secondary literature and understandings of the past changed, but the players didn’t change their minds…”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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