Towards a new ‘new history of sociology’?


Back in December 2014, as I was taking my viva for the PhD in Bordeaux, I remember that one member of the jury deplored that I had not grappled with ‘the new history of sociology’. After the viva, he gave me a couple of references but they didn’t ring a bell.


It was only these past few weeks that I delved into them. The ‘new history of sociology’ has now become an old, but classic, debate from the 1980s between Robert A. Jones and Charles Camic, two American sociologists, that may still be useful to present historians of sociology on how to write it. And now I realise how the debate could have helped me overcome a central problem of my thesis.


Indeed, one of the most present question that my supervisor confronted me as I was starting writing on interwar British sociology was: who should you study? who was a sociologist back then? Should I take R.H. Tawney, H. Laski or E. Barker as sociologists? Because from our vantage point of view nowadays, many came to be recognised as ‘sociologists’ and others were not, while their ideas could be interpreted as sociological… So the issue at stake was the arbitrary limits of my topic, something that is fundamental to writing a dissertation.


This, I found, had two answers: one was to take the restrictive (or nominal) hypothesis by stating that ‘interwar sociologists were the people who took the name of or were referred to as sociologists’. The advantage was to leave the truth to their contemporaries and not have to do any arbitrary discrimination between individuals according to presentist considerations (this is Jones’ 1981 thesis). The problem was that the term sociologist was restricted to so few individuals (namely L.T. Hobhouse, M. Ginsberg and H.A. Mess) that one couldn’t write a whole dissertation based on this hypothesis. Moreover, the problem was precisely that academic sociology was not yet fully established – and so that many ‘sociologists’ would not yet go under that name.


The second hypothesis was to take a broader view by taking into account ‘everything written dealing, even loosely, with the social’. This was what Camic (1981) called ‘moving beyond the classics’. The obvious problem was that this limitless definition of the discipline, even if it gives depth to the history of sociology by taking into account every influence on social thought and not discriminating between what has now become a classic or not, is deeply unpractical. There is no writing a dissertation on this either!


As it seems, the ‘new history of sociology’ was opposing advocates of ‘presentism’ and those of ‘contextualism’, with a particular focus on the status of the sociological classic. Should we keep to them, limiting our investigations, or move beyond them, running the risk of being overwhelmed by the number of sources? Interestingly, no one knows yet what makes particular oeuvres classics – in itself the history of sociology is still a sociological problem.


The third way – between presentists and contextualists – was the option I eventually chose in my PhD. The idea was to meet them half-way. I decided to consider self-titled sociologists as well as a cluster of non-(clearly) sociological writings when/if only they were imbedded into a network of actors and publications that appeared in sociological journals. Journals are interesting because they somehow institutionalise and explicit the definition of a discipline. I therefore paid particular attention to The Sociological Review (founded in 1908 and still in existence today) in Britain to objectivise the rules of judgment and the names of those who claimed to write sociology. I consequently found a core of actors and, moving away from this centre, circles of writers that were ‘less and less’ sociological. Now that I think of it, I clearly could have done something to quantify this and I didn’t. Also, I have no idea what the Action-Network Theory is but they would probably say something similar!


This of course led me to envisage the definition of sociology. But the matter of what is sociological or not is not yet clearly answered (see Platt, 2016 on that) and my thesis remained open to questioning about whether I had opted for the right option. Although referring to the debate would not have provided a definite answer to my problem, it would have given me a basis and some legitimate tools to discuss the question in greater details!


scottbrom.jpgFinally, I think that the best history of sociology is indeed that of the network, i.e. describing the day-to-day life of those we know now as sociologists in their interactions with their fellow contemporaries, be they sociologists or not. We need to bring them back to life and understand what/if something made them special to see how their ideas emerged. One of the best illustration of this I can think of it is Scott & Bromley (2014). This way, the history of sociology is both biographical and shows how ideas emerged from particular individuals, in concrete rather than ex-cathedra terms. If we had to keep something about ‘the new history of sociology’, it is that we need ‘to illuminate the process whereby theories of the social emerge, grow, and change’ (Camic, 1981, p. 1140) combined with ‘the rigorous study of the social and historical context of past sociological thought’ (Jones, 1977, p. 283) that is demanding and which requires scholarship. So let us write sociologists’ biographies to understand how their ideas emerged – and tell them as stories! This can be the ‘new new history of sociology’.