Saturday, December 4, 2010

Comparing Anarchism and Sociology

As Purkis (2004) has noted, anarchism and sociology appeared within the same tumultuous social and political milieu in Europe known as the Enlightenment. This social revolution spurred all sorts of new intellectual traditions, which helped to lay the necessary groundwork for the creation of radical social movements and the scholarly study of societies. Despite these shared origins, anarchism and sociology are very different. Before noting areas of overlap and commonalities between the two, I explore the major ways in which anarchism and sociology can be critically contrasted with each other. In other words, how best can we organize and order these traditions in relation to each other?

The origins of anarchism can be found in the left-intellectual critiques of state, church, and capitalism, such as those of William Godwin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as the burgeoning internationalist and radical labor movements of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Anarchism's golden age produced activist-intellectuals (or revolutionary philosophers?) such as Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Errico Malatesta. Each faced exile and imprisonment, while writing numerous volumes each and establishing long-lasting traditions for future anarchists. Sociology has somewhat tamer origins and emerged from academic philosophy departments in universities. Sociology began to slowly constitute itself as a separate discipline, apart from economics, history, and political science (see Collins 1994). Early sociologists such as August Comte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Harriet Martineu, and W.E.B. DuBois skirted the intellectual boundaries between academia, professional social work, and public policy creation. The foci of these intellectuals is comparable to the anarchists, although their analytical frameworks differed and their conclusions were far less likely to lead the sociologists to advocate revolutionary transformation.

Anarchist practitioners have included countless varieties of radicals and anarchists, some of who do not publicly identify or know they “are” anarchists. Given its outsider and oppositional status, anarchism does not have a method of professionalization to institute long-term adoption of anarchism within communities. Consequently, anarchism's permanency is constrained and limited to flexible and short-term organizations and projects; it is regularly under attack from major societal institutions (especially capitalism and the state). The popularity and traction of anarchism is attributable to the salience of ideas to people in the present, in light of contemporary conditions. As such, when consciousness about social disruption peaks, anarchism has tended to thrive, and vice-versa. Anarchism resides in the margins, existing in a variety of collective and cooperative organizational spaces, including affinity groups, networks, and federations, all of which have little coercive capacity over their membership. Sociology is very different: its practitioners are mainly professional, university-trained sociologists or students within universities. While many are academics and teachers, some sociologists also act as policy-makers, analysts, or community organizers. Sociologists are professionalized through formal education via course work, exams, and degrees (often advanced ones). Training in research methods, statistics, and sociological theory are often mandatory, culminating in professionals' own research projects which take the form of theses, dissertations, and academic journal articles. Due to these institutionalized structures, sociology endures overtime, particularly to the extent it is funded (through student tuition and state subsidy) and popularly respected (in some periods, Sociology may become controversial and lose support). Most sociology is sequestered away, outside of public view, in educational organizations—principally universities and colleges—but also professional associations, research institutes, and policy agencies.

Anarchism's realm of engagement has traditionally been within the world's working-classes, other variously-dominated populations, oppositional movements, and—in spatial terms—the streets. To casually encounter anarchism, one must usually be in society's “temporary autonomous zones”, including social centers and infoshops, or the meeting-places of anarcho-syndicalist unions. Anarchism's position in the periphery is due to its antagonistic relationship with authority, particularly bureaucratic, hierarchical, and dominating institutions. The public tends to fear anarchism, due to relentless, multi-generational anti-anarchist propaganda. Marginal interaction between the public and anarchists and their organizations would likely dispel the most absurd myths about the latter. Sociology, on the other hand, engages within the realm of ideas and scholarship; although anarchism has its theorists, they are outgunned by the overwhelming influence of professional intellectuals, especially academics who are paid to think and write. It has thrived within the spatial domain of “learning sites”, ranging from college campuses to think-tank offices. Authority figures have a mixed relationship with sociology; if its research and teaching is supportive of the status quo, then the state, university administrators, foundations and grant-givers, and policy-makers are congratulatory. If sociology is critical, such authority figures tend to reduce their support or initiate campaigns of opposition. The public tends to know little about sociology—in fact, regularly confuses it with either psychology, social work, or socialism—with the exception of the many millions of student who take classes annually. Yet, given the simple lecture-exam character of most education, this “instruction” often does little to re-acculturate most students to more favorable views of sociology or social criticism.

Change is viewed by anarchists as something to be deliberately pursued—in so far as it expands the domain of social freedom—but something that should be resisted if of a right-wing, totalitarian, or fascist character. The goal of anarchism is to radically transform society, to aid revolution through the spread of radical ideas and support for cooperative, alternative culture. Anarchism's impact upon society has been rather limited, especially in terms of its most dramatic goals. There are numerous examples of small-scale anarchistic projects and organizations, such as food cooperatives, social movement networks, alternative media outlets, and other such counter-institutions, but none that have (as of yet) created long-lasting revolutionary change. Sociology has also viewed change as a mixed-proposition. Research has indicated that lots of things cause change—everything from war to technology, natural disasters to social movements—but that change is not necessarily “good”. Sociologists have also held conflicting views regarding their own participation in change (c.f. Feagin & Vera 2008). Instead, sociology has mainly aimed to study society, conduct research, advance “knowledge”, teach students, and sometimes, moderately impact society (usually within the framework of objective rationalism). Consequently, sociology has had a muted impact upon society, especially in comparison to other social sciences. The discipline has had only limited policy reach and influenced other academics.

Even considering the major areas of disagreement and divergent focus, anarchism and sociology could generate a compelling synthesis, one that I attempt to define next [...]


* Collins, Randall. 1994. Four Sociological Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press.
* Feagin, Joe R. and HernĂ¡n Vera. 2008. Liberation Sociology. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
* Purkis, Jonathan. “Towards an Anarchist Sociology”. In Changing Anarchism: Anarchist Theory and Practice in a Global Age, edited by J. Purkis and J. Bowen, 39-54. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

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