Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reviewing Liberation/Critical Sociology

[A book review I wrote for Anarchist Studies in 2009 on two Paradigm Publisher books that I had high hopes for. They were good, but not quite anarchist...]

Joe R. Feagin and Hernán Vera. 2008. Liberation Sociology, 2nd Edition. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. 318 pages.
Steven M. Buechler. 2008. Critical Sociology. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. 288 pages.

I have been searching for a compelling treatise of anarchist-sociology. The last few years have offered me some thought-provoking contenders. For example, professional introspection has occurred with self-conscious progressive American sociologists, resulting most notably in Michael Burawoy's “public sociology”. Both Liberation Sociology and Critical Sociology extend other progressive-minded views of sociology. Each is clearly on the “left” end of the socio-political spectrum and sympathizes with society's most oppressed. Each takes a challenging view of authority (although not always conceptualized as such) and articulates an agenda of emancipatory social change. Neither, however, pulls from an anarchist tradition, nor do they articulate an anarchist analysis and vision for society.

A clear difference between the two books is their intended audiences. Liberation Sociology is written for academic sociologists, presumably interested in “making a difference” in society. The book's goal is to critique the epistemological ways of knowing social facts and acting to change the world. Critical Sociology on the other hand, is not written for academics. At least, it is not written for professional sociologists. Thus, there is less disciplinary introspection and more discussion of what makes sociology critical. This text includes the ontology of sociology and is less interested in disciplinary internal debates than with critiquing society.

Liberation Sociology is largely a broadside attack upon instrumental-positivistic research, particularly that done via quantitative methods (especially surveys). The authors detail the weaknesses implicit in these research methods, keenly attributing these methods to the Chicago School, structural-functionalism, and elite clientelism. Regrettably, the contributions of quantitative methods are rarely noted, nor the theoretical benefits of mixed methods and how qualitative and quantitative methods can reinforce each other. The voices of deliberately marginalized sociologists are emphasized, including women and people of color (e.g. Jane Addams and W.E.B. DuBois). In focusing on these voices—as well as other more prominent sociologists, including Durkheim and Mead—the authors point to sociologists who have openly worked for social change and not feigned “neutrality” like the still-obviously-pro-system Chicago School and others do. This second edition's epilogue includes ideas about teaching liberation sociology to students. This addition saves the book from being short-sighted and unconcerned with those who most routinely encounter sociology: students.

A principle weakness of Liberation Sociology is that it circumscribes the empowering potential of (capital-S) Sociology to actual practitioners (mainly academics). The in-depth discussion of various social change agents focuses almost exclusively on specific academics. While this may be due to the book's target audience, it also portrays sociological ideas as being mainly useful to people with PhDs who are properly trained to use the ideas. For example, the premiere examples in the chapter on “participatory action research” are troubling. Some examples are not participatory at all, other research projects only occurred when external funding was available from hierarchical sources, in very few projects did the “subjects” influence the project's focus and carry out their own research, and only one or two could be said to actually have empowered the subjects or expanded their self-determination. “Liberation” here is something that happens to people, not something that the disempowered direct themselves. Ideas of self-management, self-determination, and direct democracy (classic anarchist principles of liberation) are notably absent.

The second weakness to Liberation Sociology is that it almost exclusively focuses on the individual acts of “great sociologists” or other individuals. Collectivities and organizations are subtly avoided, with the exception of Sociologists Without Borders and the Sociology Liberation Movement. Curiously, the latter, although perhaps the most appropriate example of liberation sociology (given its name), is only mentioned in passing and never actually elaborated upon; unfamiliar readers will be left feeling tragically uninformed.

Critical Sociology would work well as an introductory read for those interested in sociology, including undergraduates and even anarchists. It provides an overview of many of the ideas, social facts, and theories that make up the sociological canon, but in a comprehensive fashion that is very readable, and dare I say radical.

The author's concerns in many ways parallel an anarchist's concerns about hierarchical society: capitalism, the state, media-driven culture, and major forms of inequality (class, race, and gender). A somewhat out-of-place series of chapters in the middle of the book consider individuals, the self, and micro-interactionist views. What preserves Buechler's critical theme, however, is the rare emphasis upon how power still matters in terms of symbolic interaction and social constructionism. The final chapters round-out Buechler's forward-looking critical sociology by tackling globalization, social movements, and democracy. The latter two are especially important for anarchist audiences, as Buechler clearly articulates how social movements drive progressive change in society and why democracy matters (and the obvious limitations of the present unequal political economy and representative “democracy”).

There are a few limitations. As an advanced survey book, Critical Sociology seems to want to explore “major areas” within the discipline, regardless of how they contribute to a critical sociology—for example, Charles Cooley's “looking glass self” is surely interesting, but just how “critical” is it? Curiously, “anarchism” appears in the book once—“market anarchism” is used as a synonym for “chaos”, thus indicating the author's limited appreciation of what anarchism entails to actual anarchists. Additionally, potentially sociological elements that could anarchize an understanding of society—autonomy, mutual aid, and decentralization—are notably absent. In a chapter called “Toward a Critical Sociology”, Buechler focuses wholly upon Critical Theory as developed by the Frankfurt School, in particular the work of Jürgen Habermas. This raises the question of how distinct Buechler's vision is, or whether it is merely a restatement of Habermasian sociology. Finally, while staking out a sociology that could articulate a better world, the book does not fully grapple with the ways in which this could occur. Thus, the emphasis is largely on criticism of the existing order, as opposed to a radical, value-driven, pre-figurative social order in line with anarchist practice. The exception is the final chapter in which the author details ways in which democracy could be expanded in US society.

Although Liberation Sociology and Critical Sociology are important texts and are worthwhile reads for anarchist scholars, I will have to continue my pursuit for an anarchist-sociology. It will, undoubtedly, have to be articulated by an actual anarchist-sociologist.


  1. Have you read Ben Agger's "Public Sociology?" This book actually predates Burawoy's work (and if you read Agger's most recent edition, the final chapter is a critique of Burawoy's appropriation of the term). Agger's argument is interesting in that he uses both postmodernism and critical theory to look at the disciplinary practices of Sociology. Agger's book fails to solve the issue of an anarchist-sociology, yet as far as I've read Agger's criticisms of the discipline seem to come the closet to opening up Sociology. I've wondered whether this work and postanarchism might have something to say to one another?

  2. I haven't read Agger's book, although I've heard about it. But, with your interesting recommendation, I think I'll give it a read. Thanks, Sam!