The New Sociological Imagination argues that there are two trends which pose a serious challenge to 21st century sociology. One pertains to the role of social sciences in society, the other to the biological challenges to social sciences in an academia where it is no longer out of the ordinary to privilege nature over nurture. Both Parts Two and Three of the book (8 chapters in all) deals with what Fuller describes as the recent re-biologization of the social world on a larger world-historic canvas and the threat to humanity as the endangered species of our times. It is however Part One (6 chapters) that I would like to focus on. I do this partly because: one relates to the issues addressed here in a more immediate sense, recognizing what are unmistakably similar developments in contemporary Indian academia and social sciences; and partly because some of the themes that are dealt with more exhaustively in the latter two parts also surface here.
Readers would thus be able to get a sense of the overall argument of the book, even as I dwell on the first part. The fact that he has delivered parts of this book on various occasions over the five years preceding the putting together of the book perhaps explains the recurrence. This repetition is natural in a book marked by a well developed set of arguments. Armed with an impressive array of intellectual resources he makes a passionate case for ideas that have been somewhat out of circulation in recent times.
I begin with Fuller’s position on the role of social sciences. Fuller is unambiguous that social science studies society ‘to use what is empirically known about organized inquiry to enlighten our present and empower our future’ (p. 2). And that the need for a ‘robust defence of humanity’ as ‘the central project of the social sciences’ has to be taken up seriously. Fuller’s attempt to diagnose the ‘decline of this sensibility in order to identify new vistas for a rejuvenated sense of “society” and a science fit to study and minister to it’ (p. 3) are not the only out-of-currency positions that the book argues for.
Fuller defends the Enlightenment vision, the central aspiration of sociology—and the social sciences more generally—to make good on the 18th century Enlightenment promise of a ‘heaven on earth’. The aim, then, is to create a world in which humankind exercises domination over nature without exercising domination on fellow beings. The New Sociological Imagination is an updated attempt to articulate that ambition. For Fuller, the promise of social science remains as long as various social harms can be traced to humans in their various social arrangements. They can therefore be held responsible for their actions. This he argues is in stark contrast to envisaging that the ills of the world result from either an incorrigible and unaccountable deity or blind natural forces, including those inhabiting our own bodies.
Fuller defends what is often derided as the ‘instrumentalist’ and ‘positivist’ approach to science represented by Francis Bacon, Auguste Comte and, perhaps ‘sociology’s Holy trinity of Marx, Weber and Durkheim’ who treated the natural sciences as a means to overcome the prejudices of classical humanisms in the name of a truly ‘social science’ that would have something to say about, to and for every human. In other words he defends the promise that social science had offered: (i) to make humans accountable, and (ii) knowledge democratic. Fuller acknowledges the harm done in the name of ‘reason’, ‘instrumentalism’ and ‘positivism’ but adds ‘no more so than by the alternatives’. Typical of a style, often provocative, Fuller observes, ‘While it would be hard to find a self-avowed positivist who supported Hitler, some hermeneuticians and deconstruc-tionists at least went along for the ride’ (p. 2).
Fuller’s emphasis on the basic premises on which social sciences rest leads him to other institutional issues in higher education which are of particular relevance to us here in India. He refers to that general wonder about what the field can add that cannot be already gleaned from the humanities and/or the natural sciences. This he argues has a firm institutional basis—‘especially when universities happily restructure departments in response to market pressures’. In such a context we not unlike Fuller’s collegues in Britain and elsewhere find it easier to ‘justify the existence of sociology simply by pointing to the availability of large research grants and student enrolments. Sociology is thus reduced to a disposable means to the maximization of policy-relevant research income and employer-friendly accredited degrees’. Sociologists he feels deserve a better grounding for a discipline of historically noble aspirations, the now much disdained project of humanity and role of social sciences.
The dominant practice of sociology in India for a large part has been bashful of political stances, except for its overt nationalist critique of colonial studies. They have even been very reticent in interrogating the politics of theory, both intended and unintended. Fuller suffers from no such pangs. His claim that the vividness of ‘society’ as a distinct domain of inquiry has gradually disappeared with the rise of neo-liberalism and postmodernism, which are roughly ‘the political and philosophical sides of the same world-historic movement’, would find few resonance in Indian social science, not that either developments are unknown here. Neo-liberalism has defined Indian society for almost two decades now. Postmodernism has had its impact, often welcome, especially in its critique of cultures as frozen, pure, bounded entities. The University Grant Commission (UGC) which holds qualifying (NET) exams for teachers from all over India have included it in its certified list of sociological theories. Yet it would be difficult to come across an observation such as Fuller’s or for that matter of its critique. Yet there would be many studies replete with terms and concepts drawn from postmodernism. The point that I am trying to make that there has been a persistent trend in the practice of Indian sociology to abstract theoretical constructs, as disembedded entities, has little to do with history, even less to do with politics. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, students are drawn to postmodernism for the centrality it accords to power and the purported link of knowledge with power. Even more significantly scholars who would be uncomfortable aligning with any stated political stances, would be very comfortable with the blanket assertion that there is politics in everything.
It is this radical aspect of postmodernism that Fuller examines in an interesting fashion. He argues that significant shifts have taken place in the intellectual journey from the 1970s when Foulcauldian historiography and affiliated micro-sociologists joined common cause against the Parsonian structural-functionalist establishment. At that point it was common to read the poststructuralist ‘deconstruct’ to mean the Marxist ‘demystify’ and therefore equate ‘reflexive’ with ‘critical’ (p.18). Similar discursive shifts that Fuller touches on are the replacement of ‘autonomy’ with ‘agency’, ‘ideology’ with ‘culture’. Fuller explains that ‘whereas “autonomy” implies the resistance and transcendence of natural tendencies (. . . e.g. the submission to tradition), ‘agency’ implies the simple permission to express natural tendencies previously repressed (e.g. by the state) (p. 16). Fuller explicates that in an earlier period ‘. . . sociologists had been needed to demystify and otherwise counteract ideology, they are now needed to ‘give voice’ and otherwise reinforce cultural identity (p. 17). In Fuller’s words the academic ‘rage against the system’ has come to be seen as an end in itself.
References Maitrayee Chaudhuri 2005 ‘Moving Beyond “Cultural Dupes” and “Resistant Readers”: Issues of Constraints and Freedom in Contemporary Indian Media’ Communicator. XXXX: 1, January-June 2005, pp. 5–26. Maitrayee Chaudhuri teaches sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.