Contemporary Sociology, May 2020 (49, 3)

Sociology’s Next Steps? Fiftieth Anniversary of Gouldner’s Vision and Sixtieth Anniversary of Mills’s Vision



Bernard Phillips

First Published April 27, 2020 Research Article


My essay in the July 2019 issue of Contemporary Sociology leaned heavily on Habermas’s focus on “personal emancipation” and Giddens’s concept of “structuration.” I pointed toward extending their ideas: “


Giddens’s idea of structuration can be extended to include not just one’s creating social structures, but also creating one’s own personality structure. And such creation can yield a personal emancipation from what Simmel called ‘the sovereign powers of society’” (2019: 384).


Granting this theoretical possibility of applying the idea of structuration to construct “emancipated” personality structures, how can we actually move to accomplish this? More concretely, how can education yield the opposite of conformity to the powers that be, together with narrow specialization without the integration of knowledge? In other words, is it indeed possible to move beyond the bureaucratic way of life that Weber saw as the best that we can do? Are we able to learn to structure autonomous personalities that continue to develop intellectually and emotionally, as well as in problem-solving ability?


  1. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination suggested the individual’s possibility of moving far away from such narrowness by integrating knowledge: “The sociological imagination . . . is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another—from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry” ([1959]2000:7).


Mills had clearly demonstrated his personal commitment to the breadth and power of sociology throughout his life with his many publications for non-academics (Phillips 2004).


This same possibility was suggested by Alvin W. Gouldner in The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, which contains a section on “reflexive sociology.” His focus was not on procedures that educators can use to develop their students, but rather on an approach that sociologists can use to emancipate ourselves:


What sociologists now most require from a Reflexive Sociology, however, is not just one more specialization, not just another topic for panel meetings at professional conventions . . . . The historical mission of a Reflexive Sociology as I conceive it, however, would be to transform the sociologist, to penetrate deeply into his daily life and work, enriching them with new sensitivities, and to raise the sociologist’s self-awareness to a new historical level (1970:489).


Writing a decade after the appearance of The Sociological Imagination, Gouldner explored how our imagination might be applied to our own further development. If that proved to be successful, it could enable us to achieve the ability to help our students gain the same result.


Two decades after Gouldner’s book appeared, after, unfortunately, no follow-up by Gouldner or others on his idea, I attempted one in “Toward a Reflexive Sociology” (1988). I built on Gouldner’s philosophical approach to present a contrast between our present bureaucratic way of life and an “evolutionary way of life,” which would embody the impact of society on the structuration of personality to achieve individual emancipation.


In that article I also began to examine the implications of a reflexive sociology for the research methods used in sociology and the other social sciences. What I have since discovered, as I indicated in my 2019 essay, is an appalling gap between what the scientific method calls for, on the one hand, and the procedures currently used throughout the social sciences, on the other hand.


Our research methods can be improved . . . by our ability to assess our own impact on the research process, given a deeper understanding of our own personality structures. Our present near-universal failure to assess our investigator effects must be changed in order to further develop a powerful science of human behavior (Phillips 2019:385).

Why is it so rare for social scientists to take seriously any systematic assessment of the effect of the investigator’s own values and preconceptions on the research findings? This lack of reflexivity supplemented by our narrow specialization—in contrast with Mills’s vision of the sociological imagination—yields a gross distortion of research findings. It helps to explain why research has generally failed to yield high correlations or explanations that are sufficiently profound to help solve complex problems.


As the result of our present lack of reflexivity, we can now see more clearly just why Mills’s interdisciplinary orientation has been given no more than lip service while social scientists have continued to move into ever-narrower specialization without the integration of our knowledge. During my own career, the ASA has moved from 6 to 52 sections, coupled with limited integration of knowledge. Our own bureaucratic approach to research, let alone to our overall way of life, has shaped our research procedures. That approach has guaranteed our failure to gain the broad understanding that is required to confront the complex problems of society and the individual.


Just shedding light on this situation is not the same as actually changing it. Our general patterns of behavior support an unreflexive approach to our research procedures. Social scientists (along with the rest of us) are oriented in an outward direction rather than an inward-outward direction.


George Gurdjieff, an Armenian philosopher, can help us understand the depth of this problem of our outward orientation. He traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, and he became well known as a teacher. One of Gurdjieff’s students, P. D. Ouspensky, recorded and explained Gurdjieff’s ideas in The Fourth Way:


If we begin to study ourselves we first of all come up against one word which we use more than any other and that is the word “I.” We say “I am doing”, “I am sitting”, “I feel”, “I like”, “I dislike”, and so on. This is our chief illusion . . . we consider ourselves one . . . when in reality we are divided into hundreds of different “I”s.


So in self-observation . . . . generally you do not remember yourself . . . because you cannot remember yourself, you cannot concentrate, and . . . you have no will. If you could remember yourself, you would have will and could do what you liked . . . . You may sometimes have will for a short time, but it turns to something else and you forget about it . . . . we become too absorbed in things, too lost in things (1971:3–4, 12).


Sociologists need not rely only on Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s analysis in order to understand the depth of our outward orientation. In addition, we can look to the founders of sociology. For example, Marx’s early essay on the alienation of the worker in the workplace suggests what we all continue to experience at this time in history:


Since alienated labour: (1) alienates nature from man [physical structures]; and (2) alienates man from himself, from his own active function, his life activity [personality structure]; so it alienates him from (3) the species. . . . free, conscious activity is the species-character of human beings [biological structure]. (4) A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labour, from his life activity and from his species-life, is that man is alienated from other men [social structures]” ([1844]1964:125–27, 129).


Marx saw the worker as alienated or isolated from all structures: physical, personality, biological, and social. Given that situation, reflexivity becomes impossible, for one’s very economic survival requires a continuing outward orientation to the demands of one’s social structure. Of course, Marx describes an extreme workplace situation, yet nevertheless it remains characteristic of the workplace in general.


We can now begin to understand just why Gouldner and other social scientists never followed up on his idea of moving toward a reflexive sociology: it would have required nothing less than a fundamental change in their basic way of life.


Given our failure to solve pressing problems throughout the world, is it any wonder that we have moved far away from the optimism of the nineteenth century to the pessimism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? World War I in particular stands out as moving us from utopian visions like those of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to the dystopias of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood.


But all is not lost. Gouldner and Mills have succeeded in giving us a direction for reversing this situation, one that carries forward the theoretical work of Habermas and Giddens. They point us toward a reflexive sociology and an interdisciplinary approach that, together, recapture the nature of the scientific method.


Following the power of that method, we need not succumb to pessimism. For example, our awareness of the existence of problems is the first and most important step in making progress on them. However, it is beyond the scope of this paper to do more than advance some very preliminary ideas about how we might actually make that progress.


One idea is implied by Marx’s analysis of alienation. If isolation from physical, personality, biological, and social structures is our problem, then interaction with those structures suggests a vision for moving away from alienation and toward the development of personality structures. Fred Polak, a Dutch sociologist, wrote that an “image of the future” can become a powerful force for actually creating the future (1961, 1973), and Lawrence Busch built on that idea (1976).


Another idea is suggested by the work of Georg Simmel, who has been largely ignored by contemporary sociologists despite his stature as one of the founders of our discipline. Simmel wrote, “The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life” ([1903]1971). In an introduction to the volume Georg Simmel and Contemporary Sociology, I wrote: “He opens up for us the question of how to conceptualize both the individual and social structure by his persistence in alerting us to the problem of developing individuality within modern society (1990:9).


A third idea comes from changes in Japanese industry that point us away from our present bureaucratic way of life and move toward personal emancipation. These changes took place during the rapid reconstruction of Germany and Japan following World War II, financed by the Marshall Plan. In Japan, the idea of kaizen or “continuous improvement” developed.


Kaizen includes both the reorganization of an entire area of production as well as the improvement by an individual of his or her own work, and the idea arose in a changed industrial culture where employees at all levels were actively involved. Crucial to this achievement was the use of the scientific method by workers and administrators, and not just by professional scientists. A central figure in this approach was William Edwards Deming, an American engineer with a background in mathematical physics.


As a result of this approach, Japanese products experienced a metamorphosis from cheap throwaways to items of extremely high quality, as illustrated by the worldwide purchases of Toyota cars. If this level of improvement can be accomplished within industry, then individuals can learn to apply kaizen or continuing improvement to the problems they encounter throughout everyday life.


A fourth idea was suggested by the psychologist George A. Kelly in his A Theory of Personality:


To a large degree . . . the blueprint of human progress has been given the label of ‘science.’ Let us then . . . have a look at man-the-scientist . . . . Might not the individual man . . . assume more of the stature of a scientist, ever seeking to predict and control the course of events with which he is involved? Would he not have his theories, test his hypotheses, and weight his experimental evidence? (1963:4).


It appears that ordinary individuals have been using the scientific method throughout their everyday lives without being aware of it. Of course, that scientific method can be vastly improved, as sketched by Mills and Gouldner, and people’s newfound awareness of their past scientific achievements can point them in that direction.


Why must social scientists continue to avoid any contact with the general public? Some sociologists—such as Burawoy (2005 2008), Badgett (2016), Stein and Daniels (2017), and Sternheimer (2017)—have already taken the lead in using mass media to make their weight felt in current debates, just as Mills did many years ago. They can convey key ideas from our vast storehouse of knowledge that can yield directions for solving our complex problems. And they can encourage ordinary people to make full use of the scientific method as they proceed with their efforts.


Sociologists have our work cut out for us in moving toward Habermas’s vision of achieving personal emancipation and the application of Giddens’s ideas to structuring the personality away from our bureaucratic way of life and toward personal evolution involving continuing improvement of our intellect, emotions, and problem-solving ability.


After sixty years, has the time finally come when Gouldner’s vision of a reflexive sociology and Mills’s vision of an interdisciplinary sociological imagination begin to become a reality?


This essay builds on Creating Life before Death, my book (2020) with Thomas J. Savage, Andy Plotkin, Neil S. Weiss, and Max O. Spitzer (Champaign, IL: Common Ground Research Networks).





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