The liberal progress narrative in sociology

The discipline of American sociology itself provides an example of the ways big stories actually undergird and make important human practices that themselves appear on the surface to be unrelated to the mythical constitution of reality. Mainstream sociology understands itself to be a kind of science of human social life. It employs rational, systematic methods of empirical data collection and hypothesis testing to make valid and reliable claims about social facts, processes, relationships, and structures. Sociology is concerned to minimize biases in sampling and observation, to replicate findings, to build bodies of generalizable theory, to describe and analyze human social behaviors and practices in ways undistorted by the potential interests and prejudices of the sociologist’s particularistic ideology or tradition–perhaps even to be “objective.” This is the sociological center, around which also encamp a variety of more “critical,” “interpretive, and feminist schools of sociology, which in different ways claim to contest some of these features of the mainstream.

But what most if not all of these versions of American sociology have in common–however scientistic versus “critical” they may be–is that they are ultimately animated, energized, and made significant by one of two historical narrative traditions. Apart from these two narrative traditions, sociology itself would hold little human interest to anyone. Why should any but a few technical experts care about significance tests, fieldnotes, network structures, oversampling techniques, or interaction effects? It all means nothing without a larger context and purpose, neither of which sociology itself could possibly supply. Instead, if and when sociological work is compelling, it is usually because sociology is being carried along by one of two extrascientific narratives–one an optimistic, mobilizing story; the other a fairly cynical, unmasking story. The first I will call the narrative of Liberal Progress, the second of Ubiquitous Egoism; the former narrates reality roughly as follows.

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism—all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant, and short. But the noble human aspirations for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.

For sociologists whose scholarship and teaching is embedded within and offered in the service of this liberal progress narrative, the important tasks are clear. Studies in nearly every field of the discipline–but particularly in the areas of social stratification, race and ethnicity, sex and gender, poverty, work and occupations, family, economic sociology–must work to identify privilege, exploitation, prejudice, and unequal opportunity in order to inform cultural practices and policy and legislative reforms that will make society more free, equal, and fulfilling for its individual members. In particular, this means identifying and critiquing class inequality, racism, sexism, heterosexism, corporate exploitation, and other forms of discrimination, privilege, and injustice.

For some sociologists, this struggle takes the form of rigorous quantitative analyses–for example, of the causes of poverty, the dynamics of welfare use, the prevalence of dead-end jobs, the correlates of teenage pregnancy–whose findings speak to politicians, technocrats, and other institutional leaders. In the best case, one’s work provides the intellectual backbone of some actual policy initiative, the movement toward which ideally invovles an invitation to present one’s research findings at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill. Other versions of sociological scholarship in the service of the liberal progress narrative analyze the historical movement and dynamics of liberal progress itself. These include cross-national research on factors influencing democratization, historical analyses of civil rights movements, comparative studies of international poverty and development, and so on. For yet other, more “critical” sociologists, the liberal progress narrative animates scholarship of a more prophetic style, unmasking and denouncing the racism inherent in the criminal justice system, the sexism embedded in consumer capitalism and patriarchal family structures, the class exploitation of the service economy, the heterosexism pervading routine social practices and legal systems, the militarism entrenched in masculine culture and corporate America, et cetera. Sociologists of this latter style pride themselves for their progressive and radical analyses, said to be more critical and systemic than those their merely liberal, more mainstream colleagues produce. What they seem less aware of, however, is the common underlying liberal progress narrative that animates and makes significant all of these bodies of work as a whole.

Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.


2 responses to “The liberal progress narrative in sociology

  1. Pingback: The liberal progress narrative in sociology | Reaction Times

  2. Roi July 25, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Would be interesting to dig up academic work based around the basic reactionary narrative; social development drives technical development, which in turn allows for social decay (which eventually causes collapse).

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