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Critical nexus or chaotic discipline? Re-visioning sociology again.

To begin: a confession. I have never been very good sociologist, if that means adhering fervently to disciplinary strictures and embracing a strong disciplinary identity. As an undergraduate I had one foot in sociology and one in psychology, with intensive study of social psychology bridging the two. In graduate school I discovered political economy, centered at the time in sociology but drawing heavily on political science, history, and economics. My articles have appeared in sociology, political economy, geography, economics, media studies, global and area studies, labor studies, socialist studies, public policy, and other journals. Within the CS(A)A, I was an advocate for keeping the other "A," out of respect for anthropological colleagues who may choose to participate in our association. I am a founding member of my university's Cultural, Social and Political Thought graduate program (established in 1988) and was founding Director of its Social Justice Studies program (established in 2009). Currently I am academic director of an SSHRC Partnership (2015-2021) that brings together sociologists, political scientists, political ecologists, geographers, economists, media researchers, community researchers, and activists in mapping the power of the carbon-extractive corporate resource sector in and beyond Canada. Given this history of transgressing disciplinary boundaries, it was not too much of a stretch for me to write "Discipline, field, nexus" (Carroll 2013; hereafter DFN).

In a recent Canadian Review of Sociology (CRS) article, Antony Puddephatt and Neil McLaughlin (2015; hereafter P&M) offer a critique of this essay, and present what they take to be an alternative to my vision of sociology as a critical nexus. I appreciate the attention they have given to my argument, and the opportunity to respond. Here, I submit that (1) P&M misread my project, resulting in a series of misplaced critiques, and (2) they pursue a quite different project that is not without its drawbacks.

In DFN, my intent was certainly not to define a new "institutional strategy" or mandate for sociology, to be legislated upon its practitioners, but, more modestly, to make the case to colleagues for a wider vision of sociology, opening toward transdisciplinarity. My essay was addressed to the molecular level of sociological practice, not the molar level of policy. Yet in another sense, my ambitions were far greater: to take seriously the promise of social science in a postpositivist age of civilizational crisis. In this sense, my essay was visionary, but it did not take up strategic issues around how to realize the vision through institutional change.

P&M are primarily concerned with how Canadian sociology can survive and prosper in this age. That strategic question is of no small import. The problem I see in their analysis is that they mistake the strategic positioning of sociology within the knowledge producing institutions for a vision; they mistake means for ends. Of course, academics of all fields of inquiry, including sociologists, need to defend their intellectual autonomy and broad working conditions. A key vehicle for this is the faculty union, through which sociologists can make common cause with other academics opposing the corporatization (and also statization) of higher education. However, among social scientists, this defense should not compel us to exacerbate tendencies that fragment our knowledge. Instead, our defense should facilitate transitions from siloed knowledge, thereby enabling us to incorporate the best practices and insights social science has to offer on the human condition in all its ecological embeddedness. Re-visioning sociology as a critical nexus can aid in those transitions by mobilizing the sociological imagination--"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" (Mills 1959:7). In concluding their article, P&M comment that their alternative to critical nexus, "pluralist discipline," "should not be all that contentious" (P&M:329) among sociologists in Canada, and I agree. After all, celebrating difference and diversity is a feel-good exercise, which takes no one out of their comfort zone and simply reproduces the status quo. Yet in embracing chaos within while securing the borders that make sociology a discipline, pluralist discipline would further reify the silos, and may even have the consequence, unanticipated by P&M, of weakening sociology's wider legitimacy.


In DFN I argued that there are deep ontological reasons, combined with recent developments in late modernity, for social science to move beyond traditional disciplinary categories that fragment knowledge of "a complex reality that is always social, psychological, political, cultural, economic, historical and geographical" (DFN:11). Sociology's porous boundaries and the many spaces it shares with other fields of social science position sociologists "as potential leaders in the move toward a transdisciplinary social science" (DFN:17).

That promise animated my essay, but how are we to understand transdisciplinarity as a project? In discussions of scholarship that reaches beyond disciplinary silos, the terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary are often used interchangeably, yet they carry distinct meanings, as explained by Stember (1991):

* multidisciplinarity brings people from different disciplines to work together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge;

* interdisciplinarity integrates knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a combination of approaches;

* transdisciplinarity creates a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.

P&M's critique collapses transdisciplinarity into multidisciplinary, without even passing through interdisciplinary. What they reject is a particularly weak form of multidisciplinarity, which "is actually more like 'non-disciplinary' work, involving little more than common sense logic and descriptive data" (P&M:318) and prone to "amateurism and lack of standards" (317). Transdisciplinary scholarship is indeed challenging, but it is facilitated by the fact that, as P&M agree, the disciplines "often bleed into one another" (P&M:318). Indeed, all of the methods that sociologists use in empirical research--survey research, comparative-historical analysis, participant observation, interviewing, discourse analysis, statistics, network analysis--are also widely used in other social sciences. Methodologically, there is no distinct core to sociology, and this makes collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, at a high level of scholarship, eminently feasible. As a critical nexus, sociology builds upon methodological and theoretical strengths often seen as unique to sociology, but does so by incorporating the further insights to be gained from formulations conventionally associated with other social sciences. Intellectually, this is not a step down, but a step up.

In DFN, I presented the move toward an integrated social science as a long-term project that can be facilitated by our conscious and circumspect efforts to strengthen sociology as a critical nexus. P&M mischaracterize this position when they dismiss "the chances of a broad sweeping shift to transdisciplinarity [which] should have happened already if it was going to happen at all" (P&M:315). Nowhere do I envisage the move as an all-at-once shift, nor do I advocate "leaving the borders of sociology entirely to pursue research in other venues" (P&M:327). Alongside these mischaracterizations, P&M invoke the specter of interdisciplinarity as a ploy by neoliberal administrators to legitimate plans to collapse sociology and other (weak) disciplinary programs into each other. The rhetoric of fear pervades their article (e.g., P&M:314, 317, 319, 329), but centers upon this prospect. Linked to it is the worry that, if sociology opens its borders, it will lose ground to other disciplines that remain strongly siloed. For P&M, the critical nexus opens the door to ruination at the hands of competitor disciplines, if not neoliberal masters. In their judgment, the universe of social science is fixed in a social-Darwinian mode. This reification is crucial to their argument, yet, as with the extravagant claim that since a transdisciplinary shift has not yet occurred it never will, they fail to offer evidence for it as a pervasive and obdurate reality. In response, I would note first that although interdisciplinarity can be invoked to justify austerity, many interdisciplinary efforts are bottom-up initiatives by faculty and students, which sometimes create exciting spaces for learning and inquiry. Second, P&M's fearful scenario, that sociology becomes more transdisciplinary while everything else remains fixed, is quite implausible. They offer no argument to support this projection. Clearly, motion toward more integrated social science cannot occur unilaterally. In DFN, my point was that sociology and sociologists are well positioned to lead in a multilateral process, not that sociology will lead and then other disciplines will follow.

A final mischaracterization that fuels P&M's critique of transdisciplinarity concerns the concept of nexus. In DFN, I introduced this term to capture the role sociology might take up in transition from a social science clustered into disciplinary cliques to a transdisciplinary, relational network (DFN: 16). But I extended the nexus metaphor to include sociology's dialogical connection to the lifeworld--and thus to various publics and movements--and its articulation with the biophysical level of reality, specifically on the most urgent issue of our time: the ecological crisis. In P&M's interpretation, this vision of a nexus morphs into a platform for "radical political activism," which would impose a left-wing political agenda on colleagues and students alike while playing "right into the hands of conservative critics" (P&M:320).

Rhetorical moves like these work to deflate and deflect from what was actually argued in DFN. Transdisciplinary scholarship is challenging, and P&M are correct to counsel caution in that regard. However, what they critique is not the argument I made regarding transdisciplinarity, but a highly distorted and trivialized straw man.

We can see a similar series of mischaracterizations and misplaced critiques in P&M's account of critical realism (CR). They "find the rallying cry for a sociology defined exclusively around critical realism problematic," particularly "since citizens are not likely to support the funding of a leftist transformative project" (P&M:319, 320). CR is "too narrow on both political and epistemological grounds" (P&M:314); it would exclude a number of important sociological traditions such as symbolic interactionism, network theory, actor-network theory, and the sociology of culture (P&M:320). These statements misconstrue both my argument and CR. In my brief discussion of CR, I did not call for a sociology defined exclusively around it. Instead, I presented CR as philosophical perspective for natural and social science, offering "a coherent social ontology from which we can ground a transdisciplinary science of humanity in nature" (DFN:18).

As for CR itself, anyone with a glancing familiarity knows that it was first advanced by Roy Bhaskar (1975) as a postpositivist philosophy of science. Later, as CR gained influence particularly in British academe, Bhaskar and a growing number of colleagues turned attention to the social sciences (e.g., Archer et al. 2013; Bhaskar 1979; Sayer 1992). The claim that CR is "too narrow" is puzzling, to say the least. P&M seem to think of CR as a specific substantive theory within sociology, with leftist predilections. In fact, CR is a highly capacious philosophical perspective that can accommodate a wide range of substantive formulations. Moreover, although it offers plenty of room to rigorous scholarship that challenges hegemonic verities, CR is hardly radical in the conventional sense. As a philosophical framework, it sits, influentially, in the mainstream of contemporary British sociology, for instance. And although American sociology studiously ignored CR for many years, a recent Special Essay in Contemporary Sociology concludes that Bhaskar's CR "provides the best available starting point for anyone interested in a post-positivist and post-poststructuralist vision of social science" (Gorski 2013:668).

A key mischaracterization in P&M's article stems from the conflation of "critical" with a conventional (and conservative) notion of "radical" as extremist (cf. Carroll 2015). But as Steven Buechler (2008) has shown, all sociology is critical. This is so because thinking sociologically inevitably requires thinking critically. It is inherent in the very nature of the sociological perspective that familiar truths and established facts come under scrutiny. Sociology requires a skeptical and restless quality of mind. It continually questions the self-proclaimed reasons for any social arrangement. To be a sociologist is to assume that things are not what they appear to be, that hidden interests are at work, and that claims cannot be taken at face value. In this sense, the phrase "critical sociology" is almost redundant because even the most generic versions of the sociological perspective inevitably lead the sociological thinker to a critical stance toward the world around them (Buechler 2008:319).

But if all sociology is critical in this sense, Buechler (2008) goes on to note that one type of sociology is also critical in consciously basing itself on values of freedom, equality and justice, which shape the questions asked and answers sought. This sociology examines how social structures create relations of domination between social groups. It is committed to exposing and undermining their operation. This type of sociology is dedicated to progressive social change. To promote such change means that sociology must have a vision of a better society. It must also have the conviction that such a world is within our grasp (Buechler 2008).

In encouraging sociologists to bring an "emancipatory critique" into their scholarship (DFN: 19-20), my intent was to show how CR provides a reasoned basis for this stronger form of critical sociological analysis, for "the leap from facts to values" (Gorski 2013:667). My point was not that all sociologists must toe this line, but that building such sensibilities into our work can improve it. This does not mean that research that is critical only in the first sense is without value, but only that such work may be in need of further, reflexive elaboration.

Finally, although a critical realist metatheoretical stance offers strong grounds for critiquing work that follows positivist and postmodern-nominalist conventions (which does not mean rejecting insights that such research generates), CR hardly excludes diverse sociological traditions. Recent work by critical realists, for instance, engages productively with symbolic interactionism (Vandenberghe 2014), social network analysis (Buch-Hansen 2014), actor-network theory (Elder-Vaas 2015), and the sociology of culture (Archer and Elder-Vass 2012). As an ontological and epistemological framework for natural and social science, CR offers a basis for knowledge integration, which after all is a basic goal of science (although one would not know this from P&M's article).

Strikingly, apart from their spurious critiques of my position on transdisciplinarity and CR, P&M offer little criticism of my actual substantive analysis. They agree that disciplines comprising social science are simply "historically contingent constructs" (P&M:316), implying that there is no ontological justification for disciplinary divisions. They observe that the disciplines are "well established" and have generated "robust traditions of research" (P&M:316), which though obviously true is not an argument against transdisciplinary social science. Moreover, their pragmatic-conventional defense of traditions does not address the thesis--core to my essay--that continuing disciplinary segmentation of knowledge has problematic effects. On the other hand, they agree that changing times can demand the reorganization of knowledge in interdisciplinary ways (P&M:316). For P&M, the problem with a vision of sociology as critical nexus is not that it is invalid, but that it is not a "realistic institutional strategy" for sociology. Again, my intent was not to put forward an institutional strategy. By mistaking my project for theirs, P&M set up a straw man. They go on to deploy a rhetoric of fear, to persuade readers that any step away from well-policed disciplinary borders will send sociology to the dogs. But their own institutional strategy subordinates the scientific pursuit of knowledge to the strategic pursuit of disciplinary advantage. It is this instrumentalization that concerns me most.


The vision P&M offer is presented as a survival strategy for Canadian sociology. In a hostile, neoliberal context, and amid competition with "stronger" disciplines such as economics, sociology needs to maintain strong boundaries, from which sociologists should only stray in order to "enrich their own practice of sociology" (P&M:327). In my essay, I identified this "circle the wagons" approach with traditionalism, and positivism in particular. P&M are indeed traditionalists--they repeatedly venerate sociological traditions that must be upheld, yet they combine traditionalism with another response to current challenges that I identified as also problematic: relativistic social constructivism. The latter trades positivism's naive realism for an antirealist nominalism. Thus, P&M advocate a hard boundary that secures a space for many diverse and well-celebrated versions of sociology. All this chaotic diversity "drives our research forward and reshapes the intellectual parameters of our field" (P&M:312). Perhaps, but to what end, and how do we assess whether the motion is "forward"? Cumulative and integrative knowledge that moves beyond the disciplinary boundaries P&M concede to be arbitrary seems to be left out of this heady chaos.

Certainly, debate among different formulations is crucial in science, but the point is not simply to keep generating chaos within reified silos! Pluralist discipline, as "disciplinary integration at the institutional level even while celebrating radical differences at the level of ideas" (P&M:327) may be a formula for keeping the peace among sociology's many factions, as all points of view are equally venerated. But it could also foreshadow the gradual death of sociology as a field of scholarship that can lay reasonable claim to being socially scientific in the sense of producing a cumulative body of veridical knowledge.

On this issue, it important to understand the difference between science and multicultural politics. P&M's notion of pluralism within sociological discipline may be immediately appealing, as it invokes the multicultural celebration of difference and diverse perspectives, traditions, values etc. What P&M do not seem to realize is that in striving for a rational, empirically grounded consensus, science treats conflicting perspectives not as ends in themselves but as means toward the goal of advancing veridical knowledge of the world. Scientific consensus is never forced; scientific knowledge is always fallibilistic, and never "uncritically true" (pace P&M's characterization of CR:321); and social-scientific knowledge must be particularly reflexive, since it is embedded in its object--a multicultural world shaped by colonialism, class, patriarchy, globalization, and other deeply historical relations. (Readers familiar with CR will recognize these as basic premises of CR.)

What I find most troubling in P&M's alternative is the almost sectarian commitment to sociology (and to identifying its optimal "institutional strategy"), which displaces what should, in my view, be a deep commitment to social science--that is, to understanding the human condition in all its fullness. They offer no substantive reasons why sociologists should be sociologists first and social scientists only secondarily, why securing "the legitimacy of sociology" (P&M:320) should be the regnant goal. In short, they never ask themselves who the "we" of their brief is, and why sociology as a collective identity should be absolutized. Yet this was a key theme in DFN, along with the observation that a core ontological insight --that we make our own history, in conditions given to us by past practice--obliges social scientists (1) to refuse the reification of current actualities as obdurate realities, while (2) recognizing our current setting and practices as a resume of power wielded and paths taken and not taken, opening onto alternative futures. This critical approach applies equally from the microlevel (whether in localities, families, gendered and racialized relations, friendship networks, etc.) to the macrolevel (as in national societies, world systems, global networks, and international relations). The same ontology invites us to consider possibilities, evident in current practice, for mitigating or transcending the social and ecological maladies that afflict the extended family of humanity in the twenty-first century.

For me, the key question is not how sociologists can most effectively defend "our" institutional turf against incursions and threats from competitor disciplines and neoliberal administrations. Rather, it remains: what role can sociology play among the social sciences in transitioning from a field of knowledge fractured rather arbitrarily and to some extent ideologically, to a more integrated, transdisciplinary formation offering insight and guidance in improving the social conditions for human thriving?


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Archer, M.S., R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson and A. Norrie, eds. 2013. Critical Realism: Essential Readings. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Bhaskar, R. 1975. A Realist Theory of Science. Leeds, UK: Leeds Books Ltd.

Bhaskar, R. 1979. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Buch-Hansen, H. 2014. "Social Network Analysis and Critical Realism." Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 44(3):306-25.

Buechler, S. 2008. "What is Critical about Sociology?" Teaching Sociology 36:318-30.

Carroll, W.K. 2013. "Discipline, Field, Nexus: Re-Visioning Sociology." Canadian Review of Sociology 50(1):1-26.

Carroll, W.K. 2015. "What Radical Means in the 21st Century: Robust Radicalism." Review of Radical Political Economics 47(4):663-68.

Elder-Vass, D. 2015. "Disassembling Actor-Network Theory." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 45(1):100-21.

Gorski, P.S. 2013. "What is Critical Realism? And Why Should You Care?" Contemporary Sociology 42(5):658-70.

Mills, C.W. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Puddephatt, A.J. and McLaughlin N. 2015. "Critical Nexus or Pluralist Discipline? Institutional Ambivalence and the Future of Canadian Sociology." Canadian Review of Sociology 52(3):310-32.

Sayer, R.A. 1992. Realism and Social Science. London: Sage.

Stember, M. 1991. "Advancing the Social Sciences through the Interdisciplinary Enterprise." The Social Science Journal 28(1):1-14.

Vandenberghe, F. 2014. What's Critical about Critical Realism?: Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory. London: Routledge.

William K. Carroll, University of Victoria

(1.) Space does not permit me to recapitulate the detailed argument in DFN. Readers are advised to (re)acquaint themselves with that article as they engage with the issues in this debate. My focus in this section is on the specific misreadings that give rise to misplaced critiques in P&M's article.
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Title Annotation:response to Antony Puddephatt and Neil McLaughlin in this journal, vol. 52, no. 3, p. 310
Author:Carroll, William K.
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2016
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