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Listen Sociologist! The Post-Positivist Revolution in Sociology

Dear Sociologist,

I have been thinking over your article’s recent rejection, your gripes about the field, and the trouble with academic publishing. I am of the opinion that academic sociology journals may never deliver us what we really want — a good critical sociology. For me, “a good critical sociology” means producing something like Mills outlined in Sociological Imagination: it is a political kind of sociology, but it is also something more. I read Mills’ Listen Yankee! again over the break, and was struck by the depths to which his pleading about the Cuban revolution was really a plea for a new kind of sociological thinking and practice. If in the Sociological Imagination Mills taught us that sociological discourse could awaken the individual’s critical capacities and change the academic study of social life, then in Yankee! he demonstrates that making such a critical consciousness known is a task of a different kind.

In addition, this letter aims to kick off a new letter publication scheme here at the Critical Realism Network Blog. It is hoped that such an effort could make the critical realism network “work” around the basic premise that followers of the network like to talk to one another, and would benefit from having a public written record. “Letters to editor” are a common publishing format, and here we aim to establish something of the sort for working academic social thinkers, but with an explicitly Millsian twist. To promote those ends, this letter is an homage to Mills’ Listen Yankee! that will serve as a model/motivation for more letters. Rather than Yankee, this letter is something more like Listen Sociologists!

As a reminder, Mills wrote Yankee! (1960) in the form of letters from “the Cuban people” to Yankee imperialists. In their voice Mills pleads with the imagined Yankee think about “Cuba as The Case — as The Case in which to establish the way you [Yankee’s] are going to act when there are revolutions in hungry countries everywhere in the world” (159). Also as a reminder, it was during the writing of the book that Mills was also busy reconstructing his theory of the new left. For Mills, the Cuban case was important specifically because it was strong evidence of such a left.

Towards the end of the book, Mills returns to his own properly “academic” voice to underline the importance of thinking with the Cuban case. After comparing other post-colonial (“hungry parts of the world”) struggles for dignity, he concludes by highlighting the moral and political significance of his work, confessing,

I am not a Cuban. I am a Yankee. To me, this does not mean that I am any less ‘for’ their revolution…. My loyalties are conditional upon my own convictions and my own values…. The policies the United States has pursued and is pursuing against Cuba are based upon a profound ignorance, and are shot through with hysteria. I believe that if they are continued they will result in more disgrace and more disaster for the image of my country before Cuba, before Latin America, and before the world. (179)

Mills’ broad warning — put up with dictators in the empire, and soon they’ll come home — is confirmed by recent historical work. Moreover, a quick glimpse at the white house, whose present occupant longs for McCarthy’s right hand man, will reveal that the problem also strikes deeper.

Mills, however, is better in the register he hoped you would read the book — as an average Cuban revolutionary — and that helps to motivate this letter. Towards the end of this portion of the book, he also pleads with the reader to see the revolution as a litmus test for democracy,

We Cuban revolutionaries don’t really know just exactly how you could best go about this transforming of your Yankee imperialism… But you’re a democracy, aren’t you? Your politicians keep saying you are. And you Yankees are a vigorous people, or at least once upon a time you were… Your real alternatives are big alternatives… You could really ask how men should live; you’re not tied down to the struggle just to exist…. If you’d just forget the money — Mother of God, haven’t you already enough? If you’d just abandon the fear — aren’t you strong enough to? If you’d just stop being so altogether private and become public men and women of the world — you could do great things in the world: as a people, as an individual, as a government. As you might say: you could make it, Yankee. (167)

At this point it should be clear why Mills had quit publishing in academic journals by the time of Listen Yankee!: his work was explicitly too moral, too broadly personal, too damned clear about its point to “count” as academic research. It had to be, something like a political pamphlet, or public pronouncement. He had to give up academic publishing if he ever hoped to “take it big”

Of course, “The Promise” Mills wrote about in the Sociological Imagination, was also part of his attempt to make his ideas “big.” There Mills demand that sociology to be a science that could link personal troubles and public issues. Mills was neither the first, nor the last person to touch upon this idea, but I think his argument does help to capture an impulse that has remained a durable – if undervalued – part of many working sociologists’ activities. This is not because of Mills alone: for instance, the same work is likely done by the feminist slogan “the personal is political” (based on another interpersonal letter that got published) for many. In either case, it seems fair to assert that many get into the discipline by following this public/private impulse into social research.

Yet, as realists point out, moral and ethical talk remains highly muted within the discipline. I would venture that this is partially because Mills’ approach in Sociological Imagination also does poorly when confronting broader cultural forces that structure sociology itself. Mills put the public in his sights, but also assumed that the public would be trained to understand (and demand that) the problems of social science (be understood) as vitally connected to their personal experience. Against Mills own hopes however, such attempts to reform the discipline remain derided as quasi-theological in orientation.

And that brings us to this letter. Why a letter? Well, a letter seems to me, and seemed to Mills, a proper mode for people to think in, with and through. It allows for some of the niceties of academic writing, but isn’t really an “argument”. It directs the writer’s attention back to the general drift, and allows them to situate themselves in the name of something both personal and public. And when I recognized this, I thought I should write more letters. But then I thought about Mills, and I decided it would be a good idea to try to broaden my approach, to really work to make that little idea “big.” So, I wrote this letter to go first, and show others they can do it too.

Maybe you could write a letter like this to me? We might even publish them here at the critical realism blog. And that could encourage other people to write their own letters and a have a serious talk about what we’re going to do about this world. Email us here

Listen Sociologist! I’m talking to you. Sometimes you have something to say, and mostly those things aren’t proper for an academic journal article, but these thoughts are important, true, and from the heart. You read lots of scholarship, but all of it isn’t in your direct work flow so you can’t tell people what you think of it. And these things bother you. You wish that the author could have made their point in a better, more interesting, or more appealing way for regular folks. Or maybe you wish that someone would make a seemingly small, but important, point in the discussion going on “out there”? Maybe you could write a letter then? And you could write it to us? It wouldn’t have to be “new scholarship” in the strict sense, but it could help all of us who think about these things[1] seriously. Also, it should be less than 1500 words.

Listen, Sociologist! Write that letter to us at the critical realism blog, we’ll try to ensure you don’t put your foot in your mouth (or at least warn you when you will). We can’t promise the rigor of academic review, but we are all relatively well read, and we know other people (like you!) who can help. Don’t you want to help sociologist?

Sam Stabler

[1] A short list: realism(s), critique, critical realism, flourishing, practice, public sociology, meta-theory, intellectual activism, sociological methods, social ontology, materiality, assemblages, emergence, and “the good life”.

1 thought on “Listen Sociologist! The Post-Positivist Revolution in Sociology”

  1. Pingback: Do Not Consider Yourself Free: CW Mills the Realist? – Critical Realism Network

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