This is a guest blog post from Emma Greeson as part of our “Dear Sociologist” series. Emma is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego. Her work focuses on exchange and valuation, bringing together economic sociology, waste theory, and new materialism.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that sociology “in the age of Trump” seems to have undergone a renaissance. In the wake of seismic political events, the discipline and its practitioners are poised to become more relevant than ever. There has been a groundswell of passionate interest in understanding how such events could have come to pass. At last summer’s ASA, for instance, there were 40 separate sessions dedicated to understanding the Trump phenomenon, including four Presidential Sessions and a Presidential Panel. I have seen advertisements for countless conferences and seminars dedicated to understanding this age of Trump. There is a proliferation of blog posts dedicated to the topic. There is a renewed sense of purpose and importance in understanding red-state America. Not to mention the even more numerous conversations that have taken place informally between colleagues and friends.
In many ways, the task of understanding our current situation has been understood to mean better understanding Trump voters and the worrisome trends they represent. “Trump’s America” (or for that matter Brexit, Erdoğan, Duterte, Orban, or any number of other right-populist movements around the globe) often seems to be presented as a state of exception in an otherwise stable system. The decline of liberal democratic mores and institutions is lamented in academic works, timely how-to guides, as well as the popular press. Hopeful post-Cold-War theories about the end of ideology seem to be crumbling in the face of reactionary ideologies outside the United States, and now within it. To be sure, our sociological discourse readily acknowledges certain continuities that account for Trump’s popularity: the continued effects of racism, white supremacy, patriarchal social structures, and sexism. These should not be discounted, and there is a great deal of high-quality scholarship which is investigating these phenomena and their ubiquity in social, political, and material life. But what if what we need most of all is to better understand ourselves?
The making of fake news
To understand the nature of this issue, let’s consider fake news. We are told that “the rise” of fake news and a “post-truth” era is a pressing contemporary problem. Fake news is often considered to be a problem of right-wingers, Russian trolls and bots, and the uneducated. This Scientific American article, for instance, cites “cognitive ability” as highly correlated with vulnerability to fake news, perhaps because education develops certain “meta-cognitive skills” that allow you to think critically about your own thought processes. This is undoubtedly true…to some extent.
But as sociologists we should also be wary of an appeal to education as a system which allows us to transcend ideologies, rather than as a powerful socialization mechanism in itself, which primes us to be more sympathetic to certain arguments and sources than others. It is certainly true that right-wing media provides frames through which information can be processed. But why should this observation apply only to Fox News or Breitbart, and not to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, CNN, Vox, and MSNBC? In the burgeoning field of Trumpology, what counts as data? What is up for analysis, and why? Where is the line between data and “common sense”?
A sociology of the present must be attentive to how we know what we believe we know, even (or especially) when we are sure that we are right!
Claims that respectable media outlets produce “fake news” do not only come from the right wing. There continues to be no serious mainstream consideration of the extent to which the US government’s own official account of its foreign policy at least since the Cold War could be characterized as fake news. How, without examining our own common-sense beliefs, can we justify dismissing these claims coming from farther left? The fact that they are often dismissed is certainly a result of the fact that criticism of US imperialism, while more acceptable in some corners of the academy than in mainstream discourse, continues to be a niche topic, and is at a loss for resources when compared with work which can draw on years and years of sanctioned knowledge. It is also true that domestic US issues continue to be considered largely separately from foreign policy issues, though there are compelling arguments to be made that this perspective is insufficient. There are serious continuities between “Trump’s America” and the America that came before (the militarism that only grew steadily under Obama; the influence of official White House or Pentagon takes on what is reported as news, in ways not open to public scrutiny) that are all too often bracketed out of discussions of what has brought on this populist wave. The understanding of fake news as an exclusively right-wing issue is testament to the fact that with precious few exceptions, professional US sociology has aligned itself with a center-left political ideology that does not tend to recognize itself as an ideology at all.
It’s not our place as sociologists to adjudicate normative issues definitively. It is decidedly our place, however, to be vigilant about what we ourselves believe and why, and to understand how that affects our scholarship. As Gouldner says, we should be committed to values, not factions (1968, p. 116). And as Mills observed, sociologists can’t help but be political: “No one is ‘outside society’; the question is where each stands within it” (Mills 1959, p. 184). On matters where there is consensus between liberals and conservatives, it is not an indication that no underlying ideology exists, but that the underlying ideology is in fact shared! The tendency to identify non-mainstream views as “hyper-partisan”, without consideration of the fact that mainstream, centrist views themselves are de facto partisan too, can only perpetuate existing grievances aimed at the media, the academy, and “the establishment” in general.
It is in this sense that I believe that, when it comes to doing a sociology of current events unfolding in front of our eyes, it is absolutely necessary to break with the received “empiricism” which leans on common sense and cultivate a “renewed empiricism” and a “stubbornly realist attitude” (Latour 2004, p. 231). Latour has famously walked back from the strong social constructionism of his earlier work. The critical, debunking attitude which explained the social construction of facts is no longer sufficient, especially when this deconstruction can be wielded to deny the results of scientific consensus. Instead, we should acknowledge that understanding facts alone is not enough:
“Reality is not defined by matters of fact. Matters of fact are not all that is given in experience. Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs.” (Latour 2004, p. 232)
Matters of concern, on the other hand, are all those matters which have not become (or are no longer) taken for granted, black-boxed, undebatable. They are things which are gatherings, a multiplicity of entities gathered together, and should be described as such: “with their mode of fabrication and their stabilizing mechanisms clearly visible” (Latour 2005, p. 120). Matters of concern are not just socially constructed but are materially, discursively, and symbolically assembled, bringing together all sorts of agencies.
Thus a realist approach to understanding the present as it unfolds will necessarily have to be sensitive to the structures in which knowledge is produced, peering inside various black boxes as far as possible. Today, this means in particular looking at the media and how “facts” which make their way into our consciousness are made. As sociologists and citizens, we should be careful to understand that before we can adjudicate between competing facts, we need to ask difficult questions about how those facts are made. This includes not only considering the ideas put forward and the claims that are made, but thinking about what mediating entities and forces gave them the form that they take.
Some have argued that there is a persistent trend in scholarship towards anti-realism which serves the purpose of underwriting an unwillingness to be critical of certain types of power structures that exist in society, and in corporate media and journalism in particular. But in a highly charged political climate, not too far removed from the WMD debacle that provided a pretext for the Iraq War, there is all the more reason to have a healthy interest in knowing how the facts which appear in our preferred media sources were assembled and are stabilized into what we can accept as truth. Only then will we be fully equipped to defend those facts that we believe best correspond to reality.
I’m sure that certain sociologists will object to a characterization of them as producing disinterested, “objective” knowledge about conservatives. “Of course there’s no such thing as value-free research,” they will say. The fact-value distinction has been thoroughly contested by now. Most sociologists probably identify with some sort of liberal or left-leaning political stance, and would readily admit that their work reflects that worldview. But my concern is not with political ideology per se; it is that identifying with left-of-center values is far from a strong enough footing upon which to produce intellectually sound and morally responsible sociological work. All claims, coming from across the political spectrum, must be situated within the social structures within which they are imbued with meaning and authority. When we stop doing this, and especially when we stop subjecting our own beliefs to rigorous analysis, we risk falling into an intellectual decadence that can only act in service to the spontaneous consciousness of the dominant ideology, folk analysis, and a ubiquitous “common sense”. For this reason we need a stubbornly realist attitude that is driven by a renewed empiricism, one which is self-aware about the nature of its claims, but a critical one which is willing to subject the structures that legitimate those claims to the test, even in—and perhaps especially in—times of crisis, when it is all too easy for us to abandon this task.
Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248. https://doi.org/10.1086/421123