A world sociology?

Contemporary sociology developed in consideration of western social processes and western ideas about science. Central defining problems included state formation, social solidarity and cohesion, urbanization, and the politics of class. (The experienced reader will recognize the imprint of the classical social theorists here–Weber, Durkheim, and Marx especially.) But it is worth considering that sociology might take a very different course if we placed the problems and processes of the developing world at the center rather than the periphery of sociological inquiry. Would we arrive at the same central concepts? How would the paradigms change?

This question is not purely hypothetical. It is very reasonable for social scientists in developing countries to take a fresh look at the basic problems and concepts that can give future direction to a sociology for the twenty-first century. We ought not assume that existing paradigms will provide the resources necessary to understand and resolve the problems of social behavior and process found in China, Indonesia, or Mexico today. And it is likely enough that the new insights and theories that emerge from this new thinking in Shanghai or Mexico City will in fact provide new ways of looking at Chicago and New York.

One likely result will be that next-generation “world” sociology will be less interested in formulating master theories of large social processes–urbanization, ethnic conflict, demographic transition–and more interested in disaggregating large social processes into smaller component processes. The processes creating mega-cities in Africa, Brazil, or the Philippines have numerous dimensions and tempos. And it seems plausible that the best sociological investigations of urbanization of the future will result from an eclectic effort to discover the multiple social causes that lead to social behavior resulting in rapid urban growth.

So this is a critical time for sociologists and political scientists in the developing world. Will they seize this opportunity to refocus the research agenda and the tools of theory that will give rise to a more adequate sociology for a global world? Or will the paradigms and methods of positivist sociology continue to define the social-science agenda?

A paradigm shift along these lines is already underway–in the field of economic history. A current generation of economic historians of China has argued for a non-eurocentric comparison of Europe and Asia, with the view that both historical experiences have distinctive mixes of institutions and economic imperatives. Historians like Bin Wong and Kenneth Pomeranz argue that both Europe and Asia can be understood better on the basis of a more balanced consideration of the other. (See “Eurasian Comparisons” for some relevant discussion.)

There is also an important precedent for the creaton of a new sociology for a changed world, in the experience of the Chicago School of sociology in the early twentieth century. Chicago school sociologists stepped away from the certainties of classical sociology, in order to formulate theories and methods that worked better for handling the messy, complex realities of a great city. The results were more eclectic, more middle-level, and more open to the idea of innovations in sociology than the master paradigms of classical sociology. Sociologists in Beijing, Manila, and Mexico City can do the same.

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