We did it! According to the Editors* of n+1, Sociology—in fact, the underdog coming from behind, Critical Sociology—has won the cultural debate. Critical thinking about power and how it constructs individuals is now universally applied. The bad news is that critical thinking about power hasn’t solved inequalities, and therefore we have “Too Much Sociology.” The Editors of n+1 fail to understand their topic, fail to cite accurately, and, fundamentally, have written a piece that is logically flawed from even its own position.
There are many good reasons to dismiss this essay, but let’s first skip over the most inaccurate parts to explain why the essay does not even make sense on its own terms. There is a good argument that Bourdieusian theorizing can be used for regressive ends. But: that is a Critical Sociology argument! Interrogating exactly how an episteme can be co-opted, even by that of which it is critical, is what critical sociology does. The article uses critical sociology as its method, as its logic, in order to conclude—against its own logic—against doing critical sociology. Hilariously, the essay is a work of critical sociology about critical sociology that is critical of critical sociology. (Let’s keep open the possibility that this is a late April Fools Onion-style parody).
“Too Much Sociology” is the essay equivalent of hipsters making fun of hipsters, seemingly unaware that their anti-hipster position is the height of hipsterdom. The essay discusses “the Sociologists” as if they are separate from what the essay is itself doing, and goes on and on about critical sociology seemingly unaware of itself as a critical sociology essay. Doing reflexive critical sociology of critical sociology is a well-worn tradition within critical sociology. The strategy the article uses, and the arguments it wants to make, are for more critical sociology; instead, the essay incoherently and illogically asks for less sociology. And, yes, I fully understand that my critique here is also critical sociology; the difference is that I am aware of that and won’t then develop an illogical conclusion. My response here isn’t as much a disagreement with their argument as saying that it simply doesn’t make sense on its own terms. Trying to create a theory that interrogates the links between power, discourse, and identity has as much of a chance of being outside of critical sociology as trying to put on an outfit that is outside the system of fashion.
Put simply: personally rejecting analyzing the link between status and taste doesn’t mute that link. Indeed, it is simply one more move in the same game: rejecting taste-status is one more taste status, as is my rejecting of their rejecting of taste-status. To escape the taste-status logic, the authors would need to show why the link is false, but instead, they make an argument for taste-status by showing how the taste for Bourdieusian theory reaffirms status.
And that’s not a terrible argument to try to make, but, again, the authors give it exactly the opposite conclusion the argument should call for: more and better critical sociology. (Seriously, the essay is the logical equivalent of ‘2 + 2 = -4’).
Well, I’m being too nice: The authors do not even make the ill-concluded argument in a way that remotely approaches being convincing. And I say this as a fan of the general project of showing how critical sociology can be done poorly, because I’m a critical sociologist. The project is akin to those who look at the commoditization of dissent—say, how a Che Guevara t-shirt at Urban Outfitters exemplifies the way capitalism is so good at co-opting things that even anti-capitalism can be used to support capitalism. This issue is well-known to theorists of dissent, who mostly do not stupidly declare “Too Much Dissent” as the n+1 logic does. Similarly, as is described in the article, if Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is using taste-power logic to reinforce his powerful enterprise, we should indeed be critical of that as a taste-power move (and also our own critique as its own taste-power move). It’s hard, and it’s awkward, but it’s better than leaving the link unexplored.
Further, the n+1 Editors are sloppy in explaining what “critical sociology” is to them to begin with. The most charitable reading is that the Editors are theorizing from the perspective of interrogating the power dynamics behind identity, taste, behavior, consciousness…everything. They do not simply mean The Frankfurt School. They mostly center on Bourdieu and his adherents. That’s, of course, not the whole of critical sociology. They also mention Latour (whom they wrongly cite as “radical”), Foucault (um, who wasn’t a sociologist), and a bunch of other men: Giddens, Derrida, Guillory, Khan. The only woman mentioned is Pascale Casanova, and the n+1 Editors go on to completely ignore the critical sociology centered in queer theories, critical race theories, feminist theories, and so on, in order to argue that all critical sociology should be thrown out.
[FYI: Beyond just ignoring women critical sociologists who make the points that the n+1 Editors claim as their own without attribution, the Editors also use universal male pronouns.**]
So much critical sociology—especially from queer, intersectional, and many other perspectives—is simply ignored to make claims such as,
Thinking of everything as a scripted game show hasn’t led to change. Instead, sociological thinking has hypostatized and celebrated the script
This is sometimes true. But is it always true? And true for the critical sociology that was left out of the n+1 analysis? Do, say, feminist or queer theorists who argue that gender is performed really reify and celebrate the gender-scripts that society hands us? Making that argument is going to need some evidence, and that project would at least need to actually be aware of and cite these and other strands of critical sociology.
It is this kind of sweeping and inaccurate statement that precludes the n+1 Editors from making what could have been a worthwhile argument. They claim that “imagin[ing] …networks of power,” for instance, has become “the way everyone thinks,” and that,
sociology of culture has achieved such a dominant share in the contemporary “marketplace” […]
sociology cannot provide us with internal reasons for its ever-rising prestige
Yay! Sociology is finally dominant, and the way that “everyone thinks”. Mission accomplished! First, um, der, no. Second, of course there is there is a critical sociology of sociology. Third, the idea that “everyone” looks to networks of power is so radically and plainly incorrect that it’s offensive. It’s offensive to those not in the tiny ultra-privileged world that can be bored with questions of power, domination, inequality, resistance, and so on, because these questions make looking at art “more awkward.” Fuck that, go read a YouTube comment. Most of us live in worlds where the links between power and identity, knowledge, and behavior are unquestioned, and where bigotry comes from places other than mean critical theorists. Teaching Bourdieu to undergrads is still a challenge, trust me—though I wouldn’t mind visiting the Bourdieu-Foucault Disneyland the authors live in, where critical sociology holds such sway.
The sweeping-statement silliness reaches its climax as the Editors state,
Being no closer to a society free of domination, injustice, and inequality than we were in 1993, we may ask whether the emergence of cultural sociology is a symptom of a problem that sociology itself cannot solve.
How dare sociology not solve domination, injustice, and inequality in two full decades! What do we throw out next? You know, feminist theory has been around for a while….
The article concludes by critiquing the status of critical sociologists who see themselves as outside the system of power-taste, saying
It is the sociologist who is uniquely qualified to provide explanations for us, which have to do with feelings of status or desire for recognition, sublimated self-interest […]
The secret allure of critical sociology lay in making certain susceptible members of dominant classes hear an appeal to some transcendent sense of radical justice and fairness
Yes, that’s a good critical sociological critique—you know, critical sociology, that logic we’re being asked to abandon. Indeed, this is a well-worn point within critical sociology that asks for radical self reflexivity. The Frankfurt School gets hit with this point all the time by, you guessed it, other critical sociologists. Indeed, this essay, unlike good critical sociology, suffers from what it critiques: It somehow thinks it is beyond the power-taste system, unaware of itself as yet another move in that system. And, importantly, in the process of making a logically incoherent argument, it has gone out of its way to erase the critical sociology done primarily by those who are not white men.
I wish this response was more of a good-faith challenge to their thinking, but this n+1 piece is so attention-seeking, conversation-derailing, misinformation-filled, and logically-flawed that I’m left fully dismissing it. I questioned even giving it the attention of a rebuttal on this blog. Perhaps I shouldn’t feed the troll, and n+1 is certainly acting trollish here, but, as I’ve argued before, I don’t think outlets with influence can troll or derail a conversation because they set the conversation, and thus should be responded to. The magazine is well-known in certain circles and I think sociologists should be aware of what this certain group of slightly-influential people are saying about the discipline. And n+1 demonstrates exactly why we need more, better sociology.
Here are two more responses to n+1‘s essay, first, by Jay Gabler:
the world isn’t getting worse, or even staying the same: it’s getting better, and sociology is making it better. Sorry, English majors—you have to keep reading Bourdieu. It’s good for you, and for everybody
Next, by Jennifer C. Lena,
I teach cultural sociology, day-in and day-out. Whether I’m teaching my students at Barnard/Columbia, speaking to colleagues in other disciplines, talking to the artists and creators I study, or to my family and friends, I can tell you with the full weight of my experience that people most certainly don’t think in sociological terms. They do acknowledge material and ideological structures in principle, and in practice, deny them all the way down the line. Their tastes are personal, their successes and failures individual.
Were YOU listening in class? Because I don’t know a single good cultural sociologist who “views any claim to “expertise” as a mere mask of prejudice, class, and cultural privilege.” Because that’s IDIOTIC. One of the things we social scientists do is make claims that we can support with evidence. One thing that The Editors do is make wild, unsupported, hyperbolic claims. The only people I see thinking that “everything is a scripted game” is you, dudes.
*The essay is attributed to “The Editors”; going to n+1’s About page, we see the “Editors” are Carla Blumenkranz, Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, and Nikil Saval, so this who I’m led to believe wrote this.
**e.g. (among others),
The ordinary person, genuflecting before his unfreedom, cries “uncle”