Hedgehog Spider FoxA few months ago, one of our bloggers, the “backstage sociologist” Monte Bute offered up a post that referenced political theorist Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between foxes and hedgehogs.  In the world of ideas, according to Berlin (borrowing from ancient Greek poet Archilochus), there are those who know many, many things (foxes), and those who know one big thing (hedgehogs). Berlin’s categories have been widely referenced in both the social sciences and the humanities to identify styles of thought, the contributions of various scholars, and lines of research and writing. In reflecting on Berlin’s categories back in the long, lazy days of summer, Chris and I had a little fun putting our favorite sociologists and works in one box or the other. And as we played with the categories and thought about sociology as a discipline, we began to realize anew—much as I think Berlin meant to suggest (this appeared in an essay about Tolstoy)—that real insight and understanding in any field requires both foxes and hedgehogs. more...

Circus Tent by Thomas Totz via
Circus Tent by Thomas Totz via

This past weekend I came across a piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Gareth Cook in the Boston Globe about new research showing that spending time helping others can actually make it seem like we’ve got more time for ourselves. It sounded like a great, eminently sociological project in so many ways: its emphasis on the social meaning and variable experience of time, the importance of selflessness and interacting with others, the use of interviews and experiments, and, of course, the classic, counter-intuitive conclusion that the best solution for not feeling like you have enough time is to make time for others.

My first thought was to throw it over to our Citings & Sightings team as another cool case of how sociological research finds its way to public attention in and through the mass media. But a closer look made me pause. It turns out the research was produced by a team headed up by a professor in a business school (Harvard, no less).  Scholars who teach future MBAs to make millions taking on questions of selflessness and the social experience of time? Suddenly I found myself getting cynical about the researcher’s claim that such activities give us confidence we can get things done and allows us to feel more in control of our own lives.

Lately, whether it is management professors, researchers in public health, or cultural studies critics, scholars all over the academy seem to be taking on topics and using methods and theories pioneered by sociologists. It is easy to be a bit skeptical or defensive, but rather than getting caught up in turf wars, I think it better to celebrate such insights and accomplishments as part of the structure and functioning of social life, claiming them as part of the big, broad sociological tent. It’s not important who is researching sociological questions, but that scholars of all stripes are calling attention to the importance and complexity of social life and interactions—a broad context that’s so often missing from the individualist, economistic, and biological visions of human beings and social life that are otherwise dominant in our academic culture.