Some fieldnotes left here for me to think more about later. The sort of thing I’d always intended to use the academic section of the website for but haven’t much got around to so far. Linked to some thoughts about literature and good writing in the previous post on here.

I’ve been thinking about sociology as an art, or at least as more like an art than a science. Which is, I think, a difference that tries to be bridged by the ‘humanities’ word that academies use. But it’s the word ‘art’ I want to think about today, to see where it takes me.

A history of sociology

In her ‘Utopia as Method’ Ruth Levitas writes about what she describes as an error, when early sociological thinking in the late 19th century chose science over utopia in its determination to be taken seriously as a new discipline by the the academic establishment of the day:

“The institutional development of sociology…forced the separation of these modes of thought. It led to the expulsion of utopian currents, entrenching the polarities between is and ought, between science and utopia… The sole point of agreement was that the new discipline was to be understood as a science.

She highlights the way science fiction author and public figure H.G. Wells was then passed over in his application for the inaugural sociology chair at the London School of Economics. Levitas quoting Wells as saying:

“There is no such thing as sociology as dispassionately considering what is, without considering what is intended to be”

And also:

“Sociology must be neither art simply, nor science in the narrow meaning of the word at all, but knowledge rendered imaginatively and with an element of personality, that is to say, in the highest sense of the term, literature.”

Each of these ringing true with me. With my liking for writing about intended if fictional futures, together with my wondering about the history sociology after Wells didn’t go on to have, but might yet.

Where I most obviously differ from Levitas is over utopia. Whereas she sees sociology’s inaugural error as the choice of science over utopia I wonder if the error was something broader. The choice to become and struggle to be a sort of science, rather than consider to what extent the practice and practicality of sociology might be as a kind of art? Or at least as a discipline more accepting of and influenced by art, including literature as Wells sees it, than it would seem to be.

Some empirical thoughts

Thinking empirically, and from my own viewpoint, work I’ve been involved in at Granby 4 Streets and other communities has usually felt more obviously a work of art than science. Whilst also being work that has a tendency to be analysed backwards, and by others, as more of a science than an art. 

First then, ‘it’s more like a work of art.’ It just is, and I’m going to write about how that is here. When everyone’s sat and decided what to do next in various Liverpool places it’s felt more than a bit like being with a group of artists choosing colours and textures, themes and responses to whatever might be happening in their neighbourhood. Certainly more than it’s ever felt like science. As if there’s improvising going on with found objects, which would include the group’s own skills as well as the public policies being visited upon us at the time. Asking ourselves “What can we do with what we happen to have, including the situation we’re in, to get closer to whatever it is we want to happen round here. To make life better in some specific ways, respond to the current crisis, or celebrate something good, however small. What can we do with what we happen to have here?”

Even, to take one direct example,

“What can we do with what we call ourselves? What can we say we are? Well, CLT sounds good doesn’t it? Three good words there. Community, land and trust. They might help us stop the houses being demolished.”

That CLT decision of our’s going on to be analysed later by others as one of the main things that caused what we did to work. Along with whether we were or weren’t “community-led” according to definitions that would see us categorised as part of a ’sector’ with reports, strategies and other people’s career paths to no doubt follow. That being the way it generally is with sectors and their followers.

All of which might seem a long way from the history of sociology and whether it would be better considered as an art than a science. These being just some fieldnotes and feelings that I’ve keeping. Notes that might come in handy one day. But in finishing these thoughts for now I want to tell you some more of a story about H.G. Wells. 

Sociology and H.G. Wells: another story

At the weekends, mostly and for some time off, I’ll read other things than what I think will be useful for my work. Novels, as in the blog post before this one, and some history usually. And of course sometimes these do turn out to be useful, which is why I’m adding this to a note I’d thought I’d finished. It’s another story of H.G. Wells, which I found over the weekend in A.N. Wilson’s history of Britain ‘After The Victorians.’  A story which complicates the neat narrative Ruth Levitas tells of Wells being passed over for the first Chair in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Her’s being a narrative where his rejection is shown as a root cause of sociology becoming more of a science than it might otherwise have done. 

Well the story in Wilson’s book, some of it told through the words of early days sociologist Beatrice Webb is considerably more nuanced about why Wells was never likely to have got that LSE job, whatever his opinions on sociology, art or science. Of how Webb and her partner Sydney, the LSE founders, apparently looked down on and disliked Wells anyway, for, as Wilson reports from Webb’s diaries, his being working class, on the make, “blown out with self-conceit,” and it had been “more for  copy than for reform that he has stepped out of his study,” along with his disconcerting fondness for the equalities and democracy of the United States.  (Beatrice Webb herself at the time being an anti-suffragist). Wells in his turn, Wilson reports, viewed the Webbs as behind the times élitists. Though one thing they were supposedly behind the times about turns out to have been Wells’ enthusiastic advocation of Free Love, even reading a paper about it to the Fabian Society. “Mrs Webb was not impressed” Wilson tells us, and how she’d gone on later in her diary to sum Wells up as “H.G a cad.”

Complex then, that being the way it is with the history of people and their academic disciplines. But I still think Wells wasn’t wrong when he said:

“Sociology must be neither art simply, nor science in the narrow meaning of the word at all, but knowledge rendered imaginatively and with an element of personality, that is to say, in the highest sense of the term, literature.”   

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. So Wells is also describing literature in the highest sense of the term as “knowledge rendered imaginatively and with an element of personality”. I like this. I don’t know much about sociology, I’m afraid, and nothing of how it has historically been described, but I can really see, in your words, Ronnie, how the sociology work you’ve been doing is art. I’m grateful to you for doing it too – seems you’ve made a significant difference to many people and to a place.

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