Despite calling myself a “sociologist” in the sense that “I could very well be wrong: I’m not a philosopher, after all, but a sociologist” or somesuch, I came to sociology rather late (my honours year was the first sociology class I took – “Contemporary Sociological Theory” – taught by a historical sociologist/post-structuralist) and didn’t “become” a sociologist until I enrolled in a sociology masters programme. Consequently, I have had the advantage of avoiding disciplinarization. I’ve only taken one positivistic methods course and haven’t taken courses in “substantive” areas of sociology – unlike most sociologists, I can’t say that I’m interested in race or class or stratification in the same way they can. What I’m saying is that I never have and likely never will develop a “sociological habitus” and have an instinctive feel for “the structure of the field.” Even insofar as I’m a “Durkheimian,” I have little knowledge of his official reception in sociology.
Working through my chapter on political theology and the symbolic order, I’ve been forced to revisit the “classics” (as it were) and thus write a bit on Weber and a bit on how people have read/used Durkheim since. Now, I’ve encountered many people who are adamantly convinced that Durkheim was a positivist and that his greatest work was Suicide. Certainly, it is a good and interesting book, but, by saying that, you’re also saying that he wrote nothing of worth in the last twenty-five years of his life. Perhaps it is because my exposure to Durkheim was mediated by, for a lack of a better term, “post-structuralism” and “post-modernism” that I have a different understanding of Durkheim. That is, I read Mike Gane and Frank Pearce’s work on “the radical Durkheim” before I read Parsons’ appropriation of Durkheim for the “functional” part of his “structural-functionalism.”
All the same, I bought a copy of Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies (1988) edited by Jeff Alexander. Now, I understand that Alexander is a rather large figure in mainstream American sociology, especially of the theoretical and empirico-theoretical sort. He does, afterall, have a “center for cultural sociology” at Yale (presumably a big deal) and he has held official positions in the ASA. I take him to be an establishment and established figure – students, I imagine, fight to get into his department and to get him on their committees.
Since the weekend, I’ve made it through about a third of the book. By far the best piece was by Lynn Hunt, but that is to be expected. The other two chapters – one on the late seventies/early eighties revolutions and the other on Wobbly strike in Lawrence – were pretty half-assed. They were also strangely (but, again, perhaps not) committed to Parsons and structural-functionalism despite Alexander’s introduction framing the book as an attempt to move beyond Parsons and bring “the cultural” into the mainstream of sociology. (One chapter even refers to “A-G-I-L” and, specifically, the “I-L” connection. Whatever that means! Something to do with social integration and a formal model for sociology derived from Parsons.)
But, it is Alexander’s introduction that leaves me the most puzzled, specifically his comments on “Durkheimianism” since Durkheim. First, he says some strange things about Levi-Strauss, almost to the effect that Levi-Strauss only knew Mauss’ work, but not Durkheim’s. Absolutely strange. He writes:
Similar parallels [to Saussure's latent Durkheimianism] exist between later Durkheimian theory [he means The Elementary Forms of Religious Life specifically] and Levi-Strauss’ structural anthropology. [...] Here is another influential cultural program, in other words, that bears a striking similarity to the late Durkheimian project I have outlined above. [Note: I don't see how the "in other words" follows.] Once again, moreover, while direct linkage is impossible to establish, a compelling case for signficant influence can be made. [...] That Levi-Strauss often takes sharp issue with Durkheim cananot, therefore, be taken at face value.
He makes a similar point about Barthes and them moves on to Foucault:
In most cases, however, these Durkheimian roots are simply not recognized at all. In A History of Sexuality [he means the volume translated under that title and not the project as a whole], Foucault devotes a major section of his argument to demonstrating that religious roots of the modern ‘rational’ insistence on exposing the sexual basis of various activities. [...] It was Durkheim who insisted that religious phenomena “are the germ from which all others … derived” and the treatment in his late lectures of such secular phenomena as contract and exchange find their exchoes in Foucault. That Foucault himself never entertained the possibility of a Durkheimian link is in a certain sense beside the point. His work rests on an intellectual basis to which late Durkheimian thought made an indelible contribution.
This makes no sense to me at all. For a number of reasons: being educated in the forties and fifties, Foucault most certainly would have been familiar with Durkheim: Durkheim was sociology in France at that period. Further, with the growing popularity of Levi-Strauss’ structural anthropology later generalized into “structuralism” as such, Foucault would most certainly have been aware of its history and use in France. But this is also where Alexander goes wrong: he rightly points to the Durkheim-Mauss connection and then the Mauss-Levi-Strauss connection, but is otherwise unable to think “Durkheim” in the context of French scholarship. A footnote, in a later section of the introduction on Mary Douglas, is revealing:
The connection becomes more easily seen if the “correction” of Caillois – one of the last productive members of the Durkheimian school – is taken into account.
The problem has a number of dimensions: Caillois was not “one of the last productive members” at all. Indeed, Levi-Strauss, already identified with this school, is, to the best of my knowledge, still alive. But, further, Pierre Clastres – until his death – was chosen as Levi-Strauss’ successor. He, certainly, was “productive” after Caillois. But, if we are sticking with Foucault, the missing connection is not only Caillois, but also Michel Leiris and, especially, Georges Bataille. (Although Foucault, like Deleuze, does repeatedly cite Clastres with enthusiasm through the mid-seventies.) But, even outside of Foucault and his posse, what about Jean Baudrillard, Claude Lefort, and Marcel Gauchet. While the latter two are not particularly familiar in English language scholarship, their “Durkheimianism” is quite evident – and they’re (like Baudrillard) still alive and still publishing.
Now, Alexander is not being duplicitous – it is very possible that he never read Leiris and Bataille and was unfamiliar with the College de Sociologie and Acephale – there is still the problem that he doesn’t see the connection with the more familiar Baudrillard, who was in the eighties the poster-boy for postmodernism in the US, especially given that Mike Gane had been writing on Durkheim, his influences, and “the radical Durkheim” in the journal Economy & Society since the early eighties and T. Anthony Jones and Andrew Scull had attempted a Durkheim revival in the same journal in the early seventies. Sure, Economy & Society isn’t Sociological Theory, but to be absolutely ignorant of this body of work – or to ignore it – is arrogance at its worst.
Edit: I refrain from publishing because, I tell myself, I don’t want to impose my own crap on the world in an official and professional capacity. That’s a polite way of saying that I’m both lazy and a perfectionist with regard to these things. (I’m told psychology does not consider these opposed tendencies but, rather, mutually reinforcing tendencies.) Being halfway through the chapter by Wallace & Hartley, I wonder why I don’t publish. Perhaps this qualifies as quality mainstream sociology, but it is so banal, superficial and simple-minded. It’s because I hold myself to higher standards, I tell myself.