In a recent article in Times Higher Education, Musa al-Gharbi, a fellow in sociology at Columbia University, notes the dearth of conservative faculty, students and ideas in US universities. Al-Gharbi is linked to the Heterodox Academy group, which claims that the same tendency is also evident in the UK, Canada and Australia. A self-styled ‘progressive’ ideological consensus goes increasingly unchallenged. Dissent from this is sanctioned rather than debated. The consensus distorts education in the social sciences because of its narrow conception of diversity. While this extends to the incorporation of historically underrepresented groups and their viewpoints, it excludes a range of traditional intellectual or ideological positions. Consequently, al-Gharbi argues, conservative interests and politicians see little value in any social science other than economics, which is the least affected by these developments. Since their views are not respected, they have no incentive to sustain the material base of these disciplines.
This is an interesting historical reversal. I first began to study sociology almost 50 years ago. Its development was then conventionally taught as a conservative reaction to the disorder of social and economic change in the 19th century. Our founders focussed on the costs of industrialization and urbanization in Europe and the US. Could these be reversed by re-imagining the institutions of pre-industrial societies? How could harmonious organic communities be restored? Some part of this was a reaction to the rise of socialist political thought. However, sociology was in some sense the antithesis of socialism. They might have an elective affinity in their focus on social systems and social movements, rather than on individuals but their programmes were fundamentally opposed. Sociologists asked how order could be re-established without explicit coercion: socialists sought to replace that order completely.
Over the last half century that tension has virtually disappeared. In some respects, this represents the political failure of the socialist project after the events of 1968. Sociology, has, in many places, been reshaped as a base for political programmes that have lost their purchase elsewhere in society. It is a substitute for a genuine mass party of the left. The discipline has become an echo chamber, most notably in some of the posturing around public sociology or sociological activism. In the process, it has become less and less able to understand the society that provides its subsistence.
Sociology has, for example, become insensitive to the nuances of conservatism and its differences from neo-liberalism. Hayek, for example, memorably declared that he was not a conservative. A neo-liberal sociology is hard to imagine because of its emphasis on individual levels of explanation. However, we should remember that scholars like Hayek and Von Mises came out of the same circles as canonical figures like Schutz or Mannheim and were part of the same debates with the shade of Max Weber.
A conservative sociology, however, would be more concerned with a set of issues on which the discipline is currently silent. We have a sociology that is full of prescriptions about human rights, entitlements and the satisfaction of needs. Conservatives would point out that rights claims imply duties on some other individual or group to satisfy them. They would observe that ideas about entitlement or need are usually statements that resources should be compulsorily redistributed from some social groups to others. They would question the idea that those transfers do not have to be merited or earned and that the recipients are in no way to be held accountable for what they do with the assigned resources. Conservatives would be interested in understanding the boundaries of a moral community. Where do mutual aid and mutual obligation begin and end?
One example from the UK which is a particularly powerful source of working-class grievance might be the allocation of social housing. Access originally depended very much on membership of a community. It was acquired primarily through a combination of kinship, prior residence and queuing. Since the 1960s, this has switched to allocation on the basis of need, taking more account of family size, current housing conditions and lack of income. Working-class families saw their members displaced from ‘their’ localities by incomers, often immigrants from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Many sociologists hailed this as a progressive development, but failed to acknowledge the resentment that it created.
In the US, one might make similar comments on the ‘free college’ movement. How far should students expect other social groups to support their studies through taxation? The students expect to derive some personal benefit from their college experience: any benefit to the taxpayers is indirect and uncertain. Is it not fairer to think of some sharing of costs to reflect the ultimate distribution of benefits?
Questions have been raised by European scholars about the treatment of homeless people. As the UK government once asked: ‘can rough sleeping be considered a lifestyle choice?’ Is it wrong to impose conditionality on any support offered by society at large to those living on the streets, or any other comparable group? Should street begging and soup runs be tolerated when shelters and rehabilitation services are available?
A conservative sociology would not necessarily provide wholly satisfactory answers to any of these questions. It would, though, think that they were worth taking seriously. The resulting debate might well result in more imaginative and innovative outcomes than the current recycling of Utopian demands with no conceivable political traction.