Baehr - Founders, Classics, Canons

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A great Text looking at some of the basic founders


  • F ({))undceJr 9 Cl&JlCy

    Can({])n~ Modern Disputes over the

    Origins and Appraisal of Sociology's Heritage

    Peter Baehr :;:::::-

    Transaction Publishers ... New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (U.K.) ..

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    78 Founders, Classics, Canons

    29. For instance, the "generation of the 1890s": Stuart Hughes 1974 [1 959]: 32; cf. 287. 30. Gouldner 1980378; d. Gouldner 1959: viii-x. 31. Durkheim 1959 [1928]: 108.



    The Utility, Rhetoric, and Interpretation of Classic Texts


    One feature above all others distinguishes the notion of classics from that of founders, and it is evident in casual speech. ''Founders'' invariably refers to~ns-individuals who are deemed to be the elemental source of distinctive social theories, theoretical traditions, or even entire disciplines, religions or states . "Classics," on the other hand, directs our attention, first and foremost, to certain exemplary ~It is true that that this is not always the case. Where the term

    c assic" is preceded by the definite article, as in the edited collection The Future of the Sociological Classics (Rhea: 1981), it is generally a clear signal that the Classics whose future is being pondered are sociology's great figures or "masters" (Rhea, 1981: xi). Similarly, it is not uncommon to read of "sociology's classical founders" (Alexander, 1983b: xvii). In these cases, person and text have been conflated and for an understandable reason: typically, a text will have a determi-nate author with a name and an identifiable biography.

    Typically, but not always. We know little, for instance, about the people who actually composed, revised, and amended the five books of the Hebrew Bible which Jews call the Torah and which Chris-tians, in the version of the Hebrew Bible they call the Old Testa-ment, cal1 the Pentateuch (from the Greek pentateuchos, meaning the "book of five scrolls"): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Lacking the names of the authors, schools or editors responsible for the formation of these texts, Biblical scholars have had to resort to abbreviations such as J or E or P or D to identify their constituent strands.' Equally, it is far from certain whether an indi-

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    80 Founders, Classics, Canons

    vidual called "Horner" actually existed. Even if he did exist, the Iliad and the Odyssey could not have been his unique creation. Com-posed in a pre-scribal culture, these epics could survive only through recitation; and recitation over long periods of time itself depends not just on memory, but on a host of devices which combine and recom-bine themes integral or germane to the story.

    So texts can be "classics," it appears, without entailing a demon-strable relatIOnshIp to -tlefinilepetsons'wlio-tan be-jJOSi1eaas their source-, And the term "clas&i-cs" is -even mOre heterogeneous than this. One of its inflections is the idea of venerability-=for instance in regard to the classical age of Graeco-Roman antiquity and the great luminaries such as Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Virgil, which that epoch produced. On the other hand, while an instant classic is a logical impossibility-historical perspective is required to distinguish the great from the sensational-the expression "modern classic" is not necessarily an oxymoron. For here classic can be understood to refer not to a book that has stood the test of time, but rather one by which a time or era is measured. A modem text is considered a "clas-sic," then, (the hyperbole of publishers aside) in virtue of qualities that are seen by a literate and influential public as particularly iro-portant-qualities such as aesthetic daring, social significance, o'!,!ganding reflection on our current condition, prospects or past. Another connotation of classic is respect and deference-classics, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, alludmg to seventeenth-century usage, refers to products "of the first class, or the highest rank or iroportance." But then again the idea of the classic can also provoke rebellion and acrimony, as in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century incendiary dispute between proponents of clas-sicism and romanticism in the visual arts and in poetry. The hostility continues in our da with those versions of contem orary cultural criticism that speak derisively of the classics, or the "canon," as the defunct artefacts of DWM, the Dead White Males of Western cul-ture-or, closer to horne, perhaps the likes of D(urkheim), Weeber) and M(arx)?

    "Classics," then, is a multi-dimensional term.2 For that reason, it might appear a particularly troublesome one to unravel. Yet the dis-cussion of the idea of ,; classic is graced by one advantage that was palpably absent in the analysis of founders: sociologists have them-selves produced a substantial body of literature specifically devoted

    The Utility, Rhetoric, and Interpretation of Classic Texts 81

    to examining the nature of classicality. Broadly speaking, this litera-ture falls into two parts. The first approach consists of the hundreds of t

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    82 Founders, Classics, Canons

    this privileged position that exegesis and reinterpretation of classics-within or without a historical context- become conspicuous currents in various disciplines, for what is percei ved to be the true meaning" of a classical work has broad repercussions.

    Alexander goes on to argue that classics have a centrality in a discipline such as sociology because the~cioIQg!ca!.lg,ld is inher-ently discursive. That is, sociology proceeds primarily through ar-gume;t and reasoning rather than through prediction or atte1!':I'!S at verificatiOn/falsification; and through argument and reasoning that are conducted at a greater level of generality and speculation than normally takes place in the natural sciences. This is not because sociology is intrinsically more metaphysical than the natural sciences. All sciences have an a priori basis, that is, they rest on theoretical commitments (definitions, categories, concepts, ways of seeing) and exemplary practices , that lend order to, and render coherent and intelligible, the facts of experience. Rather, it is because the natural sciences have typically been more successful than sociology in bracketing-out of sustained inquiry the nature of their presupposi -tions, so as to concentrate instead on "questions of operationalization and technique" (Alexander, 1989: 18). At root, this ability reflects the capacity of significant numbers of natural scientists to broadly agree, at least for sustained periods of time, about the presupposi-tions that inform their practice. This degree of accord is itself predi-cated in large measure on the nature of the empirical referents of the natural sciences- material objects and organisms that are in prin-ciple' indifferent to, and autonomous from, the human mind that appropriates them.

    In sociology, on the other hand, the object of analysis and the means of analysis both involve ' some reference , at some point, to states of mind (of observer and observed); while description and evaluation are inter-dependent. Many sodological terms- anomie, alienation, fetishism, domination, rationalization-imply some nor-mative assessment of what they are supposed to denote. Put some-what differently, the practice of the social sciences is marked by enduring conceptual disagreements (cognitive, political, ethical) that characterize the wider society of which sociologists are part and which they are seeking to explain. Under these conditions, sociologi-cal attempts at quantificatior( have limited purchase, often "disguis-ing or promoting particular points of view" (Alexander 1989: 20). Sociology lacks the common, bridging languag:. typically found in

    The Utility, Rhetoric, and Interpretation of Classic Texts 83

    the natural sciences, for instance, the periodic table in chemistry, or zoological taxonomy. Its partial substitute can be found in the dis-cursive stature, and pivotal place, of classic texts and their authors in the discipline as a whole. On Alexander's account, then, "the very conditions which make discourse so prominent also make the clas-sics central" (Alexander 1989: 27).

    In short, "classics" are those texts that have assumed an exalted position within sociology as sterling examples of sociological dis-course and as vital points of reference for the discipline as a whole. Just why and how this is so is the subject of the next section, where I will be concerned with the classics' contribution to the field of sociology as it is practiced and thought about today.

    Classics in Common? The Uses of Classical Theory and the Discipline of Sociology

    To speak of the "discipline" of sociology is to recognize that over the course of a hundred or so years sociological perspectives have become increasingly embedded in academic organizations. Sociol-ogy today depends on, and is mediated by, a series of institutions-university departments , professional associations, journals-that jointly organize, and loosely officiate over, how its practices are to be conducted. Other indices that help us measure the degree to which a discursive activity has become academically institutionalised in-clude the following : formal criteria governing the hiring, promo-tion, pay- in short, the career- of individuals credentially qualified to teach the intellectual activity in question; the existence of regular funding mechanisms and budgets to resource its specialised teach-ing and research practices; facilities that offer students the option to "major" in the subject, and pursue research in it at the graduate level ; and arrangements that allow for the publication of information aimed at a dual audie