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The core object 'society' and sociology's public relevance: History versus theory

Wickham, G. (2012) The core object 'society' and sociology's public relevance: History versus theory. Journal of Sociology, 48 (4). pp. 427-442.

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The recent collection Sociological Objects: Reconfigurations of Social Theory provides plenty of evidence in support of the proposition that there is not a strong mood within sociology today to conduct an ongoing productive debate about 'society' as the core object of the discipline, in the way that, for example, economics conducts such a debate about 'the economy'. Instead, sociology is much more likely to have disparate debates, each organized around a different object or candidate-object. That is, most debates within the discipline about what is, are, or should be its object or objects are conducted by advocates of some theoretical trend or other which these advocates think more important than other trends, and certainly more important than the object society. This situation is far from conducive to increased public relevance, especially because, in most cases, the target audience of each debate is a cohort of insiders. If the discipline were to more strenuously organize and/or participate in public debates about society it would at very least find itself associated with a notion which has currency beyond the field itself, such that even if sociologists were to debate society using technical language they might still attract wide public attention, in the way that economics attracts such attention when it debates technical aspects of the economy, like monetary policy or 'irrational exuberance' or the technicalities of the derivatives behind the global financial crisis. Using Sociological Objects as a launching pad, this paper explores the decline within sociology of the object society and shows how easily the lessons offered by historical insights can be undermined by a particular attitude toward the use of theory.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Publisher: Sage
Copyright: © 2012 The Australian Sociological Association
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