Should We Cancel The Core?
Rebecca Jean Emigh
We decided that we could jointly explore these themes. Emigh wanted to discuss, collectively with the participants in a classroom, whether there is a sociological canon of classical theoretical works with ongoing relevance to sociology or not. To this end, we selected sections from Marx and Weber discussing concepts that are widely taught in classical theory courses, such as accumulation, capital, exploitation, legitimacy, social closure, bureaucracy, as well as a few other theorists, such as DuBois, Habermas, and Foucault. Thus, we selected a number of “classic readings” that certainly might be part of a canon (if one exists). Then, we tried to find “current” (though some are not so temporally current) updates of these readings. We used, along the way, some other well-read theorists, such as Bourdieu. We wanted to go further, too, and selected, as much as possible, some of the many subaltern positions that are more than often excluded from the canon, like BIPOC, women, and global South authors, such as Squires, hooks, Mbembe. Our objective was not to essentialize topics to identities, but to acknowledge the multiplicity of standpoints in the discipline that update, challenge, or extend the original concepts that sociologists work with. Instead of providing a fixed syllabus, we also let the students choose the topics that they wanted, and ordered the selected readings in the most coherent way.
With these in hand, we are hoping to discuss whether the “classic” reading is relevant today, given the “current” updates. We tried to understand relevance in multiple ways. One, does the reading have analytic power, that is, does it continue to have explanatory/descriptive power for understanding contemporary (as opposed to historical) social life? Second, is it adaptable, that is, is it sufficiently flexible that current scholars can update/build off it? Third, does it deal with current topics, that is, does it address issues that sociologists and actors in everyday life regard as important/salient? Finally, is it sufficiently influential that regardless of its analytic power, adaptability, or topicality it needs to be understood and contextualized? We shall see! Of course, this class is not a “survey” of the canon in the broad sense of that term. Given the shortness of our quarter and the attempt to link the “classic” reading to “current” readings, we cannot conduct such a survey. We focus mostly on Marxian and Weberian concepts and a few others that are well linked to them. (We ignore Durkheimian concepts, etc.) Nevertheless, the readings do follow a sequence and build on each other, so there is coherence. In particular, in class, we have a discussion of what we should do with the “classic”: a) “cancel” it—it is too old, biased (or worse), and no longer useful, b) keep it, but with specified revisions as needed, c) continue to use it more or less as is. Emigh has been surprised that we often have to “keep” the classic, as despite many of its drawbacks, it had inspired new work in creative ways. However, it was also clear that the more recent work dramatically expanded the classic ideas, in fact, so dramatically that the classic also made relatively little sense without the current updates. Also, with the different perspectives and current updates, we found the concepts more apt to understand social reality, apart from having more engaging and interesting discussions. This course will hopefully encourage students to critically reflect on the field as it has been historically constituted as well as consider how to build a more reflexive and less reified sociology, one that does not assume but rather continually questions the existence, composition, and even desirability, of “canon.”