Claudio E. Benzecry, University of Connecticut
When I arrived in the US in the early 2000s, I was surprised to find that most of the people I had read, taught and learned to think after as sociologists of culture—Robert Darnton, E. P. Thompson, Carlo Ginzburg, Richard Hoggart, Paul Willis, Michel de Certeau—were, in some cases, not sociologists, excluded from the US sociological conversations on culture, and rarely cited in the major journals.
You have to wonder why. These are all relational, agonistic, meaning-centered approaches; they look at practical and sensuous dimensions of social life, and the role of contradiction and contingency in producing action. All of them give us clues; they provide explanations that, in unraveling how things happen, give way to the “why.” They are basically in line with what US sociology has come to expect of theoretical work. So what explains this exclusion, and how does it relate to the question posed by the JTS organizers about the boundaries of theory?
It is this interstitial character of sociology, gabled between literature and science, that has caused “friction” (as David Stark  would define it) to exist, and that accounts for some of the innovative totalizing work we tend to call theoretical. What separates American sociology from that of other countries is scientism, prevalent in both our journals and among our colleagues, that impacts and distorts the theory subfield in particular ways.
This has meant, for instance, that while debts to the scientific realm are acknowledged and highlighted even in subsidiary papers—consider the current overt engagement with neuroscience—debts to the humanities tend to be occluded, ignored or hidden. The nature of sociological theoretical diffusion is such that, even when a sociologist appropriates a term from the humanities and makes that linkage clear, the link disappears in the citation process, making of the sociological author not the N + 1 in a long chain, but rather the originator of a new series.
So for every symbolic boundary that is cited, there is a Frederick Barth who is forgotten; for every material turn that is announced, years of scholarship in cultural anthropology, archeology and STS are occluded; for every discussion of embodiment, a Thomas Csordas who is marginally rescued by ethnographers goes unmentioned in theory treatises. The lack of interdisciplinarity with the humanities also means that Carlo Ginzburg (1980) spoke of following Peirce into an indexical evidentiary method around thirty years ago, way before our rediscovery of his work and how central it might be for producing explanations. We have also arrived at biopolitics, neoliberalism, and scalar work a bit later than anthropologists and geographers.
More worrisome even in the case of theoretically interesting interventions—there are many, of course—is how they may become lost in the shuffle of the standardized journal format—the language of variables and distribution even if quantification is not possible; the language of demonstration, of findings; hypotheses; and the claim of novelty. Sometimes the genre-like established relationship between theory and evidence overpowers the interesting or liberating insights the articles had to start with.
But our understanding of theory is also based on another exclusion: the exclusion of sociology that gets produced in other places.
This can be best seen in two parallel examples:
i) If you have ever opened up a British or continental journal (British Journal of Sociology, European Journal of Sociology, European Journal of Social Theory, Theory, Culture & Society, to name those published in English), you were probably surprised to see what counts as central in theory: actor-network theory (ANT); post-ANT debates; mobility regimes; the role of materiality; affect theory; the politics of scale; virtuality and immaterial labor.
ii) But I am more interested in calling attention to the second meaning of “sociology in other places:” whether work published in the US about other countries can be generalizable independent of time and place.
As part of a larger project I am working on, I looked at the American Sociological Review from 1960 to 1975, and then 1985, 1995, and 2005. The results are fascinating. The built-in assumption is that the de facto generalizable cases happen in the US. The rest of the world is limited by time and place, or bounded by history; but the US is increasingly cast as the only generalizable country.
A few preliminary observations from this study:
- Cases outside the United States are treated as comparative pieces, mobilized as sites for diffusion analyses, or framed as convergence studies.
- Case studies on countries like Thailand, Russia or Hungary (to name three) have vague references to generalization in the conclusion and are corralled into the realm of the particular.
- Canada (especially Toronto) is considered part of the US when it comes to how generalizable its results are.
- And the American South is still a historical anomaly, impossible to generalize, which always has to be signaled and made explicit, implicitly reinforcing the idea that the rest of the US is the de facto generalizable case.
So is there any way out of the combination of scientism and US taken-for-grantedness?
A) Provincialize the US.
We need to simultaneously de-provincialize the histories of peripheral societies while in turn provincializing the American historical experience. Comparative-historical sociologists have shown that the US differs from some other Western Countries when it comes to the role of religion, culture, biopolitics, class, and politics. Despite this fact, those conceptualizations seem curiously not to have been absorbed by the discipline at large. Similarly, some of what we learn from “peripheral” societies can actually be generalized: As José Bortoluci and Rob Jansen recently argued in an article published in Political Power and Social Theory, Latin America played a co-constitutive role in the formation of modernity, and in the production and diffusion of early state formation techniques. It might be time to think of the US as a limited socio-historical formation
B) Reopen the literary window of the sociological explanation.
The general US tendency towards scientism remains strong and has distorted subfields like the sociology of culture which might have been expected to bring forth more literary, interpretative, and even lyrical contributions, and to relate more strongly to interdisciplinary cultural research.
A way out of this resides in learning to appreciate the role of evocation in presenting our data. We need to learn how to carve on the page poignant moments, paradoxes without reconciliation, puzzles that invite counterfactuals, shadow cases and analogies, and potentialities that do not get actualized. We need more showing and less telling! Better literary writing, allusions, metaphors, analogies, and figures of speech.
And so I thought of a whole catalogue full of explorations by historically sensitive and qualitative scholars. Claire Decoteau’s paper in Sociological Theory on Testimonial Activism in the Aftermath of the AIDS Epidemic is a close example that comes to mind. Its beautiful opening scene haunts the reader throughout the whole article and serves as a catalyst to present the kernel of her argument about what happens to HIV signification in the public sphere. Isaac Reed’s paper on the Salem Witch Trial is masterful in how it weaves historical evidence with theoretical nuance to provide a thorough account of what from culture matters in explaining how the trials came to be. Genevieve Zubrzycki’s explorations of the Polish sensorium and the life and afterlife of Icons are both notable exemplars, as she patiently develops the intersection of political, religious and personal trajectories with materiality and uncovers how the discussed objects work less as totems and more as the site where controversies and disputes happen. Owen Whooley’s valiant exploration of the medical profession during the cholera epidemic reads like a gripping historical novel, forcing the reader to always read the next chapter as to fully understand the complexity of the phenomena; the book is plotted as if by Penelope, with each chapter leaving a puzzling thread that invites the reader to keep on reading. Marion Fourcade’s quest for not only elegance and parsimony but also for the best Jane Austen title is a model for how to write an article for a high status journal. And of course we can’t forget the original Junior Theorist: Gabi Abend’s philosophical explorations in the land of sociology.
But these relatively young folks are not alone. In a series of recent reviews, Andrew Abbott has dedicated himself, via the nom de plume Barbara Celarent, to archeologically exploring the totalizing and lyrical character of proto-sociologists like Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Euclides Da Cunha, or foreign sociologists like Gino Germani.
I want to conclude going back to my home country via Abbott, who, in reviewing Facundo by Sarmiento, invites us to rediscover the friction of sociological theory with literature. He writes:
“Whatever else Facundo is, some piece of it is great social science. The work is centrally important for us precisely because that social science is inextricably bound up with fiction, history, travelogue, polemic.”
I only wish the major US journals would listen to him.
Abend, Gabriel. 2014. The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bortoluci, José H., and Robert S. Jansen. 2013. “Toward a Postcolonial Sociology: The View from Latin America.” Political Power and Social Theory 24: 199-229.
Celarent, Barbara. 2011. “Book Review: Facundo, by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.” American Journal of Sociology 117(2): 716-23.
Decoteau, Claire Laurier. 2008. “The Specter of AIDS: Testimonial Activism in the Aftermath of the Epidemic.” Sociological Theory 26(3): 230-57.
Fourcade, Marion. 2011. “Cents and Sensibility: Economic Values and the Nature of ‘Nature.’” American Journal of Sociology 116(6):1721--‐77.
Ginzburg, Carlo. 1980. “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method.” History Workshop 9: 5-36.
Lepenies, Wolf. 1988. Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reed, Isaac. 2007. “Why Salem Made Sense: Culture, Gender, and the Puritan Persecution of Witchcraft.” Cultural Sociology 1(2): 209-34.
Stark, David. 2009. The Sense of Dissonance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Whooley, Owen. 2013. Knowledge in the Time of Cholera: The Struggle over American Medicine in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Zald, Mayer N. 1995. "Progress and Cumulation in the Human Sciences after the Fall." Sociological Forum 10: 455-479.
Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2011. “History and the National Sensorium: Making Sense of Polish Mythology.” Qualitative Sociology 34: 21-57.
Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2014. Aesthetic Revolt and the Remaking of National Identity in Quebec, 1960-1969.” Theory and Society, 42:5, 423-475, 2013.
 As Mayer Zald (1994) signaled some twenty years ago, US sociologists collectively embarked on the project of “becoming a science.” He also signaled the problems and tensions this opened up, especially with respect to its relationship to the humanities.
 Part of the issue also has to do with the competition we silently have with anthropologists, especially cultural ones, for who owns some of these topics and issues, now that they have to study the natives back home.
 And if you are interested in the differences among other non-US sociologies, the differences between French and British sociology in tone, content and form are also striking.
 Of course this does not mean that all US cases are generalized, but that US cases are thought to be generalizable.
 In fact, it was not uncommon in the 1960s to be able to generalize from cases that happened in Italy, Australia, or Argentina.
 A devil’s advocate might say that the counterpart to avoiding the literary- and transatlantic-theory friendly approach I espouse here has been the development of really good middle-range sociology in the US. Even in that case, in which what is generalizable is not the sample, bur rather processes and mechanisms; the processes and mechanisms that happen in other places do not seem to carry the same weight.