|Emile Durkheim (Photo: Wikipedia)|
One writer who made a huge impact on me during my transition from philosophy to sociology was Ken Plummer.
There are many aspects of his work which I now have problems with but I think my engagement with his work (particularly Sexual Stigma, Telling Sexual Stories and Documents of Life) had a big impact on how I approach sociological inquiry.
It’s on the question of the individual where we part ways and I think this can make me seem a lot less interactionist than I seem:
Certainly the concrete human must always be located within this historically specific culture - for ‘the individual’ becomes a very different animal under different social orders. This is not a book that champions looking at the wonderful solitary human being: my conception of the human subjects and their experiences is one that cannot divorce them from the social, collective, cultural, historical moment. But in the face of the inherent society-individual dualism of sociology, I argue that there must surely always remain a strand of work that highlights the active human subject? And in the face of a constant tendency towards the abstract and the linear in modern thought, surely there is also always a need for the creative, imaginative and concrete? (Plummer 2000: 7).This seemed radical and provocative to me when I first read it. Now it simply seems mistaken.
Taking a research subject’s account as a faithful reflection of ‘reality’ similarly assumes that a person is one who:Some of the methodological aspects to this are perfectly acceptable from a realist perspective.
- shares meanings with the researcher;
- is knowledgable about him or herself (his or her actions, feelings and relations;)
- can access the relevant knowledge accurately and comprehensively (that is, has accurate memory);
- can convey that knowledge to a stranger listener;
- is motivated to tell the truth” (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 11-12).
without it we can have no explanatory purchase upon what exactly agents do. Deprived of such explanations, sociology has to settle for empirical generalisation about ‘what most of the people do most of the time’. Indeed, without a real explanatory handle, sociologists often settle for much less: ‘under circumstances x, a statistically significant number of agents do y’. These, of course, are not real explanations at all (Archer 2007: 133).The correct recognition that “once methods allow for individuals to express what they mean, theories not only have to address the status of these meanings for that person and their understanding by the researcher, but they must also take into account the uniqueness of individuals” licenses a deeply problematic ‘drilling down’ into the (supposed) psychic life of the subject.