With Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests spreading across the globe this year, this ought to be a moment when sociologists cast valuable light on how racist thinking affects everyday life. Sociology is, after all, deeply invested in its Others; racial others, gendered others, economic others, indeed every other other, is at the focal point of the discipline, even if too narrow a lens is applied when studying some of these social others. Sociology should matter now more than ever. Yet it disappoints, because it doesn’t know its others very well.
I should know, because I am Black, and I’m a sociologist who has had (mostly white) professors and colleagues attempt to teach me about being Black since I was first an undergraduate. It’s an odd position to be in: to find myself the object that my peers make a living off examining.
As a Black student at a predominately white university, sociology provided a welcome home for me, and other students of colour, most of us fledgling activists eager to develop a framework to better understand and describe our alienated experiences. Early on, and in keeping with just about every introductory sociology course across North America, I was assigned C W Mills’s text The Sociological Imagination (1959). The first chapter on the ‘promise’ of sociology is routinely used to introduce students to the basic principles of the field. I learned that specific individuals are located historically, and also in relation to social structures that preceded and will survive them; that particular societies tend to produce particular types of people; and that personal troubles are related to larger social problems, but since they’re not identical they warrant different analytical lenses.
Sociology’s foundational tenets ought to help us understand how racist thinking and practices, such as police harassment and discrimination, continue to shape nearly every facet of social life. And they are useful for thinking about the way the United States produces particular types of racists. But this usefulness has its limitations. Like other social sciences, an overemphasis on empirical findings leads to research that says more about the techniques of sociology than about society itself.
At the heart of US sociology are two interlocking fixations: method and race. Together they prop up a liberal fantasy of discovering Black pain – of somehow measuring it and then documenting it in great detail, again and again. Black identities and lived experiences are endlessly layered and diverse, but this is a problem for methodologies that require (or presume) fixed categories to produce research that is generalisable, verifiable and replicable – the hallmarks of social scientific enquiry. Regardless of whether the work is qualitative or quantitative, it’s the purported empiricism of the field that separates it from the humanities and interdisciplinary studies, encouraging a flattening of Black life that overlooks its diversity and pleasures. Blackness is treated only through the lens of social problems; we are defined by where we fall on normal distributions, or bell curves, that track how much we adhere to white norms, or else remain social outliers. [Continue reading…]