The sociological imagination can be engendered by social marginality. It flourishes at times of rapid change and in environments of diversity; it can be obscured by academic isolation far from the maelstrom of late modern life; it can be forcefully suppressed by government intervention; it can be rung out of the budding scholar by a tedious apprenticeship within the discipline – a so-called professionalization – which prioritizes quantitative methods and digital distancing over human contact, verstehen and patient ethnography. For Mills a key indice of loss of such imagination was the rise of abstracted empiricism where reality was lost in method and measurement, where the tools of the trade become magically more important than reality itself, where to put it metaphorically, the telescope becomes of greater importance than the sky.
I have traced in this book how abstracted empiricism has expanded on a level which would have surely astonished Mills himself. How in much of the social sciences reality has been lost in a sea of statistical symbols and dubious analysis. I have, in part, focused on developments in criminology because it is here where abstracted empiricism and positivism has flourished to the greatest extent, producing a new genre of research and a novel breed of journal which has all but forgotten a great legacy of scholarship, where theory has been banished to the passing nod and the perfunctory and critical work significantly marginalized. But such a process has, as we shall see, spread to mainstream sociology and has clear resonances throughout the social sciences.
Even if a science of society were possible, positivism is poor in its measurement and tawdry in its theory. Such a conceptual inadequacy is manifestly multiplied by its refusal to recognize that cultural nature of human beings: their ability to turn factors and circumstances into narratives of their own making. As it is, the new ‘scientific’ criminology has been unable to explain the drop in the crime rate in the recent period just as it failed to explain the rise in crime in the sixties through to the eighties. Countless anomalies in research findings occur, their supposed veracity merely bolstered by their repetition rather than any approximation to the truth. Often the researchers sense that they are skating on thin ice but the hubris of science and a great deal of physics envy helps them navigate the pond. Such toxic data corrupts any policy recommendations and raises questions of the direction and extent of funding.
This book calls for a fundamental reassessment of the direction in which criminology is heading. If it can create a moment of hesitation and contribute somewhat to the growing scepticism with regards to the widespread desire to quantify every aspect of the human condition it will have succeeded in its aims.
Jock Young is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justiceat The Graduate Center, CUNY, Professor of Sociology at theUniversity of Kent, and the author of The Criminological Imagination.