Should Social Scientific Debate occur outside Academic Journals?

Lecturer in Social Theory and Consumption at the School, Stephen Dunne, attempts to renew a recent academic argument through a more accessible medium

Social scientists engage in debates which matter to people other than themselves. Very often, however, those potentially publicly meaningful debates preside within academic journals which regularly assume a lot of terminological familiarity and  disposable income on the part of their readers. The open access movement, initiatives such as The Conversation and, on a much smaller scale, blog-sites like this one, redress such deficiencies in traditional publishing models by attempting to make academic debate more linguistically and economically inclusive. I’d like to try to continue this trend by inviting somebody I’ve recently had a debate/argument with to continue the interaction here. I’ll outline the context before getting there: hopefully this will whet your dialectical appetite and, better still, encourage you to contribute. Let’s see.

It is, perhaps ominously, over 13 years since I first heard the name Norbert Elias, one of (Leicester) Social Science’s most celebrated figures. During the later stages of my undergraduate studies, in Dublin, the sociologist Paddy Dolan suggested to me that Elias’s great work, The Civilising Process, could be productively studied alongside Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, an earlier reading recommendation of his I’d also gladly accepted. I spent the best part of the following three years making my way through Elias’s historical sociological work, attempting to formulate a workable research problem as I imagined he might have done. When I joined Leicester’s School of Management, just over a decade ago, I was advised by Campbell Jones, Stefano Harney, Gerard Hanlon, Ruud Kaulingfreks and colleagues at the University’s Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy (CPPE), to pose a series of critical questions concerning what is sometimes called Elias’s figurational approach to sociology. So began the development of my respectful ambivalence towards the work of both Elias and his followers.

Publishing these early reservations upon a recognised scholarly platform seemed an intellectually worthwhile exercise. If, on the one hand, I had any useful points to make, these could have been acknowledged as such and subsequently taken up by the representatives of the figurational school of sociology. If, on the other hand, my analysis was essentially misinformed then I could have been quite easily refuted by those better in the know. What in fact transpired was a little bit of both, with the emphasis, unfortunately for me at least, very much on the term little. On the plus side, Matt Clement, Andrew Linklater, Stephen Mennell, and, more recently, André Saramago, have commended my line of questioning, both through email communications and also at academic conferences. On the minus side, however, Eric Dunning and Jason Hughes, respectively Emeritus Professor and Professorial Departmental Head at Elias’s former institution, opposed my critique within their Norbert Elias and Modern Sociology. I have discussed this matter with Eric, on an occasional basis, and with Jason, on a regular basis. We’re presently considering how – and even whether – this particular debate might be pursued outside the walls of the University’s library café. Beyond these individual instances of reception, however, the figurational community hasn’t seen fit to engage with the questions I raised within that article, at least not to my knowledge.

Last year, perhaps presumptuously, I published* another challenge  to Elias’s work’s advocates. This paper placed less emphasis on the political consequences of figurational sociology, drawing attention instead towards what I alleged to be some of its chief philosophical deficiencies. The second piece takes Elias’s later work to task for disingenuously propagating an entirely misleading representation of philosophy, one which many of his most notable followers have been only too happy to endorse, with neither qualification nor caveat. Contemporary figurational sociology’s persistently collective dismissal of philosophy, I argued, is entirely counter-productive: it does the cause of encouraging a wider engagement with Elias’s work much more harm than good. Respectful ambivalence, like I said.

The article very quickly elicited a dismissive response# from Richard Kilminster, the loudest proclaimer of figurational sociology’s post-philosophical pretensions: I’d include even Elias in that superlative proposition. I was offered the opportunity to provide a counter-response by the History of Human Science’s then outgoing editor James Good, which I took*,  primarily for the sake of rebutting Kilminster’s primarily personal attacks upon me. As I put it in my counter-response:

My apparently provocative piece simply asked figurational sociologists to concede a characteristic weakness of their adopted framework for the sake of making improvements towards it. Assuming Richard Kilminster doesn’t speak on their behalf, the effort will not have been wasted.

The journal’s editorial policy prohibits debates from extending beyond the response: counter-response format. The tone of both of these pieces suggests there’s quite a bit of unfinished business to be undertaken, however. So that is why, to return to this post’s opening sentiments, I’m inviting anybody who has a view on the role philosophy should or should not play within the contemporary social sciences – Richard Kilminster in particular, of course – to contribute towards this ongoing debate, on the correct side of both the pay-wall and the jargon.






* These pieces are in the process of being lodged in Leicester’s Research Archive. As soon as they are available I will update the links. In the interim, please email me if you cannot access the final submission of either, or both, of the articles in question.

# I have invited Richard Kilminster to share an Open Access version of his published response. I will update the links, and/or this footnote, if he responds.

Originally published at

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