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Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880-1940

reviewed by Peter Abbs - 1988

coverTitle: Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880-1940
Author(s): Robert C. Bannister
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 080784327X, Pages: , Year:
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Robert Bannister’s new book, Sociology and Scientism, is subtitled The American Quest for Objectivity 1880-1940. It is a detailed study of the emergence of sociology in America at the beginning of the century and its development to around the time of the Second World War. It explores, particularly, the division in the subject between what Bannister terms the “realist” and “nominalist” schools. The realists were those who envisaged their own discipline as a radical force in society able not only to diagnose but also to formally prescribe social polices. The nominalists, in contrast, were those who were more modest about their subject, seeing its main function as statistical and advisory. The realists were best represented by the work of Luther Lee Bernard; the nominalists were represented, most tellingly, by William Ogburn and F. Smart Chapin. The one group wanted sociology to be involved with a major reconstruction of society; the other, for it to be no more than a quantitative study of trends. It is not difficult for the reader of this work to see how those two strands have intertwined themselves in recent and current debates about the function of sociology.

Robert Bannister’s examination of the emergence of sociology takes three interrelated forms, which we could call the biographical, the contextual, and the analytical. In the biographical sections the author examines the childhood and background of his key figures. This is often an illuminating method because it reveals, again and again, forces shaping the theoretical constructs of which the ‘sociologists were often only dimly aware. At times the analysis offered is as acute as it is potentially uncomfortable. For example, concerning the relationship of Bernard’s behaviorism to sexuality, Bannister writes:

Translating spirit to matter, the psychological to the physiological, one might take a neutral “scientific” approach to the tabooed area. The result, in one sense, was an escape from the Calvinist past. But more profoundly it also marked an extension of the Calvinist’s impulse to control. By policing the flesh . . . the behaviourist replaced the Calvinist God who, if obeyed, promised a protection of a sort from the horrors of the flesh.

The insight registers a transposition of Christian Calvinist concerns into sociology not commonly noticed because never explicitly recognized. One of the advantages of the biographical method is that it allows the reader to look at the emergence of sociology from a psychological vantage point and in so doing to see it in a new light. One would have liked the author to have been more fully aware of the hermeneutic key he was, in fact, partially using. It was Nietzsche who proclaimed that all forms of knowing were, ultimately, forms of autobiography. It would have been extremely interesting if the author had put the method of interpretation systematically to work. As it is, it is only half-done. We are left with suggestions and possibilities rather than anything more complete.

The contextualization of the sociological work is done reasonably well, certainly with a formidable amount of learning and reference. Thus as we read the study we are given the institutions, the texts,. the departmental feuds and the wider schisms, visions, revisions, compromises, and transformations. Professor Bannister has consulted all the major and minor sources, not only the formative texts, but also the private correspondence, the note-books, the number and titles and dates of doctorates and dissertations. From this point of view, it is a highly scholarly piece of work, a thorough piece of academic research. Certainly, any American sociologist wanting to understand the historic development of his own subject in his own country now has a very precise map to consult. The origins of the discipline have been faithfully and lucidly delineated.

The analytical work is not separated from the biographical and contextual. It informs the whole book, giving, whenever necessary, definition of the major terms and some historic placement of the essential issues. The book closes with a brief analysis of the pioneering sociologists in the light of subsequent developments. This chapter, in fact, is too short and fails to offer synoptic understanding of the continuities and the discontinuities in the discipline.

Sociology and Scientism is, at the least, a useful book. It provides a thorough account of the emergence of a major twentieth-century academic discipline. At times it does more than that; it interprets, with passion and precision, an unwieldy phenomenon in the development of ideas. One is finally left feeling somewhat disappointed, however; the book does not quite bring all the elements together at a sufficiently intense level or with a sufficiently compelling set of heuristic principles. The academic details tend to block out the full interpretive possibilities. The style, while free of jargon, fails to enact the complexity of the subject matter. Thus what we have is a level-headed, thorough, impeccably researched thesis but a thesis ultimately lacking in seminal importance. Sociologists will find it useful when they wish to grasp the historical and intellectual origins of their work, but I cannot see the general reader or the educator and teacher reading the work to enhance understanding either of life or of the play of ideas on life. It is a strange paradox that the passion for academic impeccability so often stands in the way of the actual books we intellectually and imaginatively need.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 4, 1988, p. 593-595
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 549, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:29:52 PM

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