Saturday, July 28, 2012

Chesterton and Sociology

In my early teens, [my grandfather] would sometimes stomp around his living room, where he used to shave towards mid-day with bowl, brush and open razor, deriding my ignorance and mocking the made-up discipline of sociology, which I at one stage claimed to be studying. "What is sociology?" he roared derisively, twisting and rolling the silly word on his Hampshire tongue. I knew, alas, that he was quite right.

Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God

Thus writes Peter Hitchens, one of my very favourite writers and commentators, in one of my very favourite books. (I think everybody should read both that one and The Abolition of Britain, his masterpiece.)

Sociology is often mocked as a made-up and pointless subject, the Media Studies or Women's Studies of its day. (Will I be considered homophobic if I add Queer Studies?)

It is interesting, then, that Chesterton seemed to consider his classic What's Wrong with the World as sociology:

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called "The Remedy." It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that "The Remedy" is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology. It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure. But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease .

Even if he did not consider his own book as a work of sociology, Chesterton was at least using the world sociology in 1910-- sixty years before Peter Hitchens went to university-- in a way that seems to accept its basic legitimacy.

I think sociology gets a bad rap. It should not be compared to truly rubbishy disciplines like Women's Studies and Media Studies. I am currenly reading Yearning for Yesterday by Fred Davis, a very interesting work of sociology on the subject of nostalgia. Perhaps it is sociology's pretentions to the status of a science that has given it such a bad reputation; it seems to be more of a field for the perceptive essayist. Like Chesterton. Or, indeed, Peter Hitchens.

No comments:

Post a Comment