- Introduction by Eric Brun (EHESS, CSE) - Vanessa Gemis (ULB)
- Some remarks on the role of intellectuals: The case of the yugoslavian PRAXIS-Philosophers by Krunoslav Stojakovic (Universität Bielefeld)
- The double marginality of comics in the field of publishing by Floriane Philippe (ULB)
- The ranking of (para)medical specialties and the marginalization of the elderly. The relegation effects entailed by the « humanization » of nursing homes’ by Clément Bastien (GSPE) - Olivia Rick (INS-HEA, GSPE)
- Between marginalization and participation: German lecturers in Turkey 1933-1945 by Günal Incesu (Universität Bielefeld)
- Marginalisation de l’avant-garde littéraire italienne en France, 1900-1920:
le cas de La Vraie Italie by Amotz Giladi (CSE, Paris)
- Franco Moretti, Graphes, cartes et arbres. Modèles abstraits pour une autre histoire de la littérature by Claire Ducournau (Université Paris-Est LATTS)
- Hervé Serry, Naissance de l’intellectuel catholique by Blaise Wilfert (ENS)
- Luc Boltanski, Rendre la réalité inacceptable, à propos de la production de l’idéologie dominante by Michel Daccache (CSE, Centre de Sociologie Européenne / EHESS)
- Roland Lardinois, L’Invention de l’Inde. Entre ésotérisme et science by Gisèle Sapiro (CNRS/CSE)
PDF - 207.7 kb
Abbott administration art authority avantgarde Comic strips Bourdieu scholastic capital catholicism medical field Field circulation collaboration Collins comparatism cultural studies domination double marginalization échanges intellectuels internationaux economics writers publishing Edward Said elite epistemology ethnography event exile experience France geriatrics World War One specialties’ ranking ideology intellectuals literature market marginalization methodology modelling globalisation student mouvement music nationalism neoliberalism obedience Pan-latinité philosophy professions quantitative resistance social sciences second World War sociology of knowledge sociology of Ideas translation cultural transfer transnational Turkey university Yugoslavia champ contrat économie enseignement espace espace géographique espace social genre goût histoire des concepts littérature méditerranée moyen âge post-modernisme réception revue science politique sociologie de l’art sociologie des sciences statistique syndicats territoire violence symbolique
Number 01 - January 2009
What is the new sociology of Ideas? A Discussion with Charles Camic and Neil Gross
Humanities are not so common an object of investigation for social scientists. Other disciplines (intellectual history, political science or even philosophy) tend to challenge the accounts produced by sociologists. Moreover, the sophistication of disciplines such as philosophy or economic analysis can sometimes be a barrier for sociologists working on them. Could you briefly describe your personal trajectory, your education and past interests, and the reasons why you turned to the sociology of ideas?
Although I “turned” about 10 years ago to using the expression “sociology of ideas” to describe my work, I’ve actually been doing research in this vein onward from my time in graduate school.
When I was a sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s, my initial interests were social theory and the sociology of education. In terms of theory, I was especially drawn to the classics, to 18th- and 19th-century European authors. In terms of the sociology of education, I was particularly interested in micro-sociological studies, in research on the social processes by which learning occurs.
Following these two interests at the same time, I started to wonder about the relationship between schooling and the kinds of intellectual-historical changes that theory scholars sometimes examined and, specifically, about how educational processes shaped the historical development of social theories. Naively, I thought that these were issues which sociologists had already addressed and that I would find the results of this research if I consulted work on the “sociology of knowledge.” At the time, I had little notion of what the sociology of knowledge was. But a subfield with this name seemed to me that it would likely offer sociological insights about how education shapes thought – and, by extension, social thought, the ideas of social thinkers.
As I began reading the sparse literature that then made up the sociology of knowledge, however, I was quickly disabused of this expectation. In an article that I would write many years later, I described the period after 1965 as an era when the sociology of knowledge was a “specialty in retreat.”  So when I encountered it in the 1970s, I experienced it in at low point in terms of theory and research. Even so, as I advanced through graduate school and realized that I would need a professional identity when I entered the academic job market, I started describing myself (inter alia) as a “sociologist of knowledge,” since no other available rubric really fit the project I was then pursing for my dissertation.
For, still gripped by the question of how educational processes affect the development of social theories, I had by this point decided to study the ways in which schooling and other early learning experiences shaped the ideas of the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. In retrospect, this seems like a bizarre subject for a sociology dissertation. But the University of Chicago then accommodated certain oddities – and so, as it happened, did the academic job market of the late 1970s. Indeed, despite my peculiar topic, I ended up with a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which at that time, as now, managed to combine its reputation as the most “mainstream” of American sociology departments with a remarkable tolerance for work (like mine) that was outside the mainstream.
Located at Wisconsin for the next 25 years, I continued along this same research path: carrying out a range of studies of the historical development of other sets of ideas (albeit American, rather than Scottish) and – until the mid-1990s – locating these studies mainly in the “sociology of knowledge.” By this date, however, an overhaul of this antiquated rubric seemed long overdue. For, by then, work in many other intellectual quarters was likewise bringing into the spotlight the social processes by which ideas develop and making these processes central topics of empirical investigation. These lines of work included the writings of (Andrew) Abbott, (Pierre) Bourdieu, and (Randall) Collins – the ABCs, as I like to say, of this newer literature – as well as the contributions of certain scholars from science studies, cultural studies, intellectual history, and elsewhere. It was in this context that Neil Gross and I began grouping this work together as the “sociology of ideas” and trying to work out a coherent agenda for the area.
It is true that more orthodox intellectual historians, philosophers, political theorists, and, yes, sociological theorists have sometimes been critical of this program – the latter three groups because they tend to regard ideas as hallowed creations whose origins elude mundane sociological explanations, the first group because it prefers explanations of a non-sociological sort. These responses resemble the negative reactions of historians of science and practicing natural scientists to the work of science studies scholars and they suggest some of the same professional resistance, which we will perhaps discuss further later in this interview.
Still, critics make a valid point when they insist that sociologists of ideas should deeply engage the substance of the ideas for which they seek to account. No more than science studies scholars can dispense with a detailed knowledge of the branch of biology, chemistry, or physics whose social processes they seek to analyze can sociologists of ideas succeed without steeping themselves in the ideas of the particular human agents who they study and understanding the intellectual-historical context of these ideas. The writings of Quentin Skinner, the great contextualist intellectual historian, have strongly influenced me; and as I have studied, over the years, different groups of economists, psychologists, and others, I have aimed for this kind of thorough contextualization. I have encouraged my students to do the same.
Any sociologist of ideas worth his salt will naturally be suspicious of the autobiographical narratives of intellectuals. These may contain important life-historical details and references to self-concept, but rarely do they resemble the kinds of causal explanations sociologists of ideas demand. It is tempting to think that the autobiographical accounts of sociologists would be an exception to this rule. Looking around at some recent examples of such accounts, however – for example, Pierre Bourdieu’s Sketch for a Self-Analysis, or the essays in the volume Our Studies, Ourselves: Sociologists’ Lives and Work, edited by Barry Glassner and Rosanna Hertz, or those in The Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the 60s, edited by Alan Sica and Stephen Turner – has convinced me that while sociologists’ self-narratives are obviously more likely than those of other intellectuals to invoke sociological themes, they present no exception to the general tendency to privilege rational reconstruction and intellectual and even moral self-aggrandizement over the kind of distanced and dispassionate characterization that true reflexivity would require. To be asked as a sociologist of ideas to say something about one’s own intellectual trajectory is therefore to be presented with a major challenge, for it is to be asked to generate a narrative with which one is almost certain to be dissatisfied.
With that caveat in place, I can say a few words about what biographical factors seem to me to have led in the direction of my recent work. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in an intellectual household just outside of Berkeley, California. My parents weren’t academics. My mother stayed home to take care of me while my father, trained as a lawyer, worked as an editor for a continuing legal education publishing house run by the University of California. But both were avid readers, and for my father especially this meant wide-ranging intellectual fare, from history to philosophy to literary criticism to psychoanalytic theory. At the time, I wasn’t much interested in what he was reading. It all seemed extremely boring. But not infrequently he would try to talk with me about big ideas – often in a bid to convince me that they were more interesting than whatever episode of CHiPs or Benson I happened to be glued to at the moment. It took me a long while for me to realize that ideas really were interesting. Still, being raised in a setting where ideas were taken so seriously as objects of attention probably inclined me to find a way to work them into my sociological research when I eventually settled on a career in that discipline. The intellectual tenor of the household, along with the financial wherewithal of my parents to live in a neighbourhood with good schools and to support my academic skill-building extra-curricular activities like high school debate, were also important factors in helping me do well enough in college at the University of California-Berkeley to be considered by a top-flight graduate program.
In the sociology department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the mid 1990s, big idea types of the sort I eventually fancied myself to be had essentially four options arrayed before us. We could submerge our broader interests in theory and philosophy and become mainstream sociologists studying stratification or demography; turn toward Marxist theory and work with Erik Olin Wright; write marginal master theses and dissertations that would relegate us to the fringes of the discipline; or find some way to bring our orientations and interests more or less in line with mainstream sociological sensibilities. I chose the last of these options, modelling myself after Camic, who in his work on Parsons (I hadn’t yet read Experience and Enlightenment) seemed to have found a way to do work on the history of ideas that was well respected by sociologists. It was around this time that he and I started discussing the prospects for a “new sociology of ideas.” In conjunction with writing our chapter together on that topic, I began fishing around for possible dissertation projects. It is absolutely right that sociological accounts of intellectual life lose credibility if their authors are not thoroughly steeped in the intellectual approaches they are analyzing. I wasn’t a philosophy major in college, but, partly because of my father’s influence, I had taken a fair number of philosophy courses as an undergraduate and continued to do so at Wisconsin. So it seemed smart to contemplate a project in the sociology of philosophy (though I initially toyed with doing something on the fate of psychoanalytic social theory).
At the time, there was tremendous interest in the American humanities – and to a lesser extent the social sciences – in the tradition of classical American pragmatism and how it might inform and alter debates, particularly in the philosophy of science. Riding this wave of interest, I read a lot about pragmatism, took some classes on it (including one taught by Hans Joas, who visited Wisconsin for several semesters), and wrote my masters thesis on a series of lectures Émile Durkheim had given in 1913-14 on pragmatism and sociology. So when I finally decided to write a dissertation exploring the rise of a contemporary philosophical movement, the revival of pragmatism seemed a natural object of study. Looking back on it, it wasn’t a very good dissertation, but the one chapter I wrote on Richard Rorty later became the seed out of which my book grew. Since that book was published last spring it has taken a beating in the popular press, where it has been reviewed by humanists who can’t stand the idea of sociological biography. But I take pride in the fact that not one of them has seriously questioned my treatment of the philosophical material. I think that’s mostly a Berkeley intellectual household effect.
You coined the phrase “new sociology of ideas” to describe the research field your works aim to contribute to. Presenting your object as the study of “women and men who specialize in the production of cognitive, evaluative, and expressive ideas”, and more precisely of “the social processes by which their ideas - i.e. their statements, claims, arguments, concepts, beliefs, assumptions, etc. - emerge, develop, and change” , you build on past theories such as sociology of knowledge or sociology of science. According to you, what are the main features which make this “new sociology of ideas” so new?
“New” is, of course, a relative not an absolute term. For, if we take the agenda that we’ve associated with the “new sociology of ideas” and, from this vantage point, we then reconsider various other lines of work in and out of sociology, it is certainly true that some of this work does speak directly to that agenda. And it is true as well that we find the largest concentrations of this work within the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science, though intellectual history has obviously contributed its fair share as well.
Even so, one would be hard pressed to sustain the claim that the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science deal principally with the social processes by which the ideas of the men and women who produce ideas emerge, develop, and change. At best, the development of ideas has been one among a much larger range of topics that have occupied sociologists of knowledge and science. As such, it has had to compete for attention, and historically it has not generally fared well in this competition. Indeed, many influential programs for the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science have been largely silent on the social processes by which ideas develop, where such programs have not actually gone further and denied that the development of ideas was a legitimate topic of sociological study.
So what is “new,” in the first instance, about the new sociology of ideas is simply the fact that it locks ideas in as objects of sociological investigation, so that they no longer face elision or eradication as a topic, but acquire an established place of their own on the roster of subjects that merit analysis by sociologists. How many sociologists will actually take up this subject and conduct research on the social processes by which ideas emerge, develop, and change remains, obviously, an open question. But just as the study of economic, political, medical, familial, and legal institutions advanced more successfully after sociologists’ generic interest in institutions gave rise specifically to economic sociology, political sociology, medical sociology, the sociology of the family, and the sociology of law, so research on how ideas develop seems likely to make greater progress once an identifiable intellectual space upon which to do this work is demarcated. With academic subfields as with baseball fields, the same principle sometime applies: “If you build it, they will come.” At least that is the hope.
Admittedly, this is by no means the complete picture. Contrasted with previous work in sociology that has focused on the development of ideas, the new sociology of ideas exhibits several other comparatively distinctive features, two of which I would spotlight here. First, as mentioned in answer to question #1, it approaches the ideas whose development it tries to explain by first situating those ideas in their own historical contexts. Second, in seeking to identify the social processes by which ideas emerge and change, it looks beyond macro-social factors – e.g., broad economic, political, and religious conditions in the societies that the men and women of ideas under study inhabit – to a range of institutional factors, attending particularly to how these factors are locally configured.
In these two ways, the new sociology of ideas, as I have pursued it in my own research, stands under the influence of certain trends in the sociology of science and in intellectual history in recent decades and departs from dominant tendencies in the traditional sociology of knowledge. But my own preference for historically contextualizing ideas and for formulating more micro-level explanations is just that, a preference, not a covert attempt to restrict the sociology of ideas hereafter to a single approach and to prevent scholarship in the field from going in very different directions. Here, as elsewhere in sociology, the desideratum is a multi-vocal area of theory and research, whose practitioners freely pursue a diversity of approaches. In this instance, the only necessary point of accord would be a shared commitment to keep the sociological focus squarely on ideas and the processes by which they develop.
For me, one of the things that distinguishes the new sociology of ideas from its older counterpart, the sociology of knowledge – above and beyond the characteristics we identified in our chapter  – is a particular kind of explanatory commitment (which is of course different from a commitment to explanation in general). The notion here is that although the sociology of ideas may require distinctive methods, it should be pursued in a manner that is broadly consistent – in terms of the logic of explanation, conceptual deployment, and evidentiary standards – with research being carried out in other subfields of the discipline. While it is obviously the case that different social processes are at play in different social realms, to imagine that the processes affecting intellectuals and their ideas are so radically dissimilar from those affecting other social actors as to require that the sociology of ideas toss aside established disciplinary conventions and explanatory strategies is to exhibit remarkable naïveté. Because of this explanatory commitment, in its most developed forms the new sociology of ideas is recognizable as sociology by any working sociologist, and it is the expectation that this is how things should be that accounts as much as anything for the scepticism new sociologists of ideas have toward older, conceptually woollier sociology of knowledge approaches. If it is an inadequate explanation today for the success of a social movement to point to its affinities with the culture of the times (which it obviously is), then it should be an inadequate explanation of the success of an intellectual movement to do the same. Work in the new sociology of ideas tends therefore to be of a piece with other forms of sociological research, and leading sociologists of ideas like Abbott or Bourdieu or Collins work on a wide range of topics and apply the same explanatory sensibilities to all of them.
Now, in the chapter Camic and I wrote together, we did indeed say that one of the key features of the new sociology of ideas is the tendency to bring into focus the local institutional conditions and settings – shaped though these often are by more macro developments and dynamics – that give rise to the particular kinds of ideas. As I understand it, Camic’s own rationale for focusing on the local – which he describes here as merely a preference – draws on arguments advanced under the rubrics of Skinnerian contextualism and science studies, with the latter influenced by ethnomethodology and its tendency to see social order and facticity as local productions. I too have paid a great deal of attention to the local in my work, but for me this has followed primarily from the particular explanatory commitment just mentioned (which is of course as important to Camic as it is to me). In sociology today there is a general expectation that causal accounts of social phenomena must be able to specify plausible intervening mechanisms by virtue of which A makes B more likely. Regardless of the level of analysis at which A operates, if B is an idea or set of ideas, then these intervening mechanisms – whether they have to do with processes of ideational production or diffusion – must be composed in large part of the actions and interactions of intellectuals navigating the quotidian settings in which knowledge work takes place. It’s the concern to understand what happens in those settings – if only as a prelude to developing mechanism-based accounts of more meso- and macro-level dynamics – that has motivated my concern with the local. Having always been slightly less pluralistic than Charles Camic, I must register a slight note of dissent and say that I regard this as more than a preference. Being able to identify operative mechanisms is a requirement for good social science.
Talking about the attention to local, Charles Camic’s Experience and Enlightenment focuses on a very specific movement, the Scottish Enlightenment. You demonstrate that a better understanding of the origins of the ideas of these authors (David Hume and Adam Smith among others) can be achieved if one takes into account the authors’ life trajectory and personal experience. You demonstrate that “micro-level socialization settings” (family, primary school, training in universities and first professional experiences) matters when it comes to explaining the formation of ideas. This emphasis on the personal history of these thinkers seems to point out the necessity to describe the shaping of new intellectual habitus to understand theoretical changes. Neil Gross, you insist on these factors in your work on Richard Rorty (his parents’ connections to the “New-York intellectuals” , or the contrast between his traditional training in philosophy at Yale and the dominance of analytical philosophy at Princeton where he was appointed). According to you, what makes these elements important? What are the other “micro-level” elements that should be taken into account? How do they interplay with the more “macro-structural” one at stake in the “old” sociology of ideas?
The question gives me a chance to clarify an important point that I feel that I have not adequately emphasized. This is that the word “ideas” covers an enormous amount of heterogeneous matter, not some homogeneous entity. For example, in my early work on the Scottish Enlightenment, the ideas of concern were two fundamental cognitive-evaluative orientations that Hume, Smith, Millar, Ferguson, and Robertson shared and then applied when treating many different topics. In my later work on Talcott Parsons, the ideas of concern were less wide-ranging and more esoteric; they had to do with Parsons’ views on the proper methodology for sociology and with his concept of human action. In my subsequent research on American sociology during the Great Depression, my focus was on the ideas that a large cohort of sociologists brought forth to address a national crisis.
Obviously these are very different kinds of ideas, and if the issue is – as it has been for me – how did the ideas develop, there is no reason to expect that the same form of explanation will apply in all cases. Depending on the nature of the ideas under study – deep-set value orientations, technical academic concepts, programs for social reform (among literally hundreds of other possibilities) – and the extensity of these ideas – embraced by one thinker, five, an entire cohort (etc.) – micro-, meso-, and macro-level explanations, and various combinations thereof, will likely prove differentially appropriate and helpful.
You are certainly right that my own work has tended to eschew macro-level factors, and I have often stressed this departure from the traditional sociology of ideas. What I have probably neglected to make sufficiently clear, however, is that this departure has chiefly to do with the nature and extensity of the specific kinds of ideas that I myself have usually preferred to study. For the particular purpose of explaining the habitus-like orientations of my five Scots, micro-level socialization experiences did prove valuable, though what I found more useful when treating the development of technical Parsonsian concepts and methods was Parsons’ organizational location at Harvard University, at a time when the academic field of sociology stood in an inferior position to economics and philosophy.
As I worked on these projects, what led me to be critical of macro-level accounts of the Scottish Enlightenment and of Parsons’ thought was that they offered little explanatory traction with regard to these ideas. But this critique was not to deny that, for some kinds of ideas, macro-level accounts – either by themselves, or combined with micro- and meso-level accounts – would be necessary. Indeed, when analyzing the ideas that Depression-era American sociologists formulated about the crisis of the time, I myself introduced a range of macro-level forces and events (along with social-organizational factors).
I’ve never intended to dissociate the new sociology of ideas from macro-explanation. For my considered view on the matter is that the sociologist of ideas should match his/her explanatory tools to the job at hand – where this job is set by the particular ideas that s/he is examining. This is why I am avoiding the three specific questions with which you conclude your larger question here. I have no across-the-board answer to give in reply. How one would answer would depend, I think, on the ideas whose development one was attempting to explain.
Consistent with what I’ve said above, it’s true that my book about Rorty discusses at length the familial and educational settings he inhabited as a young man, and how these shaped his identities and interests and opened up for him certain opportunities while foreclosing others. The micro-level theories that Charles Camic and I deploy in our respective accounts differ considerably, but we both found it useful in trying to make sense of why the figures we studied eventually developed the ideas they did to attend to experiences that occurred relatively early in their lives. Charles Camic is certainly right that there can be no absolutely general answer to the question of how the micro and the macro intersect in the world of ideas, as there are so many different kinds of ideas that we might seek to explain, and so many different kinds of settings in which ideas develop. That said, there are a few passages in my book where I did attempt to explicitly connect up micro-, meso-, and macro-level analysis, and the way I did so may offer some clues as to how those levels could be successfully bridged in other investigations.
The passages occur in the chapter of the book that endeavours to apply the theory of intellectual self-concept to the Rorty case. My argument is that contemporary academicians acquire their self-concepts (i.e., their understanding of the kind of intellectual they are) primarily from the local institutional settings to which they are exposed over the course of their lives – a claim that basically gives an institutional gloss to Cooley’s notion of the looking-glass self.  The drive for self-concept coherence then interacts with various strategic concerns – for example, the need to get published, to establish a professional reputation, to get a good job – to exert influence over the content of intellectuals’ thought and writing. Collins, in The Sociology of Philosophies, does a good job making sense of how meso- and macro-level developments may affect the strategic side of this equation. “Intellectuals,” he writes, may be “energized by the structural opportunities opening up in the material and political world surrounding them” (622) – or presumably de-energized – which is to say that macro- and meso-level factors help to establish the opportunity structures that intellectuals confront as they go about trying to establish and pursue careers (not simply by affecting things like employment and grant-getting opportunities, but also by exerting pressure from without on the composition of the relatively autonomous intellectual field in which thinkers must manoeuvre as they aim to win status and attention). I think that’s right, and in my book I set out to give at least a preliminary, parallel account of how meso- and macro-level factors might affect processes of self-concept formation. The argument I advanced was this. Local institutional settings, such as particular families or churches or colleges or philosophy departments, tend to have certain identities or categories of personhood that they regard as sacred and venerable and others they regard as profane. These identities, which may or may not be transferred to those who pass through the institution, help to establish its cultural boundaries, and I argued that they come to be fixed on by local institutions through “complex processes of structuration, including those by which groups seek to carve out niches for themselves on the social landscape” (279). Meso- and macro-level factors are obviously implicated here, but in ways that vary so much across different kinds of institutions, types of identities, and historical periods as to render further generalization unhelpful.
Let me give an example from Rorty’s life. Rorty grew up in a household where being a liberal anticommunist was a sacralized identity, and this can be traced back to the macro-social factors that allowed the communist movement to gain some ground on American soil in the 1920s and 1930s, to dynamics that created rifts and splits within the movement, to the emergence of an autonomous intellectual scene in New York City made possible by immigration, the prosperity of the 1920s, practices of ethnic exclusion in academe, and so on. Similarly, when Rorty did his graduate work at Yale in the early 1950s, he encountered a department where the most sacralized identity was that of “philosophical pluralist” – and this had to do with efforts made by the Yale department to carve out a distinctive organizational niche for itself in the context of a rapidly transforming intellectual field buffeted by what I describe as a second wave of professionalization in American academe and the cultural, political, and material developments that made such a wave possible. The way to integrate meso- and macro-level factors into analyses of intellectual self-concept is therefore to investigate how such factors lead particular local institutions to sacralize particular categories of personhood. In the book I also develop a general theoretical account of the institutional conditions that increase the odds of identity transfer, and another way that meso- and macro-level considerations might be brought in would be by identifying some of the broader factors associated with these transfer-inducing conditions. For example, drawing on the well-known finding that much cultural change takes the form of cohort replacement and that this is so because the young are more likely to sop up new ideas and values from their environments, I argue that local institutional settings are in a better position to transfer their sacralized identities to those who pass through them – that is, to get their identities stably incorporated into the self-concept narratives of new members – if those members happen to be young. Insofar as this is so, we might add value to an account of self-concept development by considering the life course norms in place at a particular historical juncture and how these led, in conjunction with the logic of higher education and other institutions, to the availability of impressionable young thinkers.
On this notion of self concept: Neil Gross insisted in an article co-authored with Scott Frickel  on the necessary restitution of the “vocabulary of motives” used by the authors to understand what they produce. In your book, you go one step further and you claim that understanding Richard Rorty’s production requires to pay attention to the idea the famous American philosopher had of himself. To take just an example, Rorty’s turn to pragmatism during the 1970’s could be explained by a desire to remain faithful to a self-definition as a “leftist American patriot” which would be echoed by William James or John Dewey’s properly American philosophies. From a methodological point of view, how do you reconstruct those “self-concept”, you have just mentionned? And finally: how do you know that the self-narratives provided by these authors are not sheer reconstructions (making one’s trajectory either more homogeneous, or on the contrary emphasizing the ruptures)?
I can see where this question comes from, but it involves a bit of confusion. I’m happy to take this opportunity to clear the matter up. In my article with Frickel, our argument was that the vocabularies of motive drawn on by intellectuals tend to be deeply meaningful to them and that such vocabularies usually allow and even encourage those who are dissatisfied with existing approaches to found or participate in new movements that aim to upend the intellectual status quo. To the extent that this is so, we should expect that most new scientific/intellectual movements will have some significant intellectual grievance laying back of them whatever the other factors are that allow them to come into being. Explaining the rise of a scientific or intellectual movement thus requires inter alia accounting for the emergence of grievances, and the nature of these grievances may be recoverable from an examination of the statements of movement leaders. We never meant to go beyond this to imply that sociologists of ideas should take intellectuals’ self-narratives at face value.
With regard to self-concept, my claim in the Rorty book is certainly not that, as sociologists of ideas, we should somehow let intellectuals tell their own stories. As I’ve noted above, the accounts intellectuals give of their own lives are often highly problematic from the standpoint of sociological realism. That does not mean, however, that their self-narratives are irrelevant for explaining their actions. Beyond the point about grievances, the specific way in which I think they are relevant is that such narratives tend to be built around categories of intellectual selfhood into which thinkers understand themselves to fall. My argument is that thinkers labor under social-psychological pressure to do work they see as consistent with these categorical self-concepts. As to the methodological question of how one goes about reconstructing self-concepts, the answer I proposed in the book is to look for as many instances of self-talk as one can find – in interviews, autobiographies, correspondence, diaries, speeches, and so on – and attempt to discern from these the most salient and least evanescent categories of personhood a thinker places himself in at any given juncture. This reconstruction will have been carried out with maximum objectivity if most observers of that self-talk – including, where possible, the intellectual himself – will agree that those in fact seem to have been the most salient identity categories.
Sociologists of science and of humanities are often blamed for missing the proper nature of the ideas they study, to reduce them. What were the reactions to your work among the specialists of the fields you studied, and did you notice a difference in the last twenty years?
I haven’t been a sociologist for long enough to see reaction to my work stay the same or change over time, but as I mentioned earlier, Richard Rorty has had a rocky time of it in the popular press. Reviewers seem to have been expecting a traditional biography, filled with scenic description, characterological detail, and hagiography, and got something very different. Although as I also noted earlier most of these reviewers have been humanists, interestingly it’s intellectual historians, cultural theorists, and literary studies types – most with personal or intellectual connections to Rorty – who seem to have been most perturbed by the idea of developing a sociological account of his life and career. The few philosophers who have written about the book have been much more appreciative, perhaps because philosophers – especially of an analytic cast – tend to be more respectful of disciplinary differences and scientific ambitions.
My sense is that reactions to my work have varied overtime less because of the problem signalled in the question than as a result of a related factor. The question wonders whether “specialists in the fields” under study are likely to react negatively to the treatment they receive from sociologist of ideas. Although this has sometimes been my experience, the larger factor operating here seems to be intellectual protectiveness in another sense. Let me try to explain.
As I’ve said above, my first foray into the sociology of ideas was my book on the Scottish Enlightenment. Because this book appeared more than 150 years after the death of the longest-surviving member of the Scottish Enlightenment, I was, of course, safe from any criticism from my historical subjects themselves. Even so, the book met a very frosty reception from another quarter. The book happened to arrive at a time when the Scottish Enlightenment had captured the attention of a number of British intellectual historians. As you can imagine, their books and articles took a very different approach to the development of the Scottish Enlightenment than I proposed. Innocently, I thought this would make for a lively back-and-forth; but what I encountered, instead, was a large set of reviewers who were outright dismissive of the deliverances of a sociologist on their topic (Only when I was lucky enough to draw reviewers who were not intellectual historians did I fare better.)
Reactions to my work on Parsons were less uniform. In this case, my subject was a fellow sociologist, and one about whom some number of other sociologists had strong preformed opinions. Some of these were critical opinions, and sociologists who were critical of Parsons tended to welcome my attempt to “sociologize” his ideas. The years we’re talking about here, however, were those from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s; and at this time a prominent group of sociologists was engaged in launching a “Parsons revival” which would resuscitate Parsons’s theories and extend their range . Among those in this group, the response to my work was extremely hostile. What seemed particularly to offend were my efforts to contextualize Parsons in professional debates from the 1930s and to see some of his ideas as consequences of the institutional position that Parsons occupied at the time at Harvard, where sociology was a status-inferior to economics. To those spearheading the Parsons revival, these efforts of mine seemed to diminish the great man’s thought at the very moment that they were trying to redeem it; and – in an example of the kind of reaction that the question mentions – I was often accused of reductionism. To hear sociologists, of all people, resist sociological treatment of Parsons in this way was disappointing to me.
Happily, though, this was not the entire reception story. By the mid 1980s, most sociologists were neither critics nor champions of Parsons. When sociologists of this non-partisan complexion read my work – admittedly, a somewhat rare occurrence – they had no stake to defend and, for the most part, they reacted favourably to my articles, though this may have been due more to an extraneous circumstance than to any particular fondness for the sociology of ideas itself. Because several of my articles on Parsons managed to land in American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology, they entered the sociological world with a bit of a halo around them, and this likely smoothed their reception. In addition, I benefited from the generosity of some very senior members of the profession who had known Parsons personally but, by this point in time, were more interested in the analysis of the historical development of his ideas than they were in defending his views. I am thinking here people like Robert Merton, Bernard Barber, and John Riley. Deeply respectful of Parsons as a man and a thinker, they nonetheless greeted my work warmly – furnishing a counterexample to the case where specialists in a field object to the sociology of ideas.
I would also mention the reaction of two other groups that took note, now and then, of my work on Parsons: American intellectual historians and economists. My Parsons project entailed a considerable amount of original archival research, digging into the relationship between sociology and economics in the American academy during the 1930s. Intellectual historians who study this period but had not been into the same archives seemed to find this research useful. The same was true of a few economists (and historians of economics) who felt my work shed light on a neglected chapter in the history of their field. Because the relationship between sociology and economics during the 1930s was a little-studied topic, I was not offending historians or economists by tackling this subject, so they responded without resistance.
Generally speaking, this has been my experience more recently as well. As I have subsequently tried to bring the sociology of ideas to bear on a range of other episodes in the history of sociology, economics, psychology, and anthropology, I have encountered reactions that are more positive than negative both from scholars in these fields and from field historians. But there is a reason for this, I think. In focusing on the historical episodes in question, I have been studying – on the basis of archival research – neglected historical topics in which (a small number of) sociologists, economists, psychologists, anthropologists, and historians of these fields have a genuine interest but about which they do not have preformed views that they are trying to defend one way or another. This situation has given me some immunity from criticism.
This is all to the good, of course, and I have been fortunate. Even so, my sense remains that when the sociologist of ideas examines ideas in which either intellectual historians or specialists in the field under study do have a professional stake, greater resistance is likely to arise. I hope this won’t always be so.
Charles Camic, Experience and Enlightenment: Socialization for Cultural Change in Eighteenth-Century Scotland, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983
Charles Camic, “The Making of a Method: A Historical reinterpretation of the Early Parsons”, American Sociological Review, vol. 52, 4, 1987, pp. 421-439.
Charles Camic and Neil Gross, « The New Sociology of Ideas », in J. R. Blau, The Blackwell Companion to Sociology, Malden-Oxford, Blackwell, 2004.
Scott Frickel & Neil Gross, « A General Theory of Scientific/Intellectual Movements”, American Sociological Review, vol. 70, n° 2, April 2005, pp. 204-232.
Neil Gross, Richard Rorty. The Making of an American Philosopher, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008.
 See the bibliography below.
 Charles Camic, « Knowledge, the Sociology of. », in Neil Smelser and Paul Baltes (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 12, pp. 8143-48. Elsevier, 2001.
 Charles Camic and Neil Gross, « The New Sociology of Ideas », in J. R. Blau, The Blackwell Companion to Sociology, Malden-Oxford, Blackwell, 2004.
 The « New-York Intellectuals » were intellectuals and writers based in New-York during the interwar and after war periods, many of them having received their training in New-York City College. The main journal of the circle, The Partisan Review, played a major role in the constitution of an anti-Stalinist (and often Trotskyite) left. Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, James Burnham, Saul Bellow, Daniel Bell or Irving Kristol are among, others, the most prominent figures of this group.
 Charles Cooley’s (1864-1929) theory of the looking-glass self states that one’s personal identity is shaped through his interactions with others, and especially how they regard him.
 Scott Frickel & Neil Gross, « A General Theory of Scientific/Intellectual Movements”, American Sociological Review, vol. 70, n° 2, April 2005, pp. 204-232.
 In the 1980s, Talcott Parsons’ social theory experienced a rebirth in the American sociology. Several authors, among them sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, tried to rejuvenate functionalism in several subfields of the discipline.