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Are many sociologists pessimists nowadays?

By Kristof Decoster
on March 16, 2015

It struck me last weekend when I read an interview in a Belgian newspaper with Saskia Sassen, a well known sociologist. She recently wrote the book Expulsions: Brutality and complexity in the global economy (which is on my reading list, and probably should be on yours too).  She argues in the book that what we are witnessing now, in the 21st century, can no longer be just described in the usual terms of poverty and (in)justice, it feels more like “expulsions” of entire groups of people.  According to the reviews & interviews I read so far, the book can be considered as a sociological version on speed of Guy Standing’s “The Precariat” & Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st century’, and then some more.

Anyhow, Prof Sassen was in Belgium last week for a lecture (annex obligatory interviews), and at some point the journalist asked her (it felt more like a statement, actually): “Aren’t you just a pessimist, Mrs Sassen?”     (case closed, you almost heard him think)

The question struck me as I do feel  sometimes (even if I know generalizing is usually not a bright idea) that the average sociologist, at least in Europe  (Sassen immediately denied being a pessimist, but she works in the US), is nowadays more pessimistic  about the state of the world, society and the planet than people from many other scientific disciplines working in global health, be it the ‘can do’ engineers,  voluntarist public health doctors (who want to “get the job done”) or economists (who tend to see opportunities rather than crises; or put differently, unlike sociologists, many economists focus on the ‘innovation’ in ‘disruptive innovation’ rather than on the possible ‘disruption’).   (As for lawyers, they are a breed of their own. So hard to make generalizing statements about these fellows, although many do favor rules and only the rules (see Wolfgang Schäuble as one of the latest cases in point).)  Political scientists might, on average, be more cynical than many other (global health) disciplines.  But that doesn’t lie too far from pessimism either. And so on. (disclosure: my background is political sociology, which probably combines the worst elements of the two, political science & sociology)

Of course, within all these abovementioned disciplines you have exceptions to the rule (or even downright outliers and radicals  (we have quite a few of the latter here at our department)). And arguably, for most of the disciplines mentioned above, there are some sub-disciplines where scholars have pretty similar ideas (as these social scientists),  but they are often marginalized within their own discipline. (I don’t think the average People’s Health Movement medic (or my Cuba-loving colleagues) are archetypical for the medical profession, or more ecologically oriented economists for their discipline)

By and large, in 2015, my feeling is that at least in Europe, many scientists from the ‘softer’ social science disciplines are more worried about the world as it is evolving, less ready to embrace new technological advances (often for good reason, but also partly because we have trouble to understand them fully), and more inclined to question our entire socio-economic system than most other global health disciplines.  It’s more than deep concern, actually. It comes very close to pessimism and feeling overwhelmed by the multiple challenges of this era. And I don’t think it’s just conservatism.

Pessimism is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it can border paralysis. This is one more argument why global health teams should be multi-disciplinary. After all, sociologists, of all people, should know everything about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The prevalence of pessimism in this era among many of my peers does strike me, though: 20 years ago, I would have said that social scientists (or at least the softer disciplines, and especially sociologists), on average, were the ones dreaming about changing the world for the better, the scientists’ version of the hippies (including the ridiculously long hair, pot and the near constant lack of money). That seems no longer the case, on average (except for the money situation). Most sociologists would still like to change the world, even badly and urgently so, but often give the feeling that they’ve given up, deep in their heart. Even if, like now, one hears a piece of encouraging news (first decoupling at global level ), the average European sociologist will probably think, yes, nice, but what are the chances that we’ll pull off the transition in time to avoid runaway climate change? Same for the debates on superintelligence,  synthetic biology, …

It could be, that my hypothesis here is a bit biased (based on personal assessment, middle age &  personality) and Euro-centric – I have a hunch that pessimism doesn’t sound very American, for example. It might be that social scientists in different parts of the world, for example in countries with emerging economies, feel different and more upbeat, or that sociologists from a younger generation in Europe and North-America feel different as well. I would hope so.  It’s just a hypothesis anyway.

Of course, for a proper mix of angles in teams, a mix of scientific disciplines isn’t enough. You also need a gender balance, a good age mix, etc. But there’s something peculiar to many scientific disciplines, due both to self-selection & socialization during the study.  So when teams are set up, team members’ overall world view (pessimist, realist, optimist) probably needs to be balanced too.  By the way, I wonder whether the biomedical “bias”/superiority feeling one often hears about part of the global health community, is to some extent not also partly inspired by this very different mindset. ‘Can do’ people typically don’t have much patience with people they perceive as being ‘negative’.

Having said that, there are some people  saying that, in the current (dire) circumstances, optimism is no longer a moral duty…

But then again, they tend to be sociologists 🙂

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