Arthur Stinchcombe: 6 Reasons to Read Sociological Classics
Marx, Durkheim, Weber. They remain our pillows in… I mean pillars to Sociology. Much subsequent work situates themselves within the paradigms of these classical thinkers. Why is it that we remain obsessed with them, even if their most notable assertions have been countered and disproved by modern instruments of scientific analysis?
Arthur Stinchcombe (1982) has identified 6 reasons, to be seen as distinct. His prose is highly readable, so it makes sense to cite his words directly:
1. Touchstones of excellence
“A touchstone… is a concrete example of the virtues a scientific work might have, in a combination that shows what work should look like in order to contribute to the discipline.”
“[T]hink of ten books in sociology [you] would most like to have written, then to analyze those ten to figure out what virtues [you] would have to develop in order to do the kind of work [you] admired.”
2. Developmental task
“[A]dvanced students need something more complicated than the clichés of elementary textbooks, in order to persuade them to make their minds more complex.”
“What one wants, to induce complexity and flexibility into the mind, is found in those thinkers where we suspect we are getting only half the argument the first time through.”
3. Badges of identification
This involves “using a few citations to the appropriate literature to indicate generally in what tradition one is working.”
“The use of classics as identifying badges tends to produce sects rather than open intellectual communities. The badges tend to become boundaries rather than guides.”
4. Source of fundamental ideas
“If in a paper one modifies an idea nearer to the main trunk of a science, one is more likely to be addressing questions that the great minds of the past also have addressed, and to find their orientation useful.”
“[Y]ou can do something useful to the trunk of theory only if you approach it from the twigs.”
5. Source of empirical hypotheses, hunches, hints
“[T]he classics contain a lot of twigs as well as the trunk. Part of the way we recognize theoretical classics is by their empirical fruitfulness.”
“One way to find twigs nearer to the trunk is to examine the puzzles that still have not been investigated in classic works.”
6. Expression of solidarity
“We define what holds us together as sociologists in part by having a common history.”
“The impatience of quantitative people with classics is perhaps the central challenge to our feeling of being a moral community.”
The reason for distinguishing these reasons for reading the classics is clear to Stinchcombe: “What is destructive about admiration of the classics, then, is the halo effect, the belief that because a book or article is useful for one purpose, it must have all the virtues.”
I found Stinchcombe’s discussion to be quite illuminating. As a student, I particularly identify with the first two reasons. I’m not a ‘theory’ person, but I’ve been convinced of the utility of the classics. This is why I’ve voluntarily applied Marx to the experience of doing online surveys, and applied Weber to the motivation behind studying Sociology.
And I was actually right. Sometimes we use the classics as our pillows; they lend us comfort as badges of identification and expressions of solidarity.
With the ergonomics settled, look back on the readings you have read and the literature reviews you have written. How have the classics – and also more contemporary greats; the likes of Goffman and Foucault – served you? How might they serve you better from now?
Arthur Stinchcombe – Should sociologists forget their mothers and fathers.^ (1982)