Commit sociology

During his tenure in office as the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper repeatedly suggested that sociology does not explain violence or crime. When an alleged plot against a VIA Rail train was discovered in 2013 Harper stated awkwardly that we should not “commit sociology.” He insisted that we should instead focus on personal responsibility. When an inquiry into the disproportionately high number of deaths among indigenous women in Canada was demanded, after the death of Tina Fontaine in 2014, Harper said that such deaths were not “sociological phenomenon.” As Jakeet Singh pointed out shortly thereafter in an article for the Toronto Star, we should link these rather strange statements about sociology to the Conservative government’s abolition of an important social-statistical tool in 2010, the long-form census.

Politics in Canada can be characterized along an ideological spectrum that runs from classically liberal to socially democratic. Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens each articulate a vision about how to govern Canadian society best, with an explicit or implied understanding of the relationship between personal action, freedom, and the structure of society. Harper’s comments imply that he thought his way of responding to these acts of violence was somehow free from sociological/ideological import. This is nonsense. Emphasizing personal responsibility with respect to crime over the role of society is obviously one way of explaining human behaviour. Yet as soon as you’ve read that sentence it becomes immediately clear that it’s still a sociological perspective. It simply places the emphasis on the personal rather than the social. Pace Margaret Thatcher, you cannot make sense of human agency in the absence of society.

But why did Harper target sociology? Consider a parallel question first. Could anyone imagine Harper saying, after a recession or some similar phenomenon, that we shouldn’t “commit economics?” Millions of dollars spent on advertisements for the Conservative government’s “Economic Action Plan” suggests not. Harper’s advertisements, like all government promotions of all political stripes, were symbolic gestures. He wanted Canadians to see that the ship of state was being responsibly piloted. Now, in 2017, Andrew Scheer has replaced Harper as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. Together these two men project an image of their leadership as stable and ordered, commonsensical even, providing the best context for Canadians’ economic well-being. Scheer’s speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto this past week referenced favoured policy goals: cutting taxes, small government, balanced budgets, and paying down the national debt. When Harper was Prime Minister we were reminded time and time again, whether we were watching Hockey Night in Canada or driving along the TransCanada highway, that he was responsible with our hard-earned tax dollars, unlike those spendthrift Liberals or socialist New Democrats (never mind that Harper spent millions of taxpayer dollars to tell us as much).

It’s astounding how often today’s politicians mouth the misguided truism that ideology is to blamefor poor governance, for bad policies, for mistaken responses to dramatic events such as terrorist acts, and so on. The current Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, has suggested ideology is to blame for all sorts of things on multiple occasions in 2017 alonewith respect to a rival energy policy, for instance. To use an annoyingly patronizing phrase spoken repeatedly by Harper when he was a politician, let’s be clear about this. The attempt to corner another politician or policy as ideological is itself ideological. What’s worse, though, is that this kind of tactic is often meant to distract us, by shifting the terms of debate to a place the person in question is more comfortable with. Directing attention away from the problem at hand, reframing it, this kind of response usually stigmatizes a rival view by characterizing it as a deviation from some purportedly accepted norm. That policy over there, we are being told, is impractical and prejudicial because it is too ideological. Rephrasing and re-description are of course perfectly legitimate and longstanding rhetorical strategies. They are the bread and butter of much political debate and have been for centuries. But to continue to pretend, as politicians like Harper and Turnbull often do, that such re-descriptions are not ideological is a prime example of mendacious mystification.

In saying we should not “commit sociology” Harper was being clumsily clever, though. He was a plainspoken white man whose disdain for educated elites and expert know-how was frequently timely and telling. Dismissing calls for an inquiry into the causes of violence in Canada in 2014, he was playing to his base of support. But by attempting to discredit the political relevance of sociology, by suggesting that there are certain kinds of behaviours that should not be subject to social scientific analysis (missing and murdered indigenous women, terrorist attacks, Canadian demographics, etc.), Harper seemed to be tacitly admitting that the tenets of social science stand at odds with his Conservative government.

There are basically two ways of reading Harper’s statements and those like them: either he knowingly and condescendingly lied to Canadians about his political perspective (i.e. he knew his political response implied a sociological perspective but pretended otherwise), or he is so committed to his political perspective that he cannot see it for what it is (i.e. he regards his political orientation as the only game in town, and therefore all other forms of explanation are necessarily aberrations and invalid). As a seasoned politician I suspect Harper was simply playing his strategic, ugly-Christmas-sweater game. Such responses play well to conservatives whose social outlook champions personal responsibility over and against much of the research conducted by sociologists. By studying the structure and development of society, sociologists are interested in making informed causal and interpretive generalizations about collective groups of people. To explain an action or event by sociology is to commit oneself to a social understanding of human action. Attempting to shield terrorism from sociological analysis, as Prime Minister Harper did, like making the long-form census optional, seems to be an oblique way saying that sociological explanations and interpretations stand at odds with his own. A puzzling perspective for the political leader of a society. Yet I should add that there’s nothing about small c conservatism that makes this necessarily so. Meaningful dialogue can indeed be had with a conservative who appeals to social scientific evidence and explanations about crime, about public health, about the economy.

By taking the line that he did in 2014 Harper committed himself to dismissing social science as relevant to certain kinds of political questions. He was not compelled to make clear why he did so. But in the past year, with the election of President Donald Trump and the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, we know that, under certain circumstances, nonsensical but resonant public statements can yield substantial political dividends. It’s worth reminding ourselves that no matter how crudely stated, whether by Harper, Trump, or Turnbull, an implied argument is being offered about why the kinds of evidence, generalization, and interpretation given by social scientists won’t be considered. If we’re rhetorically astute, that implied argument should be drawn out and shown to stand at odds with the way our political society is organized. For if democratic politics is, among other things, the practice of shared, equal, deliberative self-governance, then we should most certainly “commit sociology.”

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