When Sociologists Use Literary Sources
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In his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association delivered in San Francisco in August 1975 (Coser, 1975b), Lewis Coser focused heavily on the contemporary development of American sociology. He criticized two main trends, the first being the excessive confidence in standardized research methods, “the insistence among many sociologists on the primacy of precise measurement over substantive issues” (ibid., p. 692). The second, exemplified with reference to ethnomethodology, was the constitution of hyper-specialized groups within the main body of the discipline, often dealing with single, limited aspects of reality, which tended to isolate themselves from the rest of the community and form sects (ibid., p. 695 ff.). Although the speech did not refer to the question of the relation between sociology and literature, it is of interest for developing a better understanding of Coser’s approach to the topic. When Coser attacks the tendency of American sociology to emphasize methodological rather than substantive questions, one is tempted to relate his remarks to the polemical attacks on the technification of the discipline found in the work of such authors as Florian Znaniecki, Robert Redfield and Robert Nisbet. The questions that Coser poses are analogous: should sociology renounce its capacity to understand society as a whole, in favour of more sophisticated techniques of research and analysis? According to Coser, the excessive reliance on the technical components of the discipline (Coser refers to statistical regression analyses and the use of computer) has, as collateral effects, its theoretical impoverishment (a theme we find already in Znaniecki) and a dangerous tendency to select themes according to their suitability for the new research techniques (ibid., p. 693) (a danger that Redfield and Nisbet had already hinted at). Ethnomethodology is criticized by Coser as an example of a narrow-minded interest in a small area of investigation, as well as for the esotericism of its members, resulting in often uselessly cryptic language. By criticizing both trends, Coser manifests his interest in a theoretically oriented social analysis, all-encompassing in its scope, and able to produce substantive knowledge of social reality.