Is truth-seeking inherently conservative?

Howard Becker’s 1967 ‘Whose Side Are We On?’ is one of the most famous papers in Sociology – a staple reading for generations of undergraduates, and still the subject of argument between academic sociologists about what Becker actually meant. Yet I have just discovered (thanks to Alistair Leitch at Oxford) a later 1973 paper by Becker that I think should be much more famous, for it considers the broader relationship between radical social science and radical politics, and poses more difficult questions for engaged social scientists in twenty-first century Britain. I can’t recommend reading the full paper highly enough, but in this post I want to dwell on one question it raises: is seeking the truth about the social world an inherently conservative enterprise?

Wishful thinking and radical social science

It is often argued by radical social scientists that any pretence at ‘value-neutrality’ or ‘value-freedom’ is false, because it inevitably asks the (value-laden) questions and uses the (value-laden) categories of those in power (indeed, this is part of the argument of WSAWO). But in 1973, Becker co-authored a paper with Irving Horowitz called ‘Radical Politics and Sociological Research’, and it is this paper which I think goes much deeper. In my reading, they highlight two key tensions between radical social science and radical politics.

The first is that radical politics has its own power structures, and these may be better-served by falsehood than by truth:

“…many forms of radical politics are themselves bound to canons of secrecy, perhaps more benign than conservative politics but ultimately no less destructive of the search for truth in society. Every status quo – societal, organizational, or factional – thrives on myth and mystification. Every group in power – in a nation, a government, an economy, a political party, or a revolutionary cadre – tells its story as it would like to have it believed, in the way it thinks will promote its interests and serve its constituencies. Every group in power profits from ambiguity and mystification, which hide the facts of power from those over whom power is exerted and thus make it easier to maintain hegemony and legitimacy”

In the face of such pressures, Becker & Horowitz are scathing about sociology that colludes in such ‘wishful thinking’ – indeed, they say that their paper is an attempt “to dissuade those who think political sloganeering can substitute for knowledge based on adequate evidence and careful analysis”.

But this is partly because radical politics fundamentally needs good social science for its success; “if an analysis is factually incorrect, then political predictions will not come to pass and strategies will be discredited”.  (They variously describe a radical politics driven by wishful thinking as ‘no more than insurrectionary art’ and ‘fanaticism’). They therefore conclude that radical social science can support radical politics, without resorting to wishful thinking: “sociological radicalism can help us measure the distance between where people are and where they want to go – between the society and the utopia.”

Scientific conservatism and radical social science

Yet this is the lesser of the two challenges that they pose – for to my mind at least, it seems self-evident that even radical social science should avoid wishful thinking. The harder question to answer is whether radical social scientists must be ‘conservative’ in “in the sense of being unwilling to draw conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence”, and by “indicating the high cost of some desired act”. And this is a trickier question.

We can describe the challenge as follows. Almost by definition, any radical political action will have uncertain chances of success, and be unable to rule out damaging side-effects. Emphasising these in itself serves the status quo, by demotivating the potential supporters of radical action and emboldening their opponents. And radical activists know this, so they will serve to play up the chances of success, and play down the chances of inadvertent damage.

Becker & Horowitz are ambiguous about this. Sometimes they suggest that this causes an inherent tension between radical politics and radical social science. But as we have seen, they also emphasise that by knowing the harms as well as benefits of a radical acts, this helps radical politics in the long run. They also suggest that radical sociology should jettison conservative assumptions that are unsupported by evidence (even if the alternative is similarly unsupported by evidence).

Despite the amibiguities in this excellent article, I found it helpfully clarified my thinking about my own role. If you dwell on the risks and uncertainties of radical change, then put bluntly, you are being conservative – indeed, I’ve spoken to Tory MPs who will gladly say that they will like the world to be much fairer, but they just think that the risks of social change are too great, so we should stick with the status quo. But if you deny the risks and uncertainties of radical change, then you have left the world of social science and have joined the ranks of the activists. The challenge we face is to sit between these extremes: to be critical rather than a zealous true believer, but to be critical in the service of radical change rather than the status quo.

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