The new challenges of sociology



The current intellectual needs and demands of our field of study


Sociology asaffirmation", or like "interrogation". These were the mottos of the presidential speeches in 1962 and 1987 at congresses of the Brazilian Society of Sociology, separated by a quarter of a century of inactivity by the Brazilian Society of Sociology during the dictatorial period. The question that arises now is whether this alternative responds to the current intellectual needs and demands of our field of study.

When Florestan Fernandes presented his presentation in 1962, he was really concerned with the issue of sociology as a science, that is, of sociology as capable of telling society important and, above all, well-founded things about itself, which it does not spontaneously perceive and that go beyond common sense. From the outset he was concerned with the foundations of what sociology had to say. And on that basic point his position was unequivocal. Sociology has its own and relevant voice to the exact extent that it establishes itself and by extension asserts itself as a science, capable of offering society something that only it would be able to do: methodically constructed knowledge.

Bearing in mind the very broad framework in which he moved, he showed that he already sensed that the problems surrounding rigorous scientific activity would become more pronounced later on. And he did so driven by direct clashes in which he was involved. Florestan Fernandes strongly participated in the campaign in defense of the public school, and with that he faced much of what was not only conservative but also reactionary thinking in the middle of the last century. And, in terms of the Social Sciences itself, he entered into controversy with the positions in another quadrant of the political spectrum, of a national-developmentalist nature, supported by ISEB, in particular with the sociologist Guerreiro Ramos, a great interlocutor who defended a position that Florestan Fernandes did not could accept.

For Guerreiro Ramos, it would be necessary to soften the strict requirements of the method a little in the name of the limits that the level of development of society could impose on the use of expensive instruments and research organization and with high demands on training. Florestan did not accept this, and committed himself to defending science in its most advanced terms, in an intransigent position in the name of rigorous knowledge, in open combat against any concessions in this area.

In a way, he reversed the conception of Guerreiro Ramos, who in the conditions he saw around him was more concerned with making the scientific treatment of social problems capable of producing results that could be more immediately applied in society than with the standards of method achieved in more advanced research centers. For him it was the opposite. The more difficulties the conditions of society imposed on the production of scientific knowledge, the greater the rigorous practice of the requirements of the method would have to be, because otherwise there would only be room for the most varied forms of disqualification of science in the name of irrationalist modalities of explaining the world.

For Florestan Fernandes, the answer was clear: sociology as an affirmation, as a firm position in favor of the most advanced science in contrast to the opposing tendencies that he had known up close. There was a sense of urgency in his speech, a warning of the need to mobilize science in the task of consolidating and advancing in a society with a democratic profile that, in 1962, seemed receptive. Despite this, he noticed the signs of vulnerability and threats in society, such as those that would materialize in 1964.


However, there is a clear inversion in the circumstances that demanded attention in 1962 and 1987. In 1962, Brazil, at the height of the developmental process under the Juscelino Kubitschek presidency, was experiencing the high point of the post-Vargas democratic period, to then enter the countercurrent that would lead to the 1964 coup and the authoritarian closure in 1968. In contrast, 25 years later we entered a new period of post-dictatorial political openness and walked towards the 1988 Constituent Assembly, without the clouds on the horizon previously perceptible to Florestan Fernandes. It seemed possible, in a way, to consider the task of affirming sociology accomplished, which knew how to take advantage of the paradoxical traits of the regime, when it associated political and cultural repression with support for development mechanisms.

This policy focused on research in all areas through the expansion of graduate programs and the consolidation of areas of research in science and technology, without, however, closing the field of social sciences. And these revealed an unsuspected ability to organize and act in their representative entities, culminating in the creation of ANPOCS in 1977. This allowed reaching 1987 with attention focused on defining the requirements and conditions for advancing research in a social science that saw as worthy of the name.

When this new situation presented itself, one issue seemed very strong. It was she who was presented as the motto of the Brazilian Congress of Sociology at that time. The question was the following: let us admit that sociology does demonstrate the ability to assert itself as a science. Given the challenges she faces at the present time, how to define her profile? One sociology or many? Are there several or just one? On that occasion, a disciple of Florestan Fernandes twisted the motto of “Sociology as affirmation” to convert it into “Sociology as questioning” in the new times that were opening up, with all its unknowns. This last term, by the way, makes it possible to characterize the difference of visions involved, when it casts uncertainty on the position passionately (enlightenment, in the terms of the 1987 speech) committed to reason and method.

Now, after another 35 years, the reference to the new times that were opening up takes on a certain bitter aftertaste. However, the correct mix of affirmative intransigence and interrogative caution allows one to go beyond this, which, after all, is more properly a sociological problem. There is no irony in this: it is a matter of pointing out that reference is a situation that requires interpretation and monitoring along its path.

At that time, there was a strong impulse to show that it was up to sociology to face a multiplicity of questions that required a certain diversification. And for that very reason, it would be up to her to specialize internally and deal appropriately with issues related to different dimensions of society. It was really opportune to pose the question in this way, because, as Élide Rugai Bastos well remembered in her speech, it helped a little to clarify aspects of society that would be relevant to the constituent debates a year later. What was important was that we were entering a period illuminated by something like a democratic euphoria, a great energy directed towards the tasks of national reconstruction that lay ahead.

The watchword was not, as before, to ensure scientific rigor in order to carry out tasks of a democratic nature, but to directly give primacy to the democratic content. Again we have an inversion. If in 1962 the democratic content of scientific work was presupposed and what mattered was to ensure the quality of rigorous science in research, at the end of the authoritarian regime there was a tendency to superimpose the demands of the moment, defined as democratic, over care with the fundamentals of research. In its extreme formulation, although frequent, the dominant question was that of “getting to the concrete”. Let's give voice to the people, to those somehow suffocated by forms of domination. This “giving voice” sounded like enough to characterize a problem from common sense, as if dispensing science with using its own resources to better formulate it.


This movement ended up losing steam and other issues would come to be installed in the debate, directly centered on the problem of the best theoretical approach in sociology. And in that period what ended up prevailing was not so much the question of whether it was a sociology in bloc or several, but rather the different ways in which its fundamental question could be equated. There was in the air a kind of search for different perspectives and a bit of a struggle for theoretical hegemony in the sociological field.

Who produced the best model? And that is why, for some years, new sociological “turns” were constantly sought, that is, new methodological and theoretical approaches that focused attention on those aspects that proved to be relevant, as occurred in the “linguistic turn”. It is not the case to discuss this variety of approaches now; the idea was not so much of various sociologies, but of various forms of adherence by Sociology as a whole to certain ways of understanding the world.

In a way, this search for new conceptual and thematic anchors evokes, in its own way, the questions posed by the alternative between a decidedly affirmative position of sociology's ability to produce relevant knowledge on a solid basis and the position that asks about sociology's ability to maintain integrity in the face of new challenges.

It was about the combination between the growing complexity of the world and the development of other areas of the social sciences, which are not limited to being partners, but tend to expand vigorously and, at the limit, place sociology in the condition of a mere participant in the task to provide the knowledge society. The interrogation therefore had a precise target. At stake was the specificity of the knowledge that it was responsible for producing by its means.

Neither attention to the demands of the scientific method, which could produce rigor while reducing the ability to respond to emerging questions, nor the multiplication of sociologies with different outlines subject to the risk of fragmentation, were able to face the new challenges. Unitary and compact science or multiple science, a Sociology or several, as the theme of the 1987 congress questioned. The two things combine and demand new formulations of the central problem.

Sociology has not adequately faced this issue so far. But what does she have to face? To begin with, what I want to say is that Sociology is now facing an array of challenges that it cannot face by thinking about itself, thinking about its internal organization in search of some form of intrinsic improvement. Of course, she has to improve herself all the time, but that's not the big issue. It's just that the challenge of the new world situation is too strong for sociology alone to be able to give any answer.

She has to urgently conform and accomplish something that she has not been doing satisfactorily, which is the interlocution. And I'm not just talking about dialogue with society itself, with the questions it poses (this, in fact, has always been tried to be done); but interlocution with other areas of knowledge. Alone, sociology will not cope with this. It has to be articulated within the social sciences and beyond them, in the different ways of seeking knowledge in the Humanities and, why not, outside them.

Without becoming a capable interlocutor of other areas of knowledge, it will be helpless, if not simply sinking. The watchword, then, is to impose oneself as a qualified interlocutor in the scientific scenario. And interlocution means more than seeking answers in another field. It is being able to create a situation that moves the partner to go beyond mere predictable answers and leads him to formulate new questions in search of the essential, which is to conceive of new problems.

In short: interlocution is not mere conversation or consultation, it is a confrontation in which both sides must prove themselves capable of mutually promoting advances in knowledge. In these circumstances, she has to do something fundamental: to be herself – that is, to reinforce herself internally – and at the same time to be more than she is, to open herself up to the outside, not in a subordinate way and also not as an attempt at hegemony. , but as a qualified partner.


I would say that after sociology as “affirmation" It is like "interrogation", the present moment is that of sociology as “interlocution”. Interlocution not only with the world, but with the different areas of knowledge and creation, without exception and always respecting the basic requirement of rigor. Without that, we'll talk trivia. Now, what can you expect from this sociology? And what is yours? To be able to be an interlocutor, she has to know very well what is her own, what her field of knowledge is. And what does it consist of? I want to suggest here that there is a very precise formulation of what Sociology really is, from the perspective of its object and, by extension, its specific problems. Master Octavio Ianni states that sociology deals with “forms of sociability and the play of social forces”. This is sociology. That only she knows how to do articulately. It is a formulation of unrivaled clarity and conciseness.

The shapes and the game, the setting and the dynamics of the thing. Capturing this represents a huge advance, which demands literally redoubled attention. On the one hand, we have the great forms of organization, in terms of what ties the whole together. On the other hand, we find fine movement, that which occurs between the lines of society, the apparently insignificant that, however, sets the tone of the whole. It is not a question of resurrecting the tired theme of the macro and the micro.

The object is not directly at stake, but the way of knowing it, which is not limited to the (indispensable) questions of method, and requires the formation and exercise of a whole way of thinking, attentive and agile, always ready to see the world and recognize potential partners in the effort to get to know you. Alongside the panoramic view of the structures, there is a sensitivity to what, borrowing terms enshrined in classic works, would be the “elementary forms of sociability”, without which the great framework of institutions is empty, as well as effervescence (another inspiration classical) creativity within society cannot simply dissipate.

To advance on this path, we have a first requirement of method: escaping from the merely linear, from the desire for direct access to things, which is the counterpart of seeking to solve everything by one's own strength, instead of cultivating one's own strength to better connect oneself to others. Restlessly mobile entities such as society require, first of all, intellectual mobility to capture fine and elusive patterns and, in a second and decisive step, decipher the way in which this vibrant presence reveals more than it hides what gives meaning to the larger whole, itself with elusive contours.

To face a task of this order, there is no way to move alone. You need to gain confidence in your own integrity and inner strength to speak clearly and get the other person to respond in a way that sustains the conversation. What is at stake is not the complementarity on the very margin of the interdisciplinary style, nor even the creation of hybrids, as was the case in sociobiology, but the dialogue on equal terms between partners located in different fields. This is only possible by formulating questions of interest to both parties.

Perhaps an attenuated model of this exchange, more tenuous because the partners are very close, is given by the current of forces represented by the exchange between social knowledge and political knowledge carried out in the constitution, still in progress, of a political sociology, which, consolidated, will represent a remarkable advance in the knowledge of society.

It is concluded that it is time to bring affirmation and interrogation closer together through the effort to associate the two in the art of interlocution. Otherwise, the most important step, which is choosing the interlocutor, will not be carried out. Of course, this involves a change of focus, moving from rigid objectivity to plastic intersubjectivity in the treatment of facts. This exchange can be fruitful, but it does not make the work in each field any easier. On the contrary, it greatly increases method requirements, in addition to involving new demands on researchers' training and professional practice. As can be seen, defending the status of scientific interlocutor for sociology is not a simple thing, it involves a high risk. But it is something to be seriously considered.

*Gabriel Cohn is professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of The Difficult RepublicQuicksilver).

Originally published on the website Other words.

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