History is Not Bunk: Why Comparative Historical Sociology is Indispensable When Looking to the Future

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 18:30
Location: Hörsaal I (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Oral Presentation
Stephen MENNELL, University College Dublin, Ireland
Henry Ford famously remarked that ‘History is bunk’. Too often, sociologists seem to have believed him. Although in its origins our discipline largely was comparative historical sociology, the decades since the Second World War have witnessed what Norbert Elias called a ‘retreat of sociologists into the present’, resulting in a social science that is mainly ‘hodiecentric’ (to use a word coined by Johan Goudsblom). ‘Historical sociology’ has come to be regarded as just one empirical specialisation among many – as reflected in the ISA’s organisation into the watertight compartments represented by its 55 Research Committees, 4 Working Groups and 4 Thematic Groups. I shall argue, however, that the neglect of the past has jeopardised sociologists’ ability to look forward intelligently to the future. Indeed, the hostility to Marxism that marked a generation of Cold War thinkers such as Karl Popper led some social scientists to link distrust in the study of the past with distrust of predictions of the future. I shall argue that this syndrome has diminished not only sociology but also the conduct of world affairs: for example, a wider understanding of the social foundations of democracy, gradually developed over long periods, might have served to curb the West’s militaristic adventurism.