What is sociology? The textbook myth is that it is ‘the scientific study of society’. But this is a notion that few sociologists would straightforwardly defend. If it is not this, however, what is it? There is no easy answer. In fact there is a large question-mark, presently getting larger (not least in the minds of the sociologists and their students), over the nature of the ‘discipline’.

For anyone concerned with finding the answer to this problem A. W. Gouldner’s book, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (Heinemann, £3.50) is a text of major importance. Gouldner’s focus is ‘theoretical’, and sociological ‘theory’ is a very special world. This focus is, however, the right one. Students may study sociology, and governments, local authorities and college administrations may support it, because they believe it provides ‘facts’ and ‘practical’ policy guidelines. Up to a point it does; and this empirical underbelly of sociology is essential to its institutional growth. But even when, as in Britain which (as Perry Anderson has argued) has never produced its own ‘classical’ sociological theory, empirical research is to the fore, there is always an ideological component—the belief in ‘the facts’ is itself an important ideology. And in the modern expansion of sociology, this ‘theoretical’ or ideological component has been pushed to the centre of the discipline.

For as sociology, even the most minute, ‘factual’ study must be referred eventually to the body of thought which is called ‘sociological theory’. This is what defines sociology as a profession: the carving out of a structure of ideas, a context of argument, of a particular kind. Within this framework, empirical study is validated. Only by endowing his work with ‘theoretical’ significance can the empirical researcher aspire to a place in the upper echelons of the profession. The big boys are all ‘theoreticians’; they have a kind of magic, separating them from everyday discussion of society, which the pure empiricist does not possess.

For if the material basis of the recent expansion of sociology is capitalism’s need, vaguely perceived by educational planners, for certain kinds of white-collar technicians, this is not the material basis of sociology. Sociology is primarily an intellectual, or more specifically ideological, response to the major social and political struggles of the last 200 years, which has been translated into an academic, professional, context. And it is important to note that the ‘professionalization’ of social thought, while effectively ensuring its co-existence and collaboration with the powers-that-be, is also a way of preserving its relative autonomy. Which explains why independent spirits (if not militant revolutionaries can exist within it; which in turn helps to explain the irate response of academic sociologists to the charge that sociology as such is bourgeois ideology.

But this it is. Sociologists operate, by and large, with a reductionist conception of ideology; they think that to be called bourgeois ideologists means that they are charged with being capitalism’s yes-men. They point out, quite rightly, that only some of them are, while others are declared opponents of many social evils and established powers. They point out too, that while some sociology is conservative, other schools of sociology exist which provide the basis for radical social criticism. Surely this can’t all be bourgeois ideology?