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?

Ideology, however, is not apology, although it may and often does entail it. Ideologies are world-views which, despite their partial and possibly critical insights, prevent us from understanding the society in which we live and the possibility of changing it. They are world-views which correspond to the standpoints of classes and social groups whose interest in the existing social system and incapacity to change it makes it impossible for them to see it as a whole. A large number of different ideologies have been developed by thinkers tied to bourgeois society, and there is constant development and change. But they are all part of bourgeois ideology, not because they express the immediate interests of the ruling class or are developed by it, but because they are limited, in theory, by the limits of bourgeois society in reality; because their development, including even their criticism of bourgeois society, is governed by the development of bourgeois society and is unable to go beyond it. As such, as bourgeois ideology, they face certain theoretical dilemmas, the solution to which lies in going beyond the standpoint of bourgeois society; just as in practice there are certain problems which cannot be solved within its framework. But because they assume it, they are condemned to reproduce the problems and to reproduce the same one-sided answers which will not solve them in reality.

It is the way in which it is structurally determined which eludes even a perceptive historian of the development of sociology like Gouldner. He can trace many of the links very accurately, both within thought and between thought and society. He can portray trends. But he cannot understand sociology as a component part of bourgeois social thought as it has developed, from the days which it was a part of a process of revolutionary change, until today when the bourgeois social relations which it takes as given are a monstrous barrier to human progress.