Beyond Methodological Nationalism – The Significance of Promoting International Joint Research in Sociology

Issue 43: Sociology Beyond Europe Mon 15 Jul 2019 0

Kazuo Seiyama, Former President of the Japan Sociological Society (JSS)

Since the beginning of Japanese sociology, about 150 years ago, the main problem has been, “What is modernity, and how can Japanese society become a modern society?”. With this problem in mind, Japanese sociologists have passionately studied the theoretical and empirical exploration of modernity in Europe and the United States, absorbing many of them. The way of approaching this problem, among Japanese sociologists, was historically divided into two. One was an evolutionary approach, aimed at exploring the extent to which Japanese society lags behind the ideal or the reality of modernity in Europe and the US. The other was a particularistic approach, aimed at explaining differences between Western society and Japanese society, not by its delayed development, but by the uniqueness of Japanese civilisation and culture. These two contrasting approaches characterised Japan’s sociological studies until the 1970s.

And yet, in both approaches, studies of Japanese society by Japanese scholars themselves basically proceeded based on the theories and concepts of the West, even if they did not completely rely on these theories. Hence, Japanese sociologists’ inquiries into Japanese society were, like “the looking glass self” (Cooley), a kind of attempt at self-understanding through the eyes of others. However, nowadays, both approaches have almost disappeared.

As is well known, social theories of Europe and the United States were greatly transformed through the 1960s and the 1970s. Ethnocentrism and modernistic bias lurking in hitherto Western social theory had been sternly criticised by new theoretical movements such as structuralism, post-modern theories, and deconstruction, as well as by the discourses of theorists such as Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu, and others. These new theoretical movements also had a big impact on Japanese sociology. Although not the only reason for the shift in Japanese sociological perspective, at around the same time Marxism and structural functionalism, the major two theories that constituted the evolutionary approach of Japanese sociology, lost their intellectual influence. On the other hand, Japan’s economic success through the 1970s to the 1980s aroused an interest in Japan’s cultural uniqueness (and sometimes its superiority) among mass media and the general public. Nonetheless, most Japanese sociologists were critical of such trends, as they considered these only a manifestation of cultural nationalism and ethnocentrism of Japanese society.

Japanese sociology after World War II adopted a great deal of the empirical research methodology of American sociology, centred on statistical analysis. However, the sociologists who have had great influence on Japanese sociology, in spiritual sense, have been classical European sociologists, such as Weber, Durkheim and Simmel. Their influences continue to this day. Japanese sociologists were particularly interested in Weber’s theory of capitalism, as explained by the ethos of Inner-worldly asceticism, and they produced many treatises related to the problem of modernisation in Japan. Japanese sociology also had a great interest in Weber’s methodology of Verstehende Soziologie (I would like to note here that there is no exact English word corresponding to Verstehende Soziologie). In Japan, this methodological position was regarded not merely as a method of action theory, but rather as “a method of studying cultural phenomena”, inspired by Dilthey’s Geisteswissenschaften. Concerning Durkheim, Japanese sociologists were interested in his collectivistic theorisations, such as “collective consciousness” or the conceptualisation of society as “sacred.” In the case of Simmel, his style of discourse by which he theorised the communal nature of society, through seemingly individualistic analysis, was particularly appealing to Japanese sociologists.

Today, many Japanese sociologists think that sociology is basically the study of understanding others. That is, sociology is not merely involved in externally analysing and explaining the social phenomena observed empirically, but it should address the problem of how to understand other people, cultures, or societies internally. This question is clearly related to the historical process of Japanese modernisation, when Japanese sociology repeatedly worked to understand itself through the eyes of others.

Contemporary sociology faces the challenge of current social shifts brought about by globalisation and the advancement of new science and technology. For example, for a long time Japanese society has severely restricted the number of foreign workers, but in recent years, as the labour shortage became serious, the government gradually opened its doors, as shown in the Figure here below. Because of this, the foreign resident population has rapidly increased. For this reason, the “Multicultural Symbiosis or Coexistence” with settled foreigners has become an important task for Japanese governmental policy, as well as for sociology. On the other hand, while the extraordinary development of Information and communications technology (ICT) has brought various lifestyle conveniences, issues such as the protection of personal data and information, social division through Social networking sites (SNS), and the digital divide, among others, are becoming serious.

From a worldwide viewpoint, one of the most serious problems in many societies is various social divides. This includes, among others, issues of expanding inequality, exclusion and discrimination of immigrants and refugees, Brexit, the election of Mr. Trump as President, fake news, distrust of the media by people, and the severe conflict between liberals and conservatives.

Under such circumstances, sociologists are required to review the methodological nationalism that sociology has traditionally adopted, whether explicitly or implicitly. Surely, despite the fact that the concept of society does not necessarily logically signify the nation-state, the nation-state has been the most obvious concrete example of society. Inevitably, sociologists took for granted that society was embodied by a nation-state. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, Japanese sociology has developed with a specific nation-state, Japan, in mind.

But now, it is apparent that sociology has arrived at a stage beyond methodological nationalism. This is not only because of the issues concerning the migration of people across borders, but also because of the nature of the challenges that sociology should deal with today. These are, as mentioned above, basically related to globalisation and ITC development, and they are fundamentally framed by the cross-border system.

From this perspective, it seems strategically important for today’s sociology to extensively promote international joint research at the global level. When the research question itself is globalised, it is important that the research itself is globalised. Besides, international joint research in sociology means promoting a common understanding for sociology across cultures and borders.

As is well known, the dominance of English in academic terminology is often a problem in sociological academic research. In fact, there is a certain barrier to presenting the analyses of the social realities of non-English speaking countries in English, as social phenomena are intrinsically language dependent. However, we cannot but use English as an academic common language; although, of course, an alternative language may substitute. And if we think under this premise, non-English-speaking sociologists have to incessantly challenge themselves to describe and analyse in English what they consider as social reality. And in this respect, international joint research should certainly have great significance. Here, sociologists with different languages and cultural backgrounds attempt to collaborate in common tasks and try to answer common questions.

Unfortunately, until now, joint research between Japanese and European sociology has not occurred very often. However, there are many common problems for Japan and Europe besides the social change related to globalisation and ITC development mentioned above. These include the declining birth-rate, aging society, the welfare system, family transformations, youth employment and non-regular employment. Promotion of international joint research on these issues may have the possibility of opening up a new paradigm of sociological exploration, beyond the traditional methodological nationalism.

As Former President of the Japan Sociological Society I strongly hope that such joint research between Japanese sociologists and European sociologists will increase in the future.

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