Excellence, Reflexivity, and Racism: On Sociology’s Nuclear Contradiction and Its Abiding Crisis

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Michael D. Kennedy, Prabhdeep S. Kehal, and Laura Garbes

For Marxists, as for sociologists, reflexive efforts at historical self-understanding are often taken as narcissistic, diverting enquiry from its proper objective of understanding (not to speak of changing) the world. –Alvin Gouldner (1980: 10)

Alvin Gouldner’s The Two Marxisms (1980) moved Michael D. Kennedy’s sociological formation. He was clearly sympathetic to much of Marxism’s commitment in figuring the relationship between theory and practice in emancipatory change, but was also concerned for Marxism’s implication in the revolutions and societies made in its name. His first book, Professionals, Power and Solidarity in Poland, was written in a spirit he took to inform Gouldner’s work: a critical sociology of Soviet-type society. But this spirit seems more important today in rethinking sociology rather than in rethinking Marxism.

Gouldner’s method is readily transported into sociology. Of course, he wrote his own critiques of our discipline, but we find his approach to Marxism more productive for engaging sociology in our times. Just as Gouldner argued Marxism to have a nuclear contradiction between its scientific and critical expressions, which in turn shaped its intellectual and political evolution, we believe sociology is weighed down by its own nuclear contradiction between excellence and reflexivity, both of which must attend to all sorts of power relations and injustices beginning, in the USA, with racial capitalism.

On Gouldner’s Method

Gouldner’s critique of Marxism reflected a general method, in which one seeks to understand any cultural object both in its own contexts and in terms of its “own internal contradictions which it insistently seeks to identify and understand” (p. 12). In the latter, one elaborates a structure of contradictions by relying on ideal types to clarify analytical distinctions in order to consider the implications of those contradictions for change within the theory and in its applications.

Gouldner’s particular thesis was that Marxism’s nuclear contradiction – between its scientific and critical aspects – typically resulted in constant splitting into subsystems where the original tension found replication. Marxism continued to split because it could never reconcile that original tension, continuing to generate its own antagonist because the limits of one Marxism found fulfillment in the other. For example, Critical Marxism was utopian in economic terms, which demanded Scientific Marxism’s address, while that latter was utopian in its political assumptions, producing a need for Critical Marxist innovation (pp. 53-58).

We find Gouldner’s method quite appropriate to George Steinmetz’s recent characterization of historical sociology as a “crisis science.” Gouldner undertook this volume’s work because he saw Marxism in crisis. For the same reason, we turn to sociology.

Sociology’s Contradictions and Its Crisis Science

Like Gouldner, we can recognize the enduring contradiction between freedom and necessity in many knowledge cultures. Our approach to sociology’s contradictions and crisis may also resemble something Gouldner himself highlighted in 1970. A disciplinary contradiction abides, he wrote,

When sociologists stress the autonomy of sociology – that it should (and, therefore, it can) be pursued entirely in terms of its own standards, free of the influences of the surrounding society – they are giving testimony of their loyalty to the rational credo of their profession. At the same time, however, they are also contradicting themselves as sociologists, for surely the strongest general assumption of sociology is that men (sic) are shaped in countless ways by the press of their social surround (p.54).

We also consider it important to recall his articulation of the importance of reflexivity in sociology’s development (pp. 481-512). However, the crisis in which sociology finds itself now is different in important ways from the one Gouldner described.

Gouldner may have marked capitalism’s contradictions and conflicts, which in turn shaped his own critique of Parsonsian sociology’s role in legitimating American imperialism and exploitation. But his radicalism remained ignorant of those axes of difference and oppression that moved beyond capitalism’s class terms. Race, gender, and sexuality (to name a few) are absent from Gouldner’s critical view; Du Bois, to name but one example, does not even merit mention. In addition, sociology, as such, was itself secure in the American university. In that time, functionalism not only served as sociology’s hegemonic theory, but it provided some security for the discipline.

Sociology no longer enjoys anything like functionalism’s legitimating language. Its own security needs to be found in a different kind of political economy of resource allocation organized around a narrative of excellence. To declare crisis could, then, deepen crisis if it led the discipline’s critics to mobilize doubt about the quality of sociology as such. We do see, however, a way out.

We propose that one of sociology’s greatest (potential) strengths is its capacity to recognize both the crisis with which it is beset and to which it contributes, rather than to normalize it.

Sociology’s strength resides in its contradictions, and can be strengthened by recognizing them.

At present, the crisis in which sociology finds itself is situated in the era of Trump and contingent upon the events leading up to this period. A significant part of the group benefiting from white supremacy has lost its tolerance for critiques of color-blind racism. Emboldened, it goes full-throttle at declaring its own escape from political correctness, embracing overt, in-your-face racism in the process. As a result, it also legitimates “lesser” forms of in-your-face racism by calling into question the bounds of what constitutes racism worthy of disavowal.

This group is occasionally shocked by the resistance mobilized in opposition to such “truthfulness,” but Trump Consciousness does what it can to re-engineer policies and practices so that resistance matters less and less as institutions and practices harden and shelter that old-time racist religion. Trump Consciousness does this under the banner of “Making America Great Again.” Trump understands that excellence – or perhaps tremendousness- would be measured in his supporters’ collective imagination through a reclamation of Whiteness as Supreme, and the Other looming large as a hindrance to greatness. While treatment of undocumented folks and immigrants is the baldest example of this, one could find its approximation in academic settings, too.

Tired of diversity talk, academics in the Trump era can start pummeling the restraints and expectations that it invokes. Christian Smith’s recent essay about all the BS in the academy is, perhaps, one of the more sophisticated expressions of this, mixing in all sorts of duplicities of academic life with a denigration of the justice-seeking scholarship we rather favor. But is there a way for sociology to distinguish among forms of BS? We think that we can on the basis of Gouldner’s method, for not all BS is so BSBlessed.

Gouldner (1980) focused more on social than logical contradictions, and was especially interested in “internal” contradictions, which occur when a system “is blocked/inhibited from conforming with one system rule because (or to the extent that) it is performing in conformity with another system rule” (p. 169). To resolve such contradictions, one might appeal to a higher rule that subsumes both aspects of the contradiction, or reorder imperatives, to restructure the code organizing the system. It helps, in these situations, to face the nightmare of a theoretical system or, more broadly, a knowledge culture.

Marxism had two nightmare questions, Gouldner argued. One was to question if private property might really be the foundation of social improvement. The other is more relevant to sociology, for both it and Marxism are haunted by the same specter.

What if sociology, as Marxism, is not really a science? What if it does not have ways to assess its claims to excellence scientifically? What if it is just a political project as its conservative critics declare?

Nightmares can illuminate. Sociology’s nightmare invites us to consider what the discipline’s nuclear contradiction is that provokes such anxiety. Might it be one between excellence, perhaps understood scientifically, and reflexivity, or an understanding of its knowledge-cultural project in critical historical sociological terms? We can’t imagine another contradiction that goes so much to the heart of our disciplinary practice in these times.

Whether sociology goes the way of Marxism, or transcends its nuclear contradiction and retains its animating spirit, remains to be seen. To do so, however, we believe it must be clear about what troubles it. However, we’re not sure that sociology’s nuclear contradiction is intelligible to the discipline at present.

Sociology’s Conflicts and Contradictions

Were we to be writing books like Gouldner’s, we would rehearse sociology’s history of intradisciplinary conflict. Kennedy already did a bit of that in 1993, in an unpublished critique of the debates then animating University of Michigan sociology, with his resolution in favor of extended reflexivity. A decade later, Michael Burawoy’s “For Public Sociology” takes a somewhat similar tack, contrasting sociologies that are more reflexive with those that are more instrumental.

Critiques of Burawoy’s work emphasized that his 2X2 tables were misleading, implying different types of sociology rather than their coexistence within all of our sociological practices. But coexistence is no virtue, especially when scholars obscure the implications of their sociology in the name of coexistence. Audre Lorde in 1979 reminded us of what is at stake in such compromise: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable” (p. 110). Taking our cue from Lorde, we need to shift the terms of discussion toward contradiction if we are to highlight the ways in which White Supremacy has worked in sociology’s formation. With the elevation of a Du Boisian sociology, the times are especially propitious.

Aldon Morris’s The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Origins of Modern Sociology offers a critical sociology of domination and exclusion, of scholarship as emancipatory praxis, all with a clear implicit sense of how things ought to be in an anti-racist society and an anti-racist sociology. More, it moves us to consider how sociology is itself directly and deeply implicated in the White Supremacist society in which our discipline was birthed, and lives.

Morris’s work is reflexive, in a manner more profound than the narrow reading of Bourdieu’s reflexivity in field, or Gouldner’s (1970) work in practice. Reflexivity can misdirect, especially if it stays within a narrowly drawn framework that takes the existing players in the room and the existing stakes of the game to be the principles around which contests over mission might be articulated. We would name Morris’s – and our – preferred exercise systemic reflexivity, to be clear that it extends beyond one’s position within a particular empirical project to interrogate the very assumptions of the knowledge culture of the discipline under which the project takes place, and the adjoining power relations making that very field possible.

Brown University has had extensive discussions of what this systemic reflexivity looks like in Du Boisian Sociology, and now joins a national, even global discussion. A Du Boisian mode of Sociology is one that “understands race and racialization to be primary constitutive elements of modern society” and finds “emancipation and liberation” to be primary goals of knowledge production. Two of its participants, Karida Brown and José Itzigsohn, have also developed a systemic account of its vision, both historically and as manifesto.

In a book manuscript they are now completing, they write against the recurrent practice of denying scholars their voice, and their place, much as Du Bois was denied. They critique practices that tell aspiring students, especially students of color, that their work is not sociological enough. More positively, they invite other scholars, so identifying, to elaborate a Du Boisian sociology centering on an emancipatory agency and the critique of racialized modernity inherent to historical capitalism, both of which are historically grounded in everyday life experiences. They embrace the “how” and not just the “why” of sociology, extending the power of Du Bois’s question, “how does it feel to be a problem?” And rather than look for common patterns in structures, they focus on relationally animated links across contexts.

We admire this Du Boisian trajectory in sociology’s transformation, centering sociology’s complicity in White Supremacy itself. Indeed, it promises a way out of the contradiction between reflexivity and excellence by inviting a question that might be considered in the whole of higher education, across the world, or in other fields dedicated to the public good, but needs special focus in sociology.

Can we consider the ways in which the pursuit of excellence is itself implicated in the reproduction of White Supremacy within sociology?

Of course, we can ask the same around other axes of difference, inequality, and domination – in terms of gender, sexuality, class, imperialism, citizenship, and other relations. Intersectionality ought be invoked too, just as we might envision intellectual responsibility toward distant, and apparently disconnected, publics. That discussion can be an expression of reflexivity, but to query the diversity of diversity can also be something else entirely: a means of denial around White Supremacy itself.

We can’t know how these other axes articulate unless we are willing to engage our own sociology of sociology and its contradictions. It’s propitious to do this when one’s university is, itself, in the midst of a profoundly reflexive moment around the meanings of diversity and inclusion, especially as White Supremacist propaganda resurges on campuses.

The Complexities of Excellence, Diversity and Inclusion

Brown University is not alone in working to figure how to realize a more diverse, inclusive, and just university, and it has advanced a familiar debate: why should we limit diversity to race, and not link it to political orientation, religious belief, national origins, sexual orientation and identification, and so on.

The complexity of that debate came to be resolved with particular administrative finesse. In its plan, Brown University proposed to focus its diversity work around “historically underrepresented groups” – measuring progress by increasing the number of people who are “U.S. citizens and identify as Hispanic or as any of the following: Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.” It reserved inclusion for the rest of diversity’s diversity, where the university must commit itself to recognizing and respecting all other forms of difference so that all might be included in academic discussion.

Much of the debate about the plan continues to focus on the adequacy of its approach to diversity and inclusion, but that misses the challenge of defining excellence in the process. Too many treat it like the U.S. Supreme Court treated pornography: most sociologists will declare that they know excellence when they see it.

We recognize excellence most readily in our own fields, but when we move beyond our methodological, theoretical, disciplinary and epistemological zones, we typically rely on more apparently “objective” indicators of excellence. But if sociology has taught us anything about excellence, we know that these indicators are themselves biased toward certain kinds of work, leading to the reproduction of institutional status within the U.S. discipline itself. And we also know that scholars, and their collectives, orient their work not just toward knowledge, but also toward affecting institutional rankings and ensuing definitions of excellence.

This kind of sociological awareness ought to change our sense of excellence itself. For example, it might even obviate the need for constantly emphasizing the conjunction between diversity and excellence, replacing a body count and a measure of scholarly attainment with the radical question: how do we know when we are advancing anti-racist excellence? What system of evaluation would we use to move up on those “rankings” if we were to imagine constructing a collective in the anti-racist image we would wish to be?

Reflexivity and Excellence in Sociology’s Transformative Anti-Racist Practice

 We need to think bigger than the proportion of non-white bodies in a room – a move that Nancy Leong carefully discusses in her articulation of racial capitalism – to also consider the ways in which disciplinary practice is itself implicated in the reproduction of racist rules and allocations of resources. We thus need to engage in an exercise of sociological reflexivity that goes beyond existing practice. We can, however, hear someone screaming the nightmare question: isn’t that just a political act? Won’t that prove to the world that we are not, after all, scientific?

Insofar as the nightmare question is posed in such a way as to deny the sociological legitimacy of the bigger question – to deny its value in extending the power and meaning of diversity and inclusion – it creates the effect it wishes to demonstrate. It is a polite way to declare, in effect, “I’m not a racist, you’re a racist.” And that, of course, denies the possibility of either excellence or reflexivity.

As Gouldner proposed, to escape the trap of contradictions generating conflict without supersession, we might focus on either a higher rule that subsumes both aspects of the contradiction, or reorder imperatives to restructure the code organizing the system.

Too many in sociology wish to imagine the higher rule in sociology as excellence, while denying the bigger question having to do with the sociology of that excellence. To suggest that the rules of excellence could be implicated in White Supremacy would, in that framework, be treated as a political statement, not a sociological question. It’s alright to acknowledge, of course, that one might be uncomfortable, or even ill-equipped, to consider the implications. We acknowledge methodological strengths and weaknesses all the time. But this is different. To deny the legitimacy of questioning White Supremacy produces a spiral of increasing conflict and perpetual crisis. Rather, one might find a way to pose a question to recode our discipline.

Sociologists could ask whether excellence looks the same under conditions of White Supremacy and under sociology’s resistance to it. And with that question, we might actually find a code for supersession. Reflexivity around the Du Boisian color line ought to enable us to reimagine excellence in times of crisis. And it does not have to end there.

Michael D. Kennedy is a Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University who has specialized in a historical sociology of Eastern European social movements, national identifications and systemic change, and more recently in the knowledge cultural sociology of social and global transformations.

Prabhdeep S. Kehal is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Brown University who studies racial theory, racism, higher education and organizational theory.

Laura Garbes is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Brown University who studies race, organizational sociology and media sociology.


1.  Based on a talk prepared for CSREA, moved by Kennedy’s academic history, but especially enlightened by our collaborative learning within Brown University’s Du Boisian group – including Karida Brown and Michael Rodriguez, now at a distance, and Jose Itzigsohn, Paget Henry, Amy Chin, Ricarda Hammer, Syeda Masood, Michael Murphy, Maria Ortega, and Tina Park. The idea for this paper was prompted, however in Brown’s senior sociology seminar, in which Carrie Spearin asked Kennedy to discuss a work influential during his graduate student years. Kayla Thomas, on hearing that presentation of The Two Marxisms, then asked if sociology had its own nuclear contradiction. This is our answer.


Gouldner, Alvin Ward. 1970. The coming crisis of Western sociology. New York: Basic Books.

——. 1980. The two Marxisms: contradictions and anomalies in the development of theory. New York: Seabury Press.