Feynman on sociology

Kevin Ralston, York St John University, 2018

Richard Feynman

Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) was a theoretical physicist who was part of the team who worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. This year was the 30th anniversary of his death. He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965, which he shared with two others. He studied at MIT and Princeton before taking posts at Cornell and Caltech. By the time of his death he was one of the most famous scientists in the world.

From the standpoint of today Feynman seems like an exceptionally high-spirited academic who had many diverse interests. Within physics he developed pedagogical materials and programs of study. Beyond physics he was involved in selecting resources for the high school science curriculum and sat on the enquiry for the Challenger space shuttle disaster. At times he also wrote about what he considered the contribution made by non-scientific fields of study. Perhaps then, it is worth taking note of what a Nobel Laureate wrote about an encounter he had with sociology. This occurred at a conference where he was the scientific representative among academics from various disciplines who had been brought together to discuss the ethics of equality.

There was this sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on the list. I had this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly so I can figure out what the hell it means.”

So I stopped-at random-and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”

Then I went over the next sentence, and realised that I could translate that one also. Then it became a kind of empty business: “Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio,” and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn’t understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it. 

Richard P. Feynman 1989 ‘Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman’, Unwin: London

As a sociology undergraduate and post-grad I read a lot of theory in the original. I read Marx on Capital, the penguin classics edition in three volumes. I read Foucault and remember quoting from the text in a seminar and the lecturer commented on how unusual it was to have a student do so. I read Earnest Mandel on Marxist Economic Theory. I was reading this as a post-grad and got about half-way, but by this point my views on the importance of reading this stuff in minute detail was shifting. I had been making notes in the margins, if I were to dig this book out of the box it is in I could still find where I stopped reading! This is not an attempt to show off, but to establish that I have done some hard yards on theory and believe I have earned the right to be critical.

In my view a substantial proportion of sociology is exactly as Feynman described in the quote above. It is an exercise in obfuscation and the needless use of complex language for its own sake. It is a self-re-enforcing construct (by this I mean there are so many people engaged in this they perpetuate the practice in their interests) intended to appear as if there is something important or profound being communicated, when, in reality, what has been written is mundane or simply empty. I can understand people who have found a way to get paid 50k or 90k, say, to write in a stylised manner about general social life, would logically keep that going, particularly if they are being told by their peers how wonderful their work is. For those not being directly paid (students/the public/Nobel Laureates) there is almost certainly more useful things they could be doing than translating sociology into sensible language.

The final part of my own move away from believing that it is important to spend time deciphering the type of sociology that people have purposely worked to make difficult to understand was reading Colin Mills blog on Blah blah sociology. For me blah blah sociology is where the aim in the writing has become to express things in an obscure manner. Here Mills lamented the reality of a sociology conference where ‘None of the talks seemed to have much truck with carefully articulated questions addressed with appropriate empirical evidence.’ If you read Feynman this is exactly the issue he had with the conference he attended on the ethics of equality.  Feynman’s description anticipated blah blah sociology perfectly.

Feynman and his wife, Gweneth Howarth, at the Nobel ball 1965.

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