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The State of Italian Sociology

A Dominated Discipline in the Italian Academy

August 07, 2017

Long contested, the recognition of sociology as a scientific and academic discipline in the Italian university is a recent event. As a latecomer, its recognition and institutionalization, within the academic field and at the societal level, cannot yet be considered fully established. Consequently, even today, sociology occupies a dominated position in the academic field. Working from a Bourdieusian perspective, this essay describes the state of the discipline in the 2000s, using official data regarding the number of tenured academics, study courses, and departments as indicators of sociology’s relatively low degree of institutionalization, its dominated position, and its limited power within the Italian academic field, before turning to other aspects of the status and the state of the discipline.

Sociology can be considered a hybrid discipline, belonging to the soft sciences but located at the border between pure and applied research. Reflections on theoretical, epistemological, and ontological foundations make sociology closer to philosophy, a pure science, while the empirical dimension of sociological inquiries produces applied knowledge, useable for various purposes in different social spheres. Although other disciplines (e.g. economics, psychology, or physics) share this hybrid character with sociology, most lean more towards applied or pure poles, and these disciplines are often characterized by a neater and more institutionalized internal distinction between theoretical and practical/applied knowledge production than is generally the case within sociology.

In this regard, sociology occupies a somewhat liminal region of the academic field. Given its recent and still-incomplete institutionalization and its hybrid feature, sociology retains an uncertain scientific “identity,” remaining confined to the margins of academia and often treated as irrelevant in public debate.   This liminal position of sociology, both in the academic field and in society, weakens the discipline’s power – a fact illustrated by national data that reveals the discipline’s lack of institutionalization, its marginal position in the academic field, and hence its limited power.

To start with, out of almost 900 departments in the entire Italian university system (which includes 97 public, private, and “virtual” institutions) there are currently only five departments of sociology – that is, departments in which “sociology” is included as part of the official title and where most staff members are sociologists. In 2012 (the last year for which data are available), out of 2,687 undergraduate study courses, only 18 were in sociology, offered by 16 institutions; there were 22 graduate courses out of 2,087, offered by 18 institutions. In 2016, there were fewer than ten doctoral programs in sociology out of a total of 913 PhD programs across disciplines.

These data rather eloquently demonstrate the discipline’s marginal position, but data on tenured academic staff, compared with other disciplines, are even more revealing. The table below summarizes the comparison throughout the 2000s. The six comparison disciplines represent nearly 60% of total academic tenured positions in Italian universities in 2015. The data demonstrate how numerically marginal sociology is, compared to more applied disciplines (like engineering/architecture, economics/statistics, law), “purer” disciplines (like arts and mathematics), and even psychology, a discipline with a similar recent academic history and, to some extent, a comparable hybrid nature.

The marginal position of sociology in the Italian academy.

 As a disciplinary field, sociology suffers from a kind of fragmentation which can be conceived as a double balkanization. First, it is widely dispersed across different kinds of departments (e.g. political sciences, economics, law, medicine, engineering/architecture, humanities), often playing an ancillary role as a minor discipline dominated by other core disciplines. Although this is sometimes true for other disciplines (e.g. mathematics may be part of economics, engineering/architecture, medicine departments; psychology or law may be located in departments of political sciences, sociology, or economics) these are far more concentrated than sociology. For example, compared to Italy’s five departments of sociology, there are ten departments of arts, eighteen of psychology, twenty of law, 35 of mathematics, 56 of economics, 137 of engineering/architecture (a discipline which is also located in three specialized institutions called Polytechnics).

At the same time, sociology is also internally fragmented into the so-called componenti (camps), three academic groups based on “political” foundations rather than epistemological ones. This has largely prevented, and still prevents, Italian sociology from developing a unified approach towards academe as a whole and in its relations with other disciplines.

Finally, the sociological academic community has never been able to create a system of accreditation for professional sociologists, in contrast to medicine, law, engineering/architecture, psychology and, to some extent, economics. This has a twofold effect. First, it leaves sociology in a somewhat weak position in relation to the professionalized segment of the labor market: graduates in sociology are not considered professionals with definite skills and knowledge (it is often said that a sociologist is everything and nothing, neither fish nor fowl). Secondly, and relatedly, sociology is thus weak as a player within the academic field: the fact that the discipline does not claim to train “professionals” in the strict sense perpetuates its marginal position in the academic field.

Together, these structural conditions and dynamics provide at least an impressionistic understanding of sociology’s dominated position. Apparently poorly endowed with scientific, academic, or socio-economic capital, the discipline occupies a position removed from all three poles of Italy’s academic field – namely, the scientific recognition pole, the academic power pole, and the mundane pole of economic and social recognition. Sociology’s relatively scarce capital endowment in all three dimensions has meant that the discipline is characterized by limited opportunities for gaining symbolic and material resources. This condition – a product of the discipline’s institutional history, its academically and socially uncertain status as a science, its state of “double balkanization” and its lack of a professional accreditation – has relegated Italian sociology to the lower ranks of academe’s hierarchical space, leaving the discipline dominated and peripheral.  

Massimiliano Vaira, University of Pavia, Italy <massimiliano.vaira@unipv.it>

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