3 Questions for Martin Kohli

  • Post published:March 6, 2023
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How did you get into sociology?

Sociology was the most innovative field for those interested in society, and more generally, in the life of the mind – the antithesis to a “normal science”, when I started my studies in 1962. Sociology promised a way out of the stalemate of the 1950s, and soon became the lead discipline for the social and political upheaval kicked off by the student movements. It was also much in demand throughout the humanities for helping to ground the subject matter of these disciplines in its social context of production and reception. After my graduation in Berne (in my home country of Switzerland), I felt a strong need to go into the so-called “praxis”. Accordingly, I started to work as a staff person for educational planning in the Ministry of Education of the Canton of Zurich. Education was the lever by which we expected to be able to change society, planning was the method for it. Obviously, this ended in a strong disillusionment, and when the chance presented itself I was happy to move back to academia – first as an assistant at the University of Constance, an excellent new university right on the German-Swiss border, and then as a professor at the Free University of Berlin.

What makes you sociologically curious?

After studying education (or socialization), which is mainly concerned with the life phases of childhood and adolescence, I got increasingly concerned about what happens later in life – whether persons are indeed fully formed when they move into adulthood or whether there is still potential for change later on. This spurred my curiosity for the social patterning of the life course through the institutions of work, family, and the welfare state – the topics that have come to dominate my research over much of my career. I understood that the dynamics between action and social structure/culture require a temporal framework and that the temporality of the life course has in itself developed into an important social institution. As a consequence, age groups and generations have become a major axis of social differentiation and inequality, intersecting with those of social class or gender. I have pursued these issues in international comparative studies, e.g., of the labor market for elderly workers, of the institutions of social security and the transitions into retirement, of fertility, and of intergenerational transfers in families and welfare states – always keeping in mind the larger issue of how our societies are both reproduced and changed across the life course and in the sequence of generations.

What challenges does sociology face as a science?

The time when sociology was considered as the guiding science of modernity (or postmodernity) is long over, but sociology is still indispensable for understanding and changing society. It is however not obvious whether it is and can be a unified discipline. There are tendencies toward differentiation of approaches and subject areas that go in the direction of disintegration. This applies not only to the plurality of subjects, methods, styles of research, and connections to social movements but also to the basic paradigm of how to ground one’s claims and research results, and even to whether “science” is the appropriate term. In spite of these differences and disagreements, I think that sociology has a common core that can connect the individual parts and approaches and make them speak to each other in a broader sense. But this commonality does not come by itself – it is a challenge that must be met and worked out again and again.

The sociological associations have a key role here, to highlight the sociological agenda as a whole and to get sociologists to relate to each other. I have always been unhappy about the fact that parts of and approaches to sociology have become divorced up to the point that they are instituted in separate organizations. Examples are the divisions between the respective sociology associations at the German and European level: German Sociological Association and Academy for Sociology, and European Sociological Association and European Consortium for Sociological Research.

The Kohli Foundation for Sociology wants to help prevent these divisions from growing any further. Of course, each of us and we as a foundation have specific ideas and preferences that are more or less successfully implemented in our own work. However, the foundation aims to go beyond this and tries to look at the discipline as a whole.

How do we conceive of sociology in this sense? In our statutes, we have chosen a very general formula: “Sociology is understood as a theory-based empirical science with a broad spectrum of subjects and perspectives, but always on the basis of clear analytical and methodological procedures.” This includes many things and excludes others. It does not exclude theoretical work, even if the connection to – broadly conceived – empirics is in the foreground for the foundation. Another important challenge for us is to go beyond national societies towards a European and global perspective. And finally, we want to branch out into the interdisciplinary connections between sociology and, e.g., history, anthropology, psychology, political science, and demography. They are relevant in both directions: sociology can give a lot to its neighboring disciplines and can learn a lot from them.

In all of this, our aim is to help sociology regain its self-assurance as a science that does not exhaust itself in more or less arbitrary interpretations nor in small-scale work but produces systematic research addressing the big questions that our societies face.

Martin Kohli is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the European University Institute in Fiesole / Florence (Italy) and Founder of the Kohli Foundation for Sociology.