Wars: Is Astrology Sociology ?
lizabeth Teissier is well known in France as the weekly horoscope columnist for a popular television guide, the author of a half-dozen books on astrology, and the astrologer to the French president Francois Mitterrand. But Ms. Teissier, 63, has recently found herself on the front page of French newspapers for something that hundreds of people do every year : defending her dissertation.
A Ph.D. candidate in sociology, Ms. Teissier spent almost 10 years completing a 900-page thesis on astrology and in April received a passing grade at the Sorbonne for her efforts.
On the personal Web site where she lists her accomplishments -- which include predicting the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, the 1987 stock market crash and the fall of the Berlin Wal -- Ms. Teissier has mounted a photograph of herself in scholar's cap and gown accompanied by the words: "She would like to create a chair in astrology at the Sorbonne."
An account of Ms. Teissier's thesis defense ran on the front page of Le Monde, France's most important daily newspaper. Suggesting that at least parts of the manuscript (cumbersomely titled "The Epistemological Situation of Astrology in Relation to the Ambivalent Fascination/Rejection of Postmode rn Societies") read more like the justification of a true believer than a scholarly analysis by a skeptical scientist, the article set off a storm of protest .
Over the last few weeks, fueled by fresh revelations -- like Ms. Teissier's having referred to Max Weber, one of sociology's founders, as a "pragmatic Taurus" -- the debate has only gathered steam, pitting sociologists who insist that the case concerns a thesis that fails to meet minimum academic standards against those who argue that the real target isn't Ms. Teissier but a maverick strain of sociology that has failed to win establishment approval.
By now, most of the major French newspapers have published opinion pieces. More than 400 sociologists have signed a petition asking the president of the Sorbonne to make an independent evaluation of the case. And the French Association of Scientific Information has assigned a group of scientists and social scientists to review the thesis. They hope to release their report within the next two weeks. On the advice of her academic advisers, Ms. Teissier has decided not to speak to reporters, at least until she receives her diploma later this summer. But her supporters contend that her thesis, whatever its faults, is the casualty of a larger conflict within the discipline over methodology. The real debate, they say, is between the followers of Emile Durkheim and followers of Weber. Or, to put it another way, between positivists who rely on quantitative techniques and objective measures when assessing social life and phenomenologists who attach greater importance to subjective experience and emotion.
Writing in Le Figaro earlier this week, Judith Lazar, a lecturer in sociology at a University of Paris branch campus, complained that Ms. Teissier was the victim of a witch hunt. Noting that most of her critics hadn't even read the thesis, Ms. Lazar said: "Wouldn't it be braver to admit that what we're really after isn't the author of this thesis (because what harm can this woman do to sociology?) but her adviser, Michel Maffesoli? Indeed, on many occasions, this professor has expressed his differences with a discipline mired in old-fashioned academicism and has not hesitated to defend original subjects in order to bring a little fresh air into a moribund sociology."
There is no question that Mr. Maffesoli's scholarship falls at the extreme end of the phenomenological camp. "What I do is a very Weberian sociology, which is not well represented in France because of the Durk heim current that insists all must be explained by reason," said Mr. Maffesoli. His books include studies of contemporary hedonism and New Age practices as well as a treatise on "ordinary knowledge," which he sees as rooted in everyday life and encompassing the irrational, illogical and emotional aspects of human experience.
In the view of many sociologists, this work lacks methodological rigor. Writing in Le Monde in April, for example, Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, sociologists at the Ecole Normale Superieure at the University of Aix-en-Provence, accused Mr. Maffesoli of promoting a social science that favors "lived experience, groundless interpretation and off-the-cuff analysis" over reason and objectivity.
Despite these jabs, however, Mr. Maffesoli's critics insist that their objections to Ms. Teissier's thesis have nothing to do with methodologica l disputes. "There is an opposition between Weber and Durkheim, but it has nothing to do with Elizabeth Teissier," said Alain Touraine, a sociologist at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, pointing out that Weber stressed the need to back up all assertions with objective evidence.
According to her critics, Ms. Teissier's thesis is simply not social science. "I've read the whole thing," said Dominique Desjeux, a sociologist at the Sorbonne. "It's the testimony of somebody who is a well-known astrologer and writes about her experiences. She cites letters from ordinary people as well as testimony from Mitterrand. There is no sociology."
Bernard Lahire, a sociologist at the Ecole Normale Superieure de Lettres et Sciences Humaines in Lyon and director of the group charged with reviewing the thesis, agreed. "There is no trace of empirical fact or research method," he wrote via e-mail. "The idea hammered home from beginning to end of the document is that astrology is the victim of domination. That science, which is renamed 'official science' or 'monolithic thought,' oppresses astrology."
It is extremely unlikely that Ms. Teissier's degree will be revoked, he said. He added: "I personally consider this defense a blow to our discipline and an insult to those who do their work properly. It's not an accident that Elizabeth Teissier is using sociology to legitimate astrological discourse. Our discipline is all too often a haven for people who are not rigorous and who are sometimes antirationalist."
In a letter published in Le Monde, Ms. Teissier reminded readers that a doctoral degree could not be obtained on the basis of "notoriety and the production of 300 or more pages" alone. Like other students, she noted, she has completed all the course and examination requirements for a sociology Ph.D. She signed the letter "Astrally yours."