Is Sociology Stuck in the 60s?


Mr. Wagner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University.

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Attempting to treat its numerous self inflicted wounds, the academic field of sociology continues to use the curious remedy of shooting itself in the foot. I refer to a collection of articles on the current state of the field by prominent sociologists in a recent edition of the Chronicle Review (August 12, 2005).

The discipline of sociology has good reason for introspection. Since the 1970’s sociology has seen a decline in student interest and relative research funding, the closing of several departments, increasing fragmentation (over 43 sections of the American Sociological Association, the flagship organization which curiously was originally the American Sociological Society which confers a more fitting acronym for the state of the field). Objective measures of the quality of students attracted to sociology are also disturbing: it rests near the bottom of average GRE scores when compared to other disciplines and graduate programs are far easier to get into than many other social sciences. Perhaps more to the point, on campuses and think tanks around the country, sociology and its practitioners are thought of as political activists more than scholars or scientists.

This problem has some historical roots. The first American sociologists were wedded to liberal social reform. This is somewhat misleading, since while they indeed hoped the discipline would be used to ameliorate social problems they conducted their research according to scientific methodology that attempted to objectively assess social reality. Even in their political beliefs they stressed working within contemporary systems of their day and few turned to radicalism.

By the 1950’s this focus on correcting social ills would change into a focus on more empirical and theoretical scientific research. Led by theorist Talcott Parsons, sociology made use of advances in computers, a stress on conformity and consensus in society during the decade, and increased governmental funding to become a discipline that stressed value neutral, methodologically rigorous, apolitical research.

With the 1960’s American society faced an increasingly growing and radical movement calling for abrupt, decisive social change. The civil rights movement, the free speech movement, and the anti-Vietnam war movement flowered. The vanguard of this movement existed in the ivory halls of academe. With the movement’s focus on society, sociology became especially vulnerable to its influence.

Critics of the apolitical, more traditionally scientific sociological perspective made their first real strike at the 1967 ASA Annual Meeting in San Francisco where radicals held a demonstration and introduced a blatantly political resolution calling for opposition to the Vietnam War. While this resolution failed, the radicals had made their presence known. Race and gender based ideologies gave rise to several caucuses for these groups which presented demands to which mainstream sociologists and the ASA readily submitted to.

At the 1968 ASA convention in Boston the radicals succeeded in preempting an appearance by LBJ’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and allowing radical Martin Nicolaus to tactlessly harangue the secretary (referring to him as the “Secretary of disease, propaganda, and scabbing”) and any mainstream sociologists who may have been left in the ASA on the evils of value-neutral, scientifically rigorous research. This speech, known as the “Fat Cat” speech in sociological circles, called for sociology to serve the interests of radical politics, and spelled the ascendancy of radicalism in sociology. It has been a downhill road every since. While the rest of academe moved back to positions of relative normalcy after the radical days of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, sociology stubbornly remained a very politicized field.

Therein lays the problem. As pointed out in the works of several prominent sociologists, Irving L. Horowitz in The Decomposition of Sociology and Steven Goldberg in When Wish Replaces Thought, sociology has joined English in becoming one of the most radicalized fields in academe. More and more sociologists eschew value neutrality in their work and instead engage in political diatribes that they call “public” sociology (in opposition to what they call “mainstream sociology” which is the remnant of respectable, science driven sociology). This public sociology is little more than pseudo-Marxist leftist advocacy. Former ASA president and proponent of public sociology Michael Burawoy tellingly remarked on its anti-scientific and utopian goals: “public sociologies should challenge the world as we know it, exposing the gap between what is and what could be...."

To see the extent of this rot in the discipline, browse through the ASA’s current resolutions. You will find statements against the Iraq war, opposition to an amendment to ban same sex marriage, support for reverse discrimination, and other blatantly political stances. Has sociological research proven that the war in Iraq is immoral or that reverse discrimination is just? Of course not, nor could it. As Stephen Jay Gould and numerous others argue, one cannot prove or disprove moral statements by use of the scientific method. But that does not stop sociologists from carrying on thus. At the 2000 ASA convention the organization committed an astounding act of ideological perversion of the field when candidate Ralph Nader was one of the main speakers. This convention was rightly skewered by the New York Times as an example of the marginalization that has become the ironic effect of the discipline's embrace of public sociology.

So what do most of the sociologists queried in the Chronicle Review have for a solution? Why more public sociology, of course! ASA president Troy Duster and co-author Craig Calhoun hope for resistance to a “march toward an increasing homogeneity” that would eliminate public sociology. Herbert Gans calls for “strengthening public sociology” to include “action research which can provide findings useful to activists and other concerned citizens.” Myra Marx Ferree celebrates a sit-in at an ASA meeting to protest perceived gender inequity. Ruben Rumbaut decries “social science that becomes little more than an accompaniment to the status quo.” Barbara Risman brags of “bringing my ethical commitments to scientific research.” Loic Wacquant laments the “radical individualism and pervasive moralism” of the United States as being antithetical to sociology.

Is it good news or bad news that there is at least (or only) one voice that attacks the politicalization of sociology? Douglas Massey points out the obvious (to all outside sociology that is): “The field’s great weakness is its proclivity toward moralism and ideology….These sentiments are noble, but unless they are tempered by skepticism, discipline and scientific detachment they can be destructive.”

Amen, brother. Sociology as a discipline need not accept the fact/value distinction between moral “Ought” and empirical “Is” made by many philosophers to see that too much politics and not enough “skepticism, discipline and scientific detachment” leads to work that is often of poor quality. They need only see the wisdom in the words of Karl Llewellyn that “experience shows the intrusion of Ought-spectacles during the investigation of the facts to make it very difficult to see what is being done.” Perhaps this is better put by Horowitz: “You do not get good social science by being politically correct." If sociologists can realize this, then they can once again be taken seriously by outsiders and more importantly make important strides towards the goal of understanding social reality.

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june long - 2/26/2010

You mean to say that sociology in the United States is stuck. As this article clearly demonstrates, American academics think sociology starts and stops with them, and they are giving the discipline a bad name. Time to differentiating professor. US sociology is not global.

Jennifer L Cox - 11/3/2005

I am sociology major at the University of South Florida currently enrolled in Contempory Social Problems, my first sociology course. I have been absolutely astounded by my professor's blatant lack of scientific discipline in conducting the class. Every session is a religious sermon rather than a professional lecture where she should be employing solid science and critical theory. Instead she throws out statistic after statistic without any validation or alternate theories, and worse yet, when I try to validate some of her information through my own research, I find often that her data is just patently false. She surmises, conjectures, and consistently applies far left prejudice. On the first day of class she told us, "You may think you know what's going on in the world, but I'm gonna tell you how things really are." Is this a common behavior from American "sociologists?"
I was hoping my experience was only an anomaly.

L A Sunsett - 9/29/2005

I enjoyed reading this article very much and agree with your assessment of the discipline. From where I sit, I see this as one of the many adverse outcomes of the Great Society sales campaign.

Thank you sir, I will be watching for more of your essays.