Tuesday, November 11, 2003

promises, promises

Recently, I had to once again invoke my personal vow that while I am willing to go-along-to-get-along with a lot of things in sociology that I don't think are well done, I draw the line when the work, if taken seriously, would kill people. I know this might sound like a silly alarmist vow, since most of sociology is not taken seriously outside of sociology (or, for that matter, with large parts of sociology itself). However, it seems like if one is going to have a career as a sociologist, one should be able to feel with some authentic sincerity that it's a bad thing that sociology isn't taken more seriously. And, if you are typically opposed to people needlessly dying, as I am, then you can't very well feel like sociology should be taken more seriously and also take a pass on work that makes unsubstantiated conclusions that, were they taken completely to heart by all who have a say in social policy, would almost certainly result in all sorts of deaths. Note: work is not exempt from this clause if the author does not recognize that their work, if followed through to its conclusion, has these potentially fatal implications, nor it is exempt if the author is oblivious but has splendid political intentions. I recognize that this may seem harsh and overly judgmental, but it's a vow and I'm sticking to it.

Another resolution that I recently made to myself that has not reached the status of a vow involves how I will henceforth judge books in sociology (or its neighboring disciplines). I recognize that I'm not in much of a position to judge people who have actually started a book and got it done, but I offer this resolution nonetheless. The resolution is that the most important question that I will ask myself when deciding what I think of book will be: "What did I learn from reading it?" A strange thing about sociology is that you hear people talk about books as being "great" or even "pathbreaking" but then people can't seem to say any way that the book has really told them something new or changed the way that they thought about something. Really--it's something I have done myself, but the point of this resolution is that I think it's mistaken. The problem, I think, is that it's very easy for sociologists to evaluate books for what they imagine other people would learn from it, if those other people were to read it.* (Exempt from this resolution are books that are intended to convey things that are known within some academic literature to people outside of that area [i.e., books for the 'layperson' or for masses of undergraduates]. Those books, of course, should be judged according a different criteria, but then if I'm going to use a phrase like "great book" to describe them, I should be clear that they are great in this sense.)

I realize that both this vow and this resolution would be better expressed if I provided some examples, but I have no plans on beating up on my disciplinary brethren in this weblog. I cause enough problems for myself.

*note: affinities between this and the idea that people should support a Presidential candidate based not on what they think of the candidate, but what they imagine other people would think of the candidate, are mostly specious affinities and could be commented upon at much more length if I hadn't already spent too much time typing out this post anyway.

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