Friday, March 24, 2006

the sociological imagination

Sociology is often criticized for the extent to which its work fails to yield reliable and verifiable predictions. I just received my February 2006 issue of the American Sociological Review, the discipline's flagship journal. I saw that there was an article "Black and White Control of Numbers Gambling: A Cultural Assets-Social Capital View." So (1) race, (2) criminal behavior, and (3) culture right there in the title. I also saw that the article was published with a simultaneous comment from someone else and reply by the article's authors, which is a signal of "controversy." And so, without looking at anything else, I flipped ahead to the last page of the comment because I knew what would be there, and, lo, it was:
The crucial point here is that what begins as a structural disadvantage can easily be interpreted through a cultural lens and defined as a cultural shortcoming on the part of African Americans. And herein lies the most significant weakness of [the authors'] analysis and, perhaps even more importantly, the most dangerous facet of their interpretation (or rather than misinterpretation) of African Americans' failure to ethnically succeed Italians in the numbers gambling enterprise. Rather than attributing African Americans' inability to succeed Italians to culture per se, [the authors'] argument would be far more convincing if they gave more credence to ethnic differences in economic capital, structural opportunities, and constraints.
Yes, the argument that the authors in the original article are being not just incorrect but morally/politically "dangerous" in their argument. Indeed, the "dangerous"ness of their claims is apparently "even more important" than its logical/evidentiary "weakness." Understand that I haven't looked at any part of the rest of the articles and have no especial familiarity with the literature on the topic. I have no position on the findings of the original article (or the comment) since I haven't read it and, given the lack of substantive interest, presumably won't. Even so, I knew the comment was going to emphasize that was really being chalked up to culture was instead about "economic capital, structural opportunities, and constraints" (not that I would have predicted those exact words, necessarily, although probably something close and certainly using the word 'constraints'), and that it would close by also taking pains to emphasize the moral/political badness of dissenting from this view. This is how predictable sociology is. No offense to anyone, but certain parts of it do get a little dull and tedious sometimes.

10 comments:

Brayden said...

At least the commenter recognizes three different possible causes. If we were in economics, it could all be explained by economic capital.

Anonymous said...

i wonder what the political scientists would say...

Anonymous said...

Clearly the article was never submitted to the Office of Approved Causes (which is located in the Ministry of Solidarity, if you're looking for it).

Anonymous said...

You WILL shake things up. May it be soon.

Nathan Hall said...

Sociology likes to call itself a science. But to suggest an idea ought to be abandoned not because it is demonstrably wrong, but because it is politically dangerous, is antithetical to science.

Anonymous said...

(sarcasm on)Clearly, something can be structural OR cultural, but not both. And furthermore, cultural arguments are possible only when they make us proud to be lefties.(sarcasm off)

Never forget: We are the world. We are the children.

brady said...

Having now read the article and responses, what depresses me about the whole thing is how conceptually bankrupt the debate is when it comes to dealing with culture.

Sigh.

And sociology is a science. Sheesh. Although, I would argue it has a lot more in common with, say, paleontology or geology than with physics, Comte be damned. (Is that heresy?)

Besides, it's not the only one where political considerations affect what goes on - nobody gets bent out of shape when bioethicists debate the ramifactions, political or moral, of cloning.

brady said...

(Although I should add, now that I think about it, that I pretty much agree with Jeremy and would add that substituting good politics for good social science doesn't do anybody any good, especially when said science enters the public sphere.)

TW Andrews said...

This is why scientists snicker at the idea of social 'science'. There's no science to it at all...

M. Simon said...

I blame it on Demographics.