Friday, September 07, 2007

when i say 'p.s. you rock my world', the 'p.s.' stands for public sociology

Fabio presses the question of the possibly declining public presence of sociology (links to previous posts by him and by me). I'm not sure if we are actually in disagreement about sociology's past. As for understanding what happened between then and now, one of his bullet points especially caught my attention:
Major sociological studies used to have a major impact on the way we thought about the world. For example, the Coleman report really rocked people. The Moynihan report was another shocker. When was the last time sociologists rocked anyone’s world? Sure, we may publish the occasional contrarian article, but it’s been decades since the work of sociologists has changed how the educated public views social life.
I agree these were important documents that captured considerable public attention that does not have any clear analogue to anything in my own time as a sociologist. But, question to ponder: how did the discipline of sociology respond when these people went out and rocked the world? In the case of the Coleman Report, sociologists were pleased with Coleman until his mid-70s research finding evidence of "white flight," and then there was a campaign by the then-ASA president to formally censure him. In the case of the Moynihan Report, sociologists have been at the front of denouncing what was taken to be its thesis (the "tangle of pathology" argument regarding black families and especially young black males), and, as far as I can tell, that there was something very ugly and possibly evil about the Moynihan Report remains a conviction of many of those in the pertinent areas of sociology.*

Why aren't sociologists today out there world-rocking? I don't know. It does seem fairly obvious to me like large swaths of sociology today are tied as a matter of identity and norms to seeing the world in terms of a fairly restricted and predictable set of ideological positions, and "predictable" and "world-rocking" do not go together well. Indeed, I think the ideological uniformity of sociology not only hinders our ability to be taken seriously as the kind of honest interpreter of human affairs that is part of Fabio's vision, but also makes us bad at making arguments to the public, as we spend a lot of time in seminars not really arguing with one another but arguing against (caricatures of) people not actually in the room (Republicans! economists! evolutionary psychologists!).

In any case, history suggests that when a true world-rocking work of sociology appears in the world, you may know it by this sign: that the other sociologists are in confederacy against it.

P.S. Now I'm playing "P.S. You Rock My World" by Eels. I love that song. Pay the 99 cents from iTunes if you've never heard it.

* Criticism of the Moynihan report is the origin of the phrase "blaming the victim," which has indisputable cautionary utility for moral and social thought but has come to be understood by many sociologists as a logical fallacy, like "affirming the consequent." The enduring rhetorical power of the charge of "blaming the victim" in sociological debate can be seen in last year's debate between Eric Klinenberg and Mitch Duneier in ASR (in noting this I do not intend any broader assertion about that debate).

14 comments:

Jay Livingston said...

In the allegedly Golden era, some of the rocking research came under the auspices of government commissions that had been appointed to report on social problems like race, riots, automation, etc. These commissions turned out surprisingly good reports -- surprising in that many people expected that government-sponsored reports would be insipit. The Kerner Commission Report on race is probably the best remembered. As someone (Gary Marx?) remarked at the time, the worse the country gets, the better the reports.

I'm not sure how this applies today. What are the analogous issues of general public concern? Crime and drugs have faded as areas of concern. The war in Iraq? That's defined as military and to a lesser extent political. Health care? That seems to have been thrown entirely into the economists' camp. Immigration might be a good topic, but so far no sociological analysis has gained much traction.

There are general critiques of US society from the right and left, but none seems to have grabbed the interest of the public or the powers that be.

Corey said...

Quoting Jeremy: "Indeed, I think the ideological uniformity of sociology not only hinders our ability to be taken seriously as the kind of honest interpreter of human affairs that is part of Fabio's vision, but also makes us bad at making arguments to the public, as we spend a lot of time in seminars not really arguing with one another but arguing against (caricatures of) people not actually in the room (Republicans! economists! evolutionary psychologists!)."

Jeremy I think you're spot on with this assessment. In my limited experience, the discourse within sociology has generally been stunted. There are certain sets of ideas or propositions which are categorically dismissed or ridiculed. I'd argue that beyond the usual suspects you list, at least within some factions of the discipline (e.g., where I went to graduate school), functionalists, rational-choice theorists, and positivists could also be added to the rouges gallery. My experience in some seminars has been that certain ideas should not be thought. To even entertain such an idea marks one apostate. It's difficult to truly understand one position without honestly considering alternatives.

Peter Berger bitterly complained about this tendency in his little book, Sociology Reinterpreted: an essay on method and vocation (which he considered titling A disinvitation to Sociology. Beyond undermining our ability to engage in dialog with the broader public, I think this also undermines our own intellectual infrastructure.

Anonymous said...

dJeremy, I agree with the first part and, in fact, was about to offer something similar to the ORG people, but then I hesitated: to what degree do "we" (as in sociologists) remember Coleman and Moynihan *because* they got whacked by the tribe?

I don't know the answer, but I'm guessing it is some part of it. After getting the Joe Pesci treatment from the field, both seemed to cultivate "bad boy" personas that stopped their reputations from receding back into vague "sociologist/former sociologist at ivy/quasi-ivy w/ juice." I distinctly remember coming across Moynihan in the hallway at the ASA meetings one year and, literally, as the crowd parted, you could see folks mouthing, not, "Hey, there's the Senator from Massachusetts!”, but, rather, “Daniel Patrick Moynihan don’t like black people!”

My two cents…

Anonymous said...

Isn't one of the knocks against Soc that we don't have the same level of agreement as other disciplines -- like the "laws" of Econ -- and, therefore, must not be as scientific? I think I agree with you, Jeremy, that sociologist do have a pretty solid body of knowledge around which a general consensus can be formed, but I don't think it's the presence or lack of that consensus that makes a difference. After all, I think that Econ's rep there can be questioned.

For example, someone like Bryan Caplan mostly does Econ-theory-cum-philosophy on steroids, that's obviously highly opinion-driven, and economists -- at least the large contingent of libertarian economists -- don't take him to task for his lack of theoretical and methodological rigor. Instead, they cheer him on and publicize his work in articles, on blogs, etc. Sociology, on the other hand, holds most of its most accessible and "radical" people at arms length, because we so badly want to be seen as scientific, like economists.

Though I think the above is related to this, I would argue that the main reason sociologists are not getting the attention they deserve stems from a failure to promote the discipline in a concerted way, which, as noted above, I think economists do well. Part of that comes from having people like Caplan or Stiglitz or DeLong (I'm not their equating quality, by the way) who do get their work out into the public and who have friends/colleagues who talk it up.

Ang said...

What are the analogous issues of general public concern?

Obesity? Though it's intertwined with health care, obesity per se isn't *just* health care. It's also a place where sociologists could be perceived by the general public as making a real contribution. Given my own work, this is also wishful thinking. But still.

Anonymous said...

Sociology's getting some credit for good research on obesity:
http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2007/03.08/09-obesity.html

Anonymous said...

Somewhat agree with Corey's post--in sociology seminars I felt that many ideas were just off the table and thus discussion was somewhat stunted. Agree with Jeremy that there is time spent beating up caricatures. However, I disagree that sociologists don't argue with one another--they do, but over differences that would seem inconsequential many observers (i.e., public discourse on a topic may have a range of 2 miles; sociologists argue bitterly about a 2 inch space within those 2 miles, ignoring the rest, and this seems irrelevant to most people). Some of this may have to do with the professionalization of sociology that has taken place since the "golden years" (not sure those actually existed). Economics is certainly professionalized as well, but is also generally less challenging to existing power structures--that and its use of mathematical models make it less likely to be challenged.

Anonymous said...

“Daniel Patrick Moynihan don’t like black people!”

...taught as gospel to at least three generations of sociologist by now, right?

Anonymous said...

I wish I had gone to the seminars you all mention. Even if they stuck maddeningly to orthodoxy, at least you talked about something other than the excruciating theoretical minutiae I had to endure.

Steve Vaisey said...

I completely agree, Jeremy. I think this goes back to the comment you made the other day about the fetishization of "constraint." When you're not allowed to talk about any internalized differences across groups, that's the only intellectual recourse left. Makes me think of the ethography smackdown in the 2002 AJS, where Wacquant wanted to talk about habitus and the others rejected it pretty much out of hand. Or so I recall -- it was only my first year of grad school...

Anonymous said...

Re: the Wacquant thing. Still, even if they're making a cogent point about someone's work, it's really difficult to get to that point when the criticizer couches it in an intentionally misleading, generally sloppy, smug, self-congratulatory piece of his own. I'm no apologist for the authors he attempted to critique, but I thought it could have been done in a better way.

jeremy said...

I think the Wacquant paper made some interesting arguments, but they were unfortunately coupled with an egregiously dishonest reading of the sources that he criticized.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. That was my point.

Steve Vaisey said...

Oh I hope my comment wasn't taken as an endorsement of Wacquant's approach to criticism! My only point was the contrast between the explanatory power of "habitus" and external constraints.