Sociology on the skids

Sociology on the skids

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Sociology has fallen into a 'dismal abyss' from which it may never recover, announces distinguished sociologist Irving Horowitz, editor of the journal Society, in his book The Decomposition of Sociology (Oxford University Press, 1994). The field 'is in a tailspin and no one seems to know what to do,' agrees another sociologist quoted in Insight on the News (Feb. 14, 1994). Statistics -- the favored data of sociology -- support these dire conclusions: U.S. universities conferred 35,996 undergraduate degrees in sociology in 1973, but by 1991 that number had dropped to 14,393. At three U.S. schools in recent years, sociology departments in which the professors had come to outnumber the students have been forced to close their doors; others have had their budgets slashed, reports Horowitz. Why has sociology, perhaps the most useful of all the social sciences, fallen on such hard times? After all, almost every discussion of crime, gender, the family, and social and economic power are informed to some degree by sociological research, while topics such as 'the postindustrial society,' 'globalization,' 'the underclass,' and 'social status,' for instance, wouldn't even be possible without sociology.

Sociology is loaded with specialist jargon, say some critics both within and outside of the profession, while others are quick to label readable sociological research as mere journalism. Sociology is divided into too many specialized fiefdoms, goes another argument, but others insist that generalization isn't sufficiently scientific. But these debates may merely be symptoms of a deeper problem still: Sociology is neither a 'pure' life science, like biology or chemistry, nor simply a research-driven social reform movement. Comfortable in neither the natural sciences nor the humanities, sociology has never been able to agree upon its mission or methods. From its very inception it has been an 'impossible science' torn between the ideals of scientific objectivity and humanistic reform-mindednes. The pressing need on the part of funding-hungry sociology departments to resolve this tension in one direction or the other is a crippling problem.

To explain the world or to change the world -- that seems to be the question. Horowitz argues that sociology began as an objective social science and has become increasingly and problematically 'enmeshed in the politics of advocacy and the ideology of self-righteousness,' noting that recent research shows that 77 percent of sociologists perceive themselves as being politically 'on the left.' But British sociologist Anthony Giddens points out in New Statesman and Society (April 7, 1995) that ?mile Durkheim, the profession's founder, was explicitly liberal in both temperament and political persuasion, and so were such leading lights as R.K. Merton, Talcott Parsons, and Erving Goffman. Many sociologists feel that 'scientific' sociology may actually be the problem, not the solution. 'Quantophrenia [quantitative mania] is rife in American sociology departments,' writes Giddens. 'For many [sociologists], if you can't count it, it doesn't count.' Quantitative sociologists 'tend to make a fetish of 'hard numbers,'' agrees sociologist John Torpey in The Nation (Oct. 9, 1989), 'rather than trying to understand how social groups interpret and act on the circumstances those numbers describe.' In other words, you can run tests about how many hours of TV Americans watch and compare them with figures on violent crime, but you can never prove a correlation between the two based on statistics alone. Even if it were possible to describe a particular human situation objectively, that description would of necessity be so limited and contextual that it would be inapplicable to any other situation, and therefore useless to policy makers.

But objectivism ought not to be abandoned too quickly. Horowitz points out that too many years of reformist, theory-driven sociology, in which the real world is made to fit into preconceived models of what ought to be, have driven empirical sociologists out of the university and into narrower forms of social research such as urban planning, demography, and criminology. After all, purely descriptive sociology -- without prescription -- can in and of itself be a powerful tool for reform; the empirical studies of educational practices that were used as evidence of the need for school desegregation in the 1960s in this country are a prime example.

Perhaps the current crisis will create a middle ground between what Horowitz describes as sociology's 'unconcerned quantitativists' and its 'overly concerned qualitativists.' Reknowned sociologist Nathan Glazer, writing in The Atlantic Monthly (April 1994), offers a solution -- sociology 'should be both a humanistic and a scientific discipline, based on the search for objective truth in the belief that such truth can serve mankind, but recognizing in sociology truth cannot have the character it has in the [natural] sciences.'

'When social science is practiced well, it offers the advantages of both precision and persuasion,' agrees Boston University's Alan Wolfe in an article in Current (May 1995). Sociology must become a hybrid creature, a Minotaur forever wrestling -- productively -- with itself.

In his excellent book, Sociology After the Crisis (Westview, 1995), Charles Lemert recognizes that mainstream sociology has failed to recognize adequately the fracturing of the world brought on by the competing moral concerns of decolonization, feminism, queer theory, and other 'practical sociologies.' Sociology, which has always been as much the art of telling stories about one's world as it has been a science, has too often failed to hear the stories told by the Other: Cornel West's account of how 'whiteness' was invented as a social category is a good example of a practical sociology, writes Lemert. He argues that empirical sociology can and should seek to describe the objective structures that constitute that elusive entity 'society,' but only the imagination can measure the moral distance between individuals and those structures. The sociologist must, to paraphrase V?clav Havel's vision of the postmodern politician, 'trust not only an objective interpretation of reality, but also his own soul.'