Sociology on the skids

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.’

Original to Utne Reader Online

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