Sociology’s Internal Conflict: Obstacles and the Publics

2129924_f520In my last post, I discussed some of the problems facing the field of economics, and their contrast to the field of quasi-economic sociology. I also took a swipe at Sociology. I came upon this question: Why aren’t there Sociologists with New York Times columns, interviews on CNN, or publishing in think-tank articles? As (primarily) a Sociologist, there are problems within Sociology itself that need to be addressed if it is going to stay a relevant field of study.

The problems with Sociology seems to be based on what country it’s in. For example, Sociologists in Canada are behind the scenes on public policy debates, doing either qualitative or quantitative work, which is then published, and many times featured in Canadian press. In Great Britain, Sociologists are too busy debating theory in academia, and in American Sociology, there is a cyclical schism between qualitative and quantitative methods that pits sociologists against each other in (often times) brutal ways. Some sociologists end up at think-tanks in the United States (such as the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at the University of Albany), but they are largely given a back-seat role, especially if they don’t have an economics background. There are some common issues, however.

There doesn’t seem to be too much methodologically off about sociology compared to economics; sociology uses the same methods as other social sciences (unlike economics). The issues are largely theoretical.

  • As Michael Burawoy points out (PDF), Sociologists have to get over their obsession with the idea that theory is a completed work. Theory has to evolve. There hasn’t been any major breakthroughs on sociological theory since C. Wright Mills, mostly because in order for new theory to get published, it has to be “couched” in old theory. George Ritzer suggested that “good theory stands the test of time.” (Ritzer 2010) The problem is that new theory is often denied access to time. If society and its institutions change over time, then the theories have to change over time with them; otherwise, we’re just describing the past, which cultural anthropology already does. New theory has a lot of obstacles.
  • In American Sociology, qualitative data that is interpreted by the gatherer is taken as social fact. Qualitative data is important, and good, but it is exploratory data. It is designed to force the (Goffman-esque) question: “What’s going on here?” Then it can be followed up with some quantitatve research to describe and (hopefully) explain what exactly is going on in the social world. Qualitative researchers become idealistic when they present their research as “social facts” based on their interpretation, making no other explanations are allowed.
  • It’s either qualitative, or quantitative, but never both. See the last bullet point. Quantitative researchers also present their results as “social facts,” but at least have a theoretical perspective from which to do that. At the same time, quantitative data sometimes doesn’t match the qualitative data, adding fuel to the fight. Instead of working together to find out what’s going on in the social world, one is always “right” and the other is always “wrong.” Journals support this divide by classifying articles as either “qualitative,” or “quantitative” articles.
  • Sociologists don’t seem to care about public opinion. This great paper shows how sociologists will create surveys to gather public perceptions about social issues, but then make normative statements without ever asking “why?” For example, the General Social Survey says that most people believe that illegal immigrants will take away U.S. jobs, even though it’s not statistically true. Sociologists just leave the research at “that’s not the way people ought to think,” without asking HOW the public came to have their opinions. If sociologists don’t dig deeper into public opinions, how can sociologists expect to have a role in public policy?
  • Sociologists are still asking: “What is the public?” Weber, C. Wright Mills and Pierre Bourdieu answered this question already, but (especially in Great Britain) it is still being debated. On the one hand, sociologists need to get into the public to see what’s going on (Bourdieu) and on the other hand, sociologists need to be political activists (DuBois). This is the defining difference in why Economics and Political Science has the upper hand in the public sphere; they get out into the public to see what’s going on, and then talk about their observations – they do both.
  • Sociologists forget that the 2 of the 3 pillars of Sociology were actually economists (plus one more after that). Marx’s Das Kapital was a critique of political economy, or in today’s words, Economics and Capitalism. Marx used some very unique and complex formulas for describing social conditions within 19th century capitalism. Weber was never employed as a sociologist; he was primarily employed as an economics professor. Thorstein Veblen may have started out as a sociologist, but after he was (basically) kicked out of the discipline, he became an economist, and first president of the American Economics Association. Most sociologists have no training in economics.
  • Most sociologists specializing in political economy don’t know anything about economics, or the history of economic thought. At least in the United States. I work in Sociology with a Master’s Degree is in Economics. Yet many sociologists do not know the foundations of micro & macro economics, or have any idea how political economy became separated from economics during the marginal revolution (or what the marginal revolution even was). To be fair, the ASA has moved in the direction of separating political sociology and economic sociology, but academia has not.

Economics and Political Science has theoretical problems and is methodologically challenged, failing to ever consider social forces, time, or space. At least they are coming up with new theories (even if they’re wrong), and examining their own methodological shortcomings. They are getting out into the public, and talking about their observations without the constraints of being forced to couch their observations into constrained boxes.

The problem within sociology is largely theoretical within its own walls. This is not the sociology of DuBois, or C. Wright Mills, where knowledge is power, and reflexivity can effect social change. If sociology does not address its internal conflicts, it will cease being a relevant discipline in the publics.

This entry was posted in Economic Theory, Political Economy, Politics, Public Policy, Sociological Theory, Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.

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