If Sociology (or at least North American Sociology) isn’t having an identity crisis by now, maybe it ought to think about having one. Like other disciplines, Sociology was blindsided by the election of Donald Trump. Unlike other disciplines however, Sociology is sticking to its theoretical guns; the same ones that misfired, and are being melted before our eyes.
It isn’t just Social Movement theory that Sociology needs to reflect on. Questions of a racialized anomie within Durkheimian frameworks come up as well. We live in a society now that is no longer about “right versus left,” but is now “right versus wrong” – signifying a shift in cultural value systems. The ghost of C. Wright Mills shouts in our faces about how: “It’s the Economy, stupid.” Expert people are being freed from the “Iron Cage of Bureaucracy” by being replaced with unqualified people, or just plain getting laid off.
There’s even (what I call) a “Goffman Effect” – where people who engage in social justice are now stigmatized with terms like “snowflake,” “elite” and other forms of name-calling that aren’t so pleasant. There is a “spoiled identity” that comes from not being a racist xenophobe that supports a Social Contract. We see this at our borders now, when American Citizens are asked about their feelings of Trump by border guards. Say the wrong answer, and your identity may be spoiled with a set of handcuffs.
For Sociology, it’s an “Alice in Wonderland,” where down is up and right is left.
One example of Sociology’s complacency I want to point to is this paper that appeared in the Journal of Society (Courser, 2012, open access) of how the Tea Party was not really a social movement, and wasn’t really racialized, because basically, it didn’t fit our theoretical framework of what we thought social movements were – organized. I don’t want to pick on this paper specifically, but rather hold it up as an example of so may Sociologists who wrote about social conditions that weren’t really there – until they turned out to be really there.
Here are a couple of quotes:
“On the whole, Tea Party movement is neither racist nor radical, and its political demands fit within the mainstream of American politics. It is an inchoate demand for representation among a significant portion of the American electorate that feels frustrated and marginalized by what is perceived as an unrepresentative political system. What makes the Tea Party movement distinctive is not its conservative character but rather the lack of political skill and organization amongst its adherents.” (pg. 45)
Yet, a National Tea Party organizer describes the very intricate organization of the movement that is very stratified on the grass roots level. This organizer called it a “movement.” Just because Sociology says it’s not a movement out of theoretical justification doesn’t make it any less of a movement in the eyes of the people engaging it. In other words, if millions of people are participating in something that they think is a movement, then it’s probably a movement.
We also all know that the Tea Party was highly racialized, and is hardly worth citing the (literally) thousands of pieces of evidence to support that.
62 Million voters in America just proved this sociologist, and this social theory wrong. He goes on:
“Despite the focus on conservatism being a pathology of social movements, the depiction of the “radical right” offers little evidence that conservatism is inherently illiberal or dangerous.” (pg. 48)
As we now know, the “radical right” is indeed dangerous and illiberal. Here, the Atlantic takes a long, hard look at the alignment of the Tea Party with Donald Trump. As well, this Sociology Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Pittsburg is wondering the same thing in the Washington Post: that there seems to be a connection between the radical-right, Donald Trump, and the Tea Party.
Sociology needs to have a long hard look in the mirror. The fact is that there has been no new breakthrough in Social Theory for at least 50 years. It seems that as soon as C. Wright Mills and Goffman died, we retreated from theory building based on observation. Instead, we largely have dictated the social conditions of people instead of actually exploring or studying them. Courser, 2012 is an example of that dictating of social conditions of people. The Tea Party wasn’t really a movement – except that it was; it wasn’t a radical-right – except that it was; it wasn’t racialized – except it was.
From Durkheim, to Goffman, perhaps it’s time to go back to the basics of sociology: exploring and studying the ways that societies are organized. Maybe it’s time to have an identity crisis. There’s no question that many of our theories in Sociology have stood the empirical test of time, but perhaps we as a discipline need to evaluate if we’ve thrown babies out with the bath water.