An academic discipline dies because it is progressive?!?
by wiscmass, Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 05:46:21 PM EST
Advance warning: this is somewhat more historiographic and academic than what I usually blog about. The payoff, particularly for activists, is at the end.
I didn't see the editorial when it was published on Friday. I never would have seen it had a friend in the sociology department not forwarded it to me today.
In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Wilfred McClay, a professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and co-director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Evangelicals and Civic Life program, published what I think may be the single most anti-intellectual screed I've ever seen from someone claiming to be a legitimate scholar. Considering that this is a man who, in the pages of Commentary Magazine, claimed that the Democratic Party is only driven by opposition to Dumbya and "aging left-wing lions and lionesses," and that it is funded solely by "the most extreme and irresponsible elements in its ranks," that's not much of a surprise, but it's still disgusting.
It is this heroic advocacy of using knowledge and empirical research to help the poor, the weak, and the meek -- to engage in progressive activism -- that leads McClay to condemn sociology to irrelevance.
After noting the death of Lipset and two other prominent sociologists in the past year, McClay turns to a faulty premise:
Of course, sociologists are still being trained, books are being published, and university departments of sociology show no sign of going out of business. But the sense of free-wheeling inquiry that drew some of the best minds of the 1950s and 1960s into sociology -- in what appears now to be its golden age -- is no longer in evidence. Some of the most influential sociologists of our day, such as the prolific Alan Wolfe of Boston College, actually prefer to be associated with departments of political science. What went wrong?
McClay goes on to claim that "what went wrong" is politics. It is certainly true, as McClay notes, that many sociologists now believe that it is not enough merely to learn about the world. Contemporary sociologists believe that they must use their knowledge to change the world for the better. McClay attacks the universally held sociological view that society is socially constructed -- go ahead and snicker here at the asinine assumption that it could be otherwise. Indeed, sociologists do know that race, gender, status, class, and many other social facts are defined not by nature (at least not in their entirety) but by the people they affect. McClay attacks sociologists for "suppressing" research that challenges their views. Of course, that is true -- just as real biologists challenge the "research" of poseurs who claim that "Intelligent Design" makes more sense than evolution, just as physicists and geologists challenge the "research" of frauds who claim the universe is only a few thousand years old, and just as academic scholars of the Bible challenge the dominionist cherry-pickers who fail to read sacred texts in context.
McClay would have you believe that bright students are no longer drawn to sociology, but that simply isn't true. Perhaps I'm biased by my location -- the University of Wisconsin has the top-ranked graduate program in sociology in the country -- but I can assure you that "free-wheeling inquiry" is still very much present among today's sociologists. Further, the sociologists I know are among the wisest, brightest, most insightful people I know or ever expect to meet in my life. Every one of them is brilliant. Perhaps that is why some of the most influential sociologists are associated with political science departments -- they are capable of flourishing in a department that may not match up exactly with their educational foundation, but which may provide different opportunities for activism and engagement in the community. Nothing "went wrong" here; to the extent that sociology is defined as the study of human behavior, a well-trained sociologist ought to be able to succeed and contribute in nearly any field. That some do so is not a mark of the failure of the discipline, but an indication of its strength.
McClay also attacks sociological methodology. He seems to argue that in an effort to hide their evil, progressive activism-as-research, sociologist fall back on scientific methods, and that this somehow invalidates their findings. Here I can only shake my head in wonder. How could this man have earned a research degree when he clearly has no respect for quality research?
Ultimately, McClay argues that sociology has simply lost its way:
It is odd that sociology should have come to be seen as a progressive discipline. One can make a far better case for it as a humanistic undertaking born of conservative impulses. Its founding figures were humanists in the grand manner, with a wide range of interests. Its foundational texts were nearly always focused on the great social upheaval wrought by the advent of the urban, industrial modern world and the steady dismemberment of traditional life. In the works of Tocqueville, Ferdinand Toennies, Max Weber and George Simmel, among others, the central drama is always the movement from village to city, from face-to-face relations to instrumental ones, from status to contract, or from aristocratic societies to democratic ones. Sociology at its most vital has always been about the social cost of modernity's great disruption, and, in the words of the great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet, about "the quest for community" and the barriers to community within the new order of things.
That's kind of a twisted view of history. It's notable that McClay neglects two mention two men considered to be of supreme importance in the development of sociology as a field: Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. Marx, of course, needs no introduction here; his written work, though not particularly sound empirically, is all about social justice. As for Durkheim, he was fundamentally interested in the forces that held society together with the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, the onset of Enlightenment, industrialization, and widespread democracy. Durkheim is perhaps best known for his theories on the evolution of societies. To oversimplify somewhat, Durkheim thought of old traditionalist societies -- the sort of social structure social conservatives prefer -- as repressive; modern societies, by contrast, were more meritocratic and therefore held the potential for greater social fairness.
If sociology can somehow tame its misguided activist zeal -- if it can reclaim a supple awareness of the hard and permanent things -- it may gain back some of its lost status. Tocqueville believed that the great task facing modernity is not to erase the past and "reconstruct" the present but to recognize what was best in the past -- what was essential -- and to carry it forward.
Sociology will thrive again when it acknowledges the force of this insight. But if it sees society as nothing but a collection of arbitrary "constructions" ripe for re-engineering, and treats social forces as obstacles to be overcome rather than as boundaries to be reckoned with, it will have little to offer us. Social science should not be a wholly owned subsidiary of progressive ideology. Instead, it should challenge all ideologies, with a stern but truthful message about human limits.
If you've made it this far, you probably want the payoff for reading through this long, dry diary. Here it is: McClay wants a "stern but truthful message about human limits"? Let's start with this:
Some social structures ought not to be "hard and permanent things." Slavery, for example. Misogyny. Racism. Insufficient access to affordable high quality education, healthcare, and nutrition for all people. Lack of quality jobs paying wages that can support a family. Wasteful energy policy. Torture. Poverty. Ideological imposition of one religious perspective on people who do not welcome it. And any social force that seeks to preserve these things is an obstacle to overcome.
Sociologists live up to Tocqueville's call by recognizing that some social structures need to be destroyed and reinvented in ways that are more just. They are activists because they recognize what was best in the past and carry it forward and improve upon it, but they refuse to bring along those things that unfairly oppress, repress, or suppress people for the comfort and enrichment of the comfortable few.
McClay is right about one thing: social science should not be a wholly owned subsidiary of progressive ideology. But social science relies on empirical data -- facts. And facts have a well-known liberal bias.
Sociology isn't dying because it's too progressive. It's flourishing because it's so progressive. And the sociologists I know are competitive, too. They'll see this editorial as nothing but trash talk from another conservative idiot, and they'll respond by stepping up their activism.
We'd all do well to follow their lead.