Saturday, February 03, 2007

What Happened to Sociology?

Friday's Taste page in the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting commentary by Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee on the decline of fundamental inquiry in the discipline of sociology. McClay's essay starts by mourning the death of Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the most important scholars of political sociology. According to McClay, the loss Lipset -- along with the deaths of other disciplinary pathbreakers like Philip Rieff and David Reisman -- has left sociology barren of leading practitioners engaged in the examination of traditional structures and historical circmumstance shaping the individivual in society. McClay laments the general decline of the field, and notes that some of most important contempory sociologists, like Alan Wolfe of Boston College, prefer to be posted with departments of political science over sociology. McClay asks, "What went wrong?"

The quick answer would be that there are two equal and opposite culprits. One of them is politics. Sociology fell victim to a dogmatic belief that it was not enough to understand the world; one must also change it. And if, as many sociologists came to believe, all reality was "socially constructed," then nothing was grounded in nature, nothing was justified by tradition or custom, and nothing was to be treated as enduring. All things were provisional, and all could be reshaped, usually along predictable political lines. Thus academic journals and scholarly monographs were given over to supporting the reigning views of race, gender and class--and fiercely suppressing any inquiry that might challenge these views.

But it is equally the case that many sociologists, while seeking to avoid politicization, fell into the trap of scientism, of thinking that by imitating the methods of the "harder" social sciences, such as economics, they could achieve for sociology the precision, and status, of the natural sciences. Studies of, say, social mobility or family structure came to bristle with tables and formulae that only a mathematician could love. One could answer one's questions with precision. But were such questions worth asking?

There is much to be said for the two parts of this quick answer. But behind them is a deeper one: Sociology as a field seems to have lost confidence in the power of its fundamental categories. One can grasp what this power once was by looking at the career of Mr. Lipset himself. Whether in his studies of American "exceptionalism" or in his analysis of the pathologies to which working-class movements are prone, he was asking the same kinds of questions. As Nathan Glazer has put it, Mr. Lipset had a lifelong interest in how societies, guided by their histories, "set limits for their development that are difficult to transcend."

Those words express one of the abiding themes of the "old" sociology: how the stubbornness of social forces circumscribes what is possible for us as individuals. Around every man, said Tocqueville, a fateful circle of freedom is drawn, beyond which that man ceases to be free. Such an observation is unwelcome in a culture that values the free individual above all else and imagines that all things should be possible. But by denying Tocqueville's insight, and by treating the structures of society as infinitely malleable, sociology betrayed its calling: It ceased to study society in a profound way, acknowledging difficult truths, and substituted activism, usually aimed at an ungrounded notion of "social justice."
McClay goes on to note that it's odd that sociology should be identified as such a progressive discipline, since one could argue that its roots as a profession are found in essentially conservative bases.

I found this piece interesting. I read a lot of political sociology in graduate school. Some of the most imortant works in comparative politics -- on state formation and the consolidation of democratic regimes -- are found at the nexus of political science and sociology. Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966) comes to mind, as does Samuel Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies (1968).

Theda Skocpol, one of the leading political scientists working in the area of historical institutionalism,
is a trained sociologist who holds a joint appointment in government and sociology at Harvard University. In her introduction to the edited volume, Vision and Method in Historical Sociology (1984), Skocpol suggested the sociology's classic attention to broad patterns of macrohistorical and political change gave way to class analysis and postmodernism. According to Skocpol, "different versions of Marxist ideas, stressing class consciousness, historical process,and the roles of varying cultural and political structures, became attractive to younger scholars looking for ways to criticize scientific orthodoxies."

It wasn't until I started teaching full time that I noticed the essential progressivism of sociology. I see an intense focus on racial hierarchies in the sociological curriculum, and often some of my students visiting during office hours comment on the radicalism of the sociology courses. It's not just sociology, of course -- history and political science have massive strains of postmodern radicalism across their disciplines. McClay's essay points to an important agenda for sociology -- and by implication the broader social sciences -- in its call to return to traditional conservative roots. Citing Alexis de Tocqueville, McClay says 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."

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