Politics in sociology

A behavioral sciences graduate from Israel describes his experiences in a sociology department and compares sociologists to journalists at YNetNews:

Anyone who ever read a sociological essay immediately realized that to a large extent a sociologist is just like a newspaper columnist.

The sociologist’s columns tend to be longer and more deeply reasoned, yet at their base there will always be an expression of a wholly political view.

While this former student describes a department where only one ideology was allowed, he raises an interesting issue in sociological work. On one hand, research is supposed to be science: rational, logical arguments and theories built upon accurate measurements of what is actually happening in the world. On the other hand, researchers do have opinions and political stances and they tend to do work in areas of their own interest.This was first made clear to me in graduate school when professors quickly switched between their activist and political interests and the research pieces they were working on.

My research methods class starts with a discussion of Max Weber’s essay about “value-free” sociology. Weber suggests sociologists should not make value judgments. Students tend to argue that we all have a bias and this is very difficult to remove from our social science work.

The comparison to journalists is also interesting. In my introduction to sociology class, I suggest sociologists are different than journalists in that sociologists draw upon more comprehensive data and are not just writing opinions or drawing conclusions based on a few interviews. Additionally, journalists often describe trends or events while sociologists are interested in explanations and the mechanisms that lead from Point A to Point B.

It sounds like this former student’s call for ideological pluralism in sociology comes from some personal experiences where his opinions did not line up with those of his professors. Yet his essay is a reminder of the (sometimes thin) line between research and politics.

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