Peter Berger on his career as an “accidental sociologist”

Sociologists don’t often produce memoirs. But Peter Berger has a new book that has some insights into his career:

Since the 1970s, Berger admits to having felt increasingly removed from — or marginalized by — contemporary sociology, having no flair for quantitative analysis and little sympathy with leftist political agendas. As a social scientist, he stresses that his research is as “value-free” as he can make it, but that as a man, he is a moderate Christian, and as a citizen, he is what we might call a cultural conservative. He doesn’t disguise the fact that wealthy Texas businessmen and right-leaning think tanks have often sponsored his work…

During the mid-1950s, Berger served in the Army, and in the late 1950s, he taught at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. These experiences shocked him into an awareness of American prejudice. He gradually came to believe that sociology’s “humanistic” purpose lay in debunking “the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression and cruelty” and, in particular, “unmasking the murderous ideologies underlying the death penalty, racism, and the persecution of homosexuals.” From these convictions, Berger has never wavered.

So why don’t more sociologists write about and think through their own careers in print? Perhaps there are a few reasons:

1. One would have to be a big name, someone like Berger, that many sociologists and other outside the field would easily recognize.

2. This sort of work goes against the data-driven expectations of the field. I suppose someone could argue they are using themself as the data in the work.

3. One wouldn’t get much academic credit for such a work since it is unlikely to advance the field.

At the same time, I think such books could be very useful, particularly to undergraduates who have a hazier view of what being a “professional sociologist” looks like. I would guess that many sociologists could offer compelling stories about how sociology changed their view of the world and how their research and teaching impacted others.

On another note, I remember reading another work by Berger that had some personal insights: Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity. I wasn’t particularly impressed.

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