I’ve seen a number of news stories about Charles Murray’s latest book and one thing caught my eye: the claim that Murray is a sociologist. (See examples from the Philadelphia Inquirer, BusinessWeek, and the National Catholic Reporter.) Is he really?
Murray’s page at his current scholarly home, the American Enterprise Institute, says he is a “political scientist, author, and libertarian.”
Perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that Murray is working with a lot of topics that are commonly covered by sociology such as race, social class, and family life. Even the New York Times describes his work as sociology:
Few people today would dismiss the idea that values, culture and intelligence all play a role in economic success. But it is hard to know what to make of some of Murray’s findings. As with David Brooks’s “Bobos in Paradise,”Murray’s sociology depends a lot on his own, sometimes highly idiosyncratic, fieldwork. To demonstrate that the elite are more likely to drive foreign cars than domestic ones, Murray notes the makes of automobiles in a couple of mall parking lots. In an otherwise persuasive chapter arguing that Ivy League graduates tend to live near one another, Murray quotes a remark by Michael Barone, the conservative commentator, complaining about the profusion of Harvard and Yale graduates on his former block. If Murray believes that wealthy yuppies suffer from creeping nonjudgmentalism, I invite him to spend an hour on UrbanBaby.com.
This quote suggests that Murray’s work is sociology because he is explaining sociological phenomena, not because he is working within the sociological tradition, utilizing sociological theories and methods, or even thinking like a typical sociologist. Practicing sociology (sometimes termed “pop sociology”) is quite different from being a sociologist. Is this simply lazy journalism or a bigger problem in that people don’t know how sociologists actually go about their work?
In a related question, how many sociologists would claim Murray is a sociologist? First, this could be tied to whether he is practicing good sociology. Second, this could be about whether he is espousing ideas that fit with sociological theories and data (and they generally don’t). How many sociologists would want to add libertarian as a descriptor of their image?