For what ends do sociologists labor?

I recently gave a short presentation in a training seminar regarding introducing first year students to different disciplinary perspectives. For each of the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities, I described methods and goals. For the goals of the social sciences, I put down “just society” and “social wrongs righted.” One of my colleagues asked me a question about this: “Do the people at the top R1 schools adhere to these goals?” Just having returned from the ASA meetings in Philadelphia and thinking about some of the things I saw there, I said yes.

This is a good question to consider on Labor Day. What are sociologists after when they work? Here are some options:

-just society/social wrong righted: a mindset devoted to improving society, sometimes attributed to an activist approach though American sociology has a deep tradition of this (even if it was shunted into social work and not promoted as much at leading schools)

-knowing more about the social world: this quest for knowledge and a better understanding of whatever phenomena is under study could be at the root of every academic enterprise

-a way to achieve status and power: the field may be limited be compared to others but academic titles and academic merits (published articles, name recognition, grants, school, etc.) still provide a certain status

-the joy of teaching and mentoring students: these expectations likely differ dramatically across institutions (let alone personalities) but there can be both immediate and long-term gratification in making a difference in the life of students

-a satisfying way to occupy one’s mind and fulfill intellectual curiosity

I suppose individual sociologists might be able to pursue unique combinations of these five options within their own experiences and institutional contexts. Yet, on the whole, I’m pretty comfortable asserting sociology and other social sciences want to make the world a better place.

Speculating on why sociology is less relevant to the media and public than economics

In calling for more sociological insight into economics, a journalist who attended the recent ASA meetings in Philadelphia provides two reasons why sociology lags behind economics in public attention:

Economists, you see, put draft versions of their papers online seemingly as soon as they’ve finished typing. Attend their big annual meeting, as I have several times, and virtually every paper discussed is available beforehand for download and perusal. In fact, they’re available even if you don’t go to the meeting. I wrote a column two years ago arguing that this openness had given economists a big leg up over the other social sciences in media attention and political influence, and noting that a few sociologists agreed and were trying to nudge their discipline — which disseminates its research mainly through paywalled academic journals and university-press books — in that direction with a new open repository for papers called SocArxiv. Now that I’ve experienced the ASA annual meeting for the first time, I can report that (1) things haven’t progressed much since 2016, and (2) I have a bit more sympathy for sociologists’ reticence to act like economists, although I continue to think it’s holding them back.

SocArxiv’s collection of open-access papers is growing steadily if not spectacularly, and Sociological Science, an open-access journal founded in 2014, is carving out a respected role as, among other things, a place to quickly publish articles of public interest. “Unions and Nonunion Pay in the United States, 1977-2015” by Patrick Denice of the University of Western Ontario and Jake Rosenfeld of Washington University in St. Louis, for example, was submitted June 12, accepted July 10 and published on Wednesday, the day after it was presented at the ASA meeting. These dissemination tools are used by only a small minority of sociologists, though, and the most sparsely attended session I attended in three-plus days at their annual meeting was the one on “Open Scholarship in Sociology” organized by the University of Maryland’s Philip Cohen, the founder of SocArxiv and one of the discipline’s most prominent social-media voices. This despite the fact that it was great, featuring compelling presentations by Cohen, Sociological Review deputy editor Kim Weeden of Cornell University and higher-education expert Elizabeth Popp Berman of the State University of New York at Albany, and free SocArxiv pens for all.

As I made the rounds of other sessions, I did come to a better understanding of why sociologists might be more reticent than economists to put their drafts online. The ASA welcomes journalists to its annual meeting and says they can attend all sessions where research is presented, but few reporters show up and it’s clear that most of those presenting research don’t consider themselves to be speaking in public. The most dramatic example of this in Philadelphia came about halfway through a presentation involving a particular corporation. The speaker paused, then asked the 50-plus people in the room not to mention the name of said corporation to anybody because she was about to return to an undercover job there. That was a bit ridiculous, given that there were sociologists live-tweeting some of the sessions. But there was something charming and probably healthy about the willingness of the sociologists at the ASA meeting to discuss still-far-from-complete work with their peers. When a paper is presented at an economics conference, many of the discussant’s comments and audience questions are attempts to poke holes in the reasoning or methodology. At the ASA meeting, it was usually, “This is great. Have you thought about adding …?” Also charming and probably healthy was the high number of graduate students presenting research alongside the professors, which you don’t see so much at the economists’ equivalent gathering.

All in all — and I’m sure there are sociological terms to describe this, but I’m not familiar with them — sociology seems more focused on internal cohesion than economics is. This may be partly because it’s what Popp Berman calls a “low-consensus discipline,” with lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor. Economists can be mean to each other in public yet still present a semi-united face to the world because they use a widely shared set of tools to arrive at answers. Sociologists may feel that they don’t have that luxury.

Disciplinary differences can be mystifying at times.

I wonder about a third possible difference in addition to the two provided: different conceptions in sociology and economics about what constitutes good arguments and data (hinted at above with the idea of “lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor.”) Both disciplines do aspire to the idea of social science where empirical data is used to test hypotheses about human behavior, usually in collectives, works. But, this is tricky to do as there are numerous pitfalls along the way. For example, accurate measurement is difficult even when a researcher has clearly identified a concept. Additionally, it is my sense that sociologists as a whole may be more open to qualitative and quantitative data (even with occasional flare-ups between researchers studying the same topic yet falling in different methodological camps). With these methodological questions, sociologists may feel they need more time to connect their methods to a convincing causal and scientific argument

A fourth possible reason behind the differences (also hinted at above with the idea of economists having a “semi-united face” to present): sociology has a reputation as a more left-leaning discipline. Some researchers may prefer to have all their ducks in a row before they expose their work to full public scrutiny. The work of economists is more generally accepted by the public and some leaders while sociology regularly has to work against some backlash. (As an example, see conservative leaders complain about sociology excusing poor behavior when the job of the discipline is to explain human behavior.) Why expose your work to a less welcoming public earlier when you could take a little more time to polish the argument?

A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part One

I attended and presented at the Urban History Association biennial meetings this weekend and I made some observations during my foray. Some thoughts:

  1. In the last five years or so, I’ve been to both specialist conferences – usually involving the sociology of religion – and general conferences – the American Sociological Association. They each have their perks. I particularly enjoyed two things about the specialty aspect of the UHA meetings: (1) it was nice to be with a group of scholars who shared a common set of readings and understandings of a particular social phenomena and (2) the smaller size seemed to allow for more conversations during and after sessions. Even though the conference drew attendees largely from R1 schools – and people from liberal arts colleges like myself were in short supply and tended to be from the Chicago area – it felt pretty inviting.
  2. Several quick observations on the discipline of history as I saw it practiced:
    -There was a tension between particular cases – micro history – and broad sweeping generalizations about social patterns. The micro history could be quite minute, perhaps focusing on a particular influential figure (or arguing why that figure should be viewed as influential) or brief time period while other papers and sessions focused on 50+ years or emphasized broader movements like modernism. Individual papers tended toward the micro while panels could think more broadly. I would guess that at least a few of the papers are part of larger works – dissertations, manuscripts – that touch on broader periods or forces.
    -There was an informal dress code for male attendees: dress shirt and jacket. Not everyone followed this but there were more sports coats and blazers than at the typical sociological gathering.
    -Race, class, and gender popped up now and then but this trinity of analysis wasn’t as present as at sociological meetings.
    -There were some interesting instances of trying to connect historical events to current events, particularly in a panel on Silicon Valley. But, often the papers stuck to their particular historical moment.
    -Almost every paper began with a story or anecdote from history. This is more acceptable with qualitative sociological work but rarer in sociology as a whole.
    -Every introduction I saw included a short bio of the scholar’s education and work. Sociologists rarely give this information. Does this suggest that pedigree is more important for the audience or do they benefit from having more information regarding the speaker?
  3. I realize that now eight years into my post-graduate school career, I feel much more comfortable at conferences. I had met only two of the conference attendees prior to the meetings but it was easier to introduce myself to others and participate when I had questions. During graduate school, I remember this being more difficult: who wants to talk to a lowly graduate student? My enjoyment of conferences has gone up as I feel like I have a leg to stand on (I have published works that people can read) and I feel like I can contribute (I’ve wrestled with a number of issues in my own work and in the classroom). These two factors work in another way: even as I do some urban history work, I likely would not have attended this meeting without receiving an invitation from the organizer of a session to submit a paper.

Tomorrow, I’ll present the three most intriguing ideas I heard at the conference from my one day of attending sessions.

Determining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies” for sociology

A new book suggests academic disciplines – like sociology – would benefit from defining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies.” Here are some of the outcomes for sociology:

To come up with learning outcomes in the selected six disciplines, which collectively account for more than 35 percent of undergraduate student majors in the U.S., the Measuring College Learning project began by contacting disciplinary ssociations in each field. Those groups helped select 10 to 15 faculty members to lead the work — a total of 70 professors participated…

In sociology, for example, one of the five essential concepts is the “sociological eye,” which means students “will recognize key theoretical frameworks and assumptions upon which the discipline is founded and differentiated from other social sciences.” That underpinning, the book said, includes founding theoretical traditions (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Mead), a critique of rationality to explain human behavior and how social forces affect individuals.

Socialization is another essential concept, which is defined as students understanding the relationship between self and society, and how the self is socially constructed and maintained at multiple levels.

On the competency side, the panel said undergraduates in sociology should be able to apply scientific principles to understand the social world, evaluate the quality of social scientific data and use sociological knowledge to inform policy debates and promote understanding, among other essential competencies (there are six total).

I imagine this would generate a lot of discussion among sociologists about the merits of these kinds of outcomes, what is essential to the discipline (particularly at the undergraduate level), and how these might be accurately assessed.

On this general topic, is sociology uniquely positioned because of its emphases and skills (ability to see the big picture, focus on social structures, variety of methods, etc.) to contribute to assessment conversations?

Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.

Books that influenced sociologists to pursue sociology

Sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle discusses some of the books that most influenced her:

BOOKS: Which books had the biggest effect on you?

TURKLE: Jean Piaget’s “The Child’s Conception of the World,” Freud’s “The Uncanny,” Claude Levi-Strauss’s “The Savage Mind.” Getting into those books got me into this notion that we love the objects we think with, and we think with the objects we love. That became my life’s work.

BOOKS: Any other pivotal book?

TURKLE: I think the most influential book for me was “The Lonely Crowd” by David Riesman. I read that in high school. I said to myself I want to be the sort of person who could write a book like that. So I decided to study sociology and psychology. In fact, he became my mentor.

Given that Turkle was trained as a sociologist and psychologist (she did both together: “Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.”), these books don’t look so surprising. But, would we have known this when Turkle was in college or younger? Or were these the books that she found at an academic level that then influenced her later research and writing? It would be interesting to see: (1) what books a number of other sociologists would cite as influential and (2) whether these texts line up with the books and articles cited the most in the discipline.

Additionally, The Lonely Crowd has had an outsized effect on studying the American suburbs. I admit that I have not read the whole thing though it sits on the shelf in my office. Its claims about conformity have been widely echoed by critics of the suburbs – while cities are often presented as the bastions of individuality and authenticity – even as the data behind the claims was somewhat thin.

More sociologists and other scholars advocating for marriage?

There isn’t much data here presented to defend a trend but here is a brief look at recent research that highlights the benefits of marriage in the United States:

The new wave of pro-marriage scholarship is challenging orthodoxy in academic fields with reputations — fair or not — of being politically liberal, and perhaps even antimarriage, or at least marriage-neutral. Part of the shift is because marriage itself has changed within the last few generations. “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who has been critical of some recent scholarship promoting marriage. “When people got married who did not want to get married, especially women, and when women’s rights within marriage were much more limited, employment opportunities much less, domestic violence taken much less seriously, when rape wasn’t even a crime within marriage — that system deservedly had a bad rap.”

The new champions of marriage disagree on how, and even whether, to encourage marriage through public policy. Nonetheless, there is an emerging consensus around an idea that would have sounded retrograde just a few decades ago: that having married parents is best for children’s well-being, that marriage is beneficial for parents’ psychological and economic stability, and that it should be a priority in public policy…

It’s low-education (and often low-income) “fragile families” that most concern researchers. Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan recently wrote that children growing up with a single mother are “doubly disadvantaged”: They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers, and their mothers are also likelier to earn less than married mothers are. Children born to unmarried parents fare worse on a wide variety of measures, including an increased likelihood of developing behavior problems and of not making it to college…

Single people aren’t resisting matrimony because of some sort of moral weakness or stubbornness, these critics say, but because they have existing disadvantages, including economic ones. “The people who get and stay married — and make it look like married people are better off than people who aren’t married — were better off already,” Cohen said. “Marriage is a privileged position.” Simply prodding the currently unmarried into matrimony will not magically make them more stable, healthy, and wealthy.

As the article notes, scholars on different sides of the political spectrum disagree on what policies to enact to promote marriage and have different definitions of what marriage should be. But, could the two sides ever come together to promote a middle policy or in order to broker a compromise? If anything, it might be the pressure within each academic discipline that keeps the sides apart.