Do conservatives only praise sociology when it fits their arguments?

Conservatives may generally dislike sociology but you can find cases where they are more than willing to accept the imprimatur of sociology if it fits their perspectives. Two recent examples:

1. Discussing a MSNBC exchange about Paul Ryan’s comments about the inner-city where one commentator suggested Ryan was echoing the arguments of Charles Murray, a Daily Caller writer defends Murray:

Murray is a prominent and widely-respected sociologist who penned the 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which in one chapter posits certain racial differences in intelligence and suggests some of this may be due to genetics.

The book’s measured and well-researched take on a highly controversial issue failed to halt an immediate left-wing backlash. Murray was branded a racist pseudo-scientist, with the Southern Poverty Law Center filing his name under “White Nationalist” and falsely suggesting he maintains ties with neo-Nazi groups.

David Weigel, a left-leaning libertarian journalist writing for Slate, wrote that even after reams of well-received research since 1994, “[‘The Bell Curve’] wrecked Murray’s reputation with some people, and it won’t get un-wrecked.”

“But the conservatives of 2014 don’t cite Murray for his race work,” Weigel continued, noting that the fascinating work Murray presented in his later works “Losing Ground” and “Coming Apart” are much more likely to be referenced by opponents of the welfare state.

As I asked in February 2012, is Murray really a sociologist and how many sociologists would claim he is doing good sociological research?

2. Here is an interesting example from the Family Research Council of combining a temporarily favorable view of Hollywood actresses and sociology:

I know virtually nothing about contemporary stars and starlets, other than having consistently to turn away from the images of the substantially disrobed young “entertainers” displayed on the jumbotron across from my office in advertisements for their latest performances. Pornography, by any other name, ain’t art…

Now, however, Ms. Dunst is much in the news for having the audacity to say what she thinks of gender roles, to wit:

“I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued … We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking – it’s a valuable thing my mum created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armour. I’m sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work”.

Wow – how revolutionary! The idea that gender is not a social construct but actually has to do with biology, neurology, morphology, physiology, etc. is an affront to the received orthodoxy of the feminist left, many of whom have piled-on with a predictable combination of derision, illogic, non-sequitur reasoning, and obscenity…

So, men and women are different, and being a stay-at-home mother who cares for her children is something to be honored, not scorned: For affirming these self-evident truths, Ms. Dunst is being labeled “dumb” and ‘insufferable,” among the more printable adjectives.

Kirsten Dunst is now the good sociologist for agreeing with the organization’s perspectives on gender roles. No research required.

Conservatives aren’t alone in this behavior in cherry-picking studies and data they think supports their ideologies. Many groups are on the lookout for prominent studies and research to support their cause, sometimes leading to odd battles of “my three studies say this” and “your two studies say this.” But, given the complaints conservatives typically make about liberal ideas and research in sociology, how helpful is it to sometimes suggest conservatives should take sociology seriously?

Is Charles Murray really a sociologist?

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.”

Wikipedia’s main entry for Murray clearly calls him a political scientist and records his PhD in political science but this list of sociologists includes Murray.

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

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?