[Guest post by Chris Martin, graduate student in sociology, Emory University]
What’s the difference between social work and sociology? The two fields ought to be quite distinct, but as a sociologist myself, I sometimes can’t find the line between sociologists, who study society, and social workers, who remedy social problems. In fact, Karl Marx believed that interpreting society was less important than changing it, and he is the first member of sociology’s holy trinity.
Here’s the more important question—Is it OK to blur the distinction? Does it compromise scholarship when sociologists try to remedy social problems? If sociology, like economics, drew scholars from various ideological backgrounds, I think it would not be problematic. There would be room to debate the pros and cons of new and old forms of social order. American sociology, despite its progressive origins, once had such diversity. Sadly, that diversity has now vanished.
As Jonathan Haidt pointed out, at a 2011 social psychology conference, disciplines face problems when ideological diversity vanishes. Members of the discipline congeal into a moral tribe, which unites around the pursuit of fixed ideals. Because the left dominates social psychology, Haidt argued, social psychology sometimes resembles such a moral tribe, one that shares its totems and taboos. Conservatives (and libertarians) are either ignored or caricatured.
In a new article in The American Sociologist, I examine how sociology faces a similar problem. The article “How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight” (ungated version here) draws attention to three problems.
The first is avoidance of taboo topics and conclusions. The taboos in sociology are similar to the ones that Haidt identified in his 2011 talk about social psychology: Ideas such as that “victims” are sometimes blameworthy, that sexes and races biologically differ from one another, that social beliefs are inborn rather than constructed, and that stereotypes sometimes match average group attributes.
I can see why research on these topics is hard to swallow, but how probable is it that the universe cares about the moral taboos of a small community of researchers who happen to live in the 21st century? In other words, wouldn’t you expect to reach morally troubling conclusions at least some of the time?
The second problem is data censoring. Often, data are trimmed to fit a liberal cause. Consider the case of White privilege. In the canonical article on White privilege, Peggy McIntosh noted, among other things, that her Whiteness endowed her with the privilege of housing affordability: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford ….”
Here McIntosh correctly implies that Whites are better off than Blacks—but incorrectly implies that Whites are better off than everyone else. White income actually lags behind Chinese-American, Filipino-American, Jewish-American, Indian-American, and Japanese-American income. McIntosh may not have had these figures at hand in 1989, but they’re easily available now. Yet they’re persistently trimmed because they interfere with the story that whites, as the majority-group oppressor, have privileges that are denied to all minority groups.
The third problem is limited empathy for outsiders. In everyday life, we often think we have social insight—we assume that we know what information other people hold in their heads. In fact, we have a tendency to assume that if we know something, other people know it too. In reality, of course, that doesn’t always hold. In fact, we don’t even know if other people use the same vocabulary that we use.
For instance, liberals often talk about inequality as a synonym for unfairness. They then describe conservatives as tolerant of inequality. However, inequality (in itself) may simply not be salient for people who aren’t liberals. It’s not that these people don’t care about fairness, but rather that they don’t think that inequality of outcomes necessarily implies unfairness. People (and groups) may differ in how hard they work, or in how valuable their contributions are in the current economy.
Because of these three problems, I believe that American sociology is not producing the very best work that it could produce. What is the solution? I agree with Haidt and his co-authors (in a recent paper) that the answer is diversity. We need to find and encourage more non-liberals to join the field of sociology. We don’t need the proportion of conservatives, liberals, and libertarians to match the proportions in the US population. That goal would be absurd. But we sorely need to change the current state of affairs. One social psychologist, Lee Jussim, recently wrote how he enacted change—see his blog post “How to Encourage Non-Liberal Students in Psychology.”
The irony here is that sociologists care about race, gender, and class diversity not just for the sake of social justice, but also for the sake of bringing different perspectives into the classroom. Given the relevance of political polarization to the study of social divisions, isn’t it obvious that sociology needs political diversity too?
Cited ArticleRead More