Sociology's Sad Decline. (Society)

Article excerpt

"Whatever Happened to Sociology?" by Peter L. Berger, in First Things (Oct. 2002), Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Ave., Ste. 400, New York, N.Y. 10010.

In 1963, Berger published a book called Invitation to Sociology. Still in print, it has attracted many students to the discipline over the decades. Alas, says the author, an emeritus professor of religion, sociology, and theology at Boston University, the picture he painted then of sociology "bears little relation to what goes on in it today. The relation is a bit like that of the Marxian utopia to what used to be called 'real existing socialism.'"

Sociology enjoyed "a sort of golden age" in the 1950s, he says. At Harvard University was Talcott Parsons, who, despite his "terrible prose," was erecting an imposing theoretical system that addressed the "big questions" that had preoccupied sociologists since the discipline's birth in the late 19th century--"What holds a society together? What is the relation between beliefs and institutions?" At the University of Chicago, there was "the so-called 'Chicago school' of urban sociology, which had produced a whole library of insightful empirical studies," as well as the blend of social psychology and sociology fathered by George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). At Columbia University were two powerhouses of the discipline: Robert Merton, who espoused "a more moderate version" of Parsons's "structural functionalism," and Paul Lazarsfeld, "who helped develop increasingly sophisticated quantitative methods but who never forgot the 'big questions. …