Is Sociology Dead?

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Is Sociology Dead?


THE SOURCE: "Exploring Genetics and Social Structure," a supplement to American Journal of Sociology, 2008.

THE FIRST LAW OF SOCIOLOGY, according to an old joke about the limits of social science, is "Some do, some don't" For more than a century, sociologists have been trying to tease out the answers to such questions as who votes, gets ahead, commits crimes, or goes to college. But while social scientists were producing complex narrative accounts of myriad causal factors, biologists decoded some three billion units of human DNA. Then geneticists released a tsunami of papers purporting to reveal a genetic basis for phenomena ranging from voting behavior to ear wax preference. What's a sociologist to do if everything is inherited?

For nearly two decades, many of them have adopted a minimalist or even "know-nothing" mindset about genetic research. To write about something is to legitimate it, they have held, believing that the new focus on the genetics of behavior (particularly as it relates to race) might be a thinly veiled "return of the eugenicist project of the first half of the 20th century," writes Peter Bearman, a sociologist at Columbia University, who edited a special supplement to the American Journal of Sociology with sociologists Molly A. Martin of Pennsylvania State University and Sam Shostak of Brandeis University.

But "inattention" to genetics isn't likely to pass muster with the public or those who dole out research grants. Rather than try to debunk the role of genes in behavior, writes Northwestern sociologist Jeremy Freese, he is willing to concede that "behavioral geneticists are (roughly) correct in concluding that virtually every outcome sociologists have cared to study about individuals is genetically 'heritable' to a nontrivial degree."

Consider, he suggests, early sexual activity among adolescents: If genetic differences are a partial cause of height, and height is a partial cause of attractiveness, and attractiveness is a partial cause of positive interactions with others, and positive interactions are a partial cause of self-esteem, and self-esteem is a partial cause of delayed first intercourse, then age at first intercourse is genetically influenced. The important point is that "sociological thinking is fundamental to explaining why.

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