What's in a Number?

By Torpey, John | The Nation, October 9, 1989 | Go to article overview

What's in a Number?


Torpey, John, The Nation


What's in a Number?

"When the spirit fades," writer Charles Bukowski has observed, "the form appears." This is a fair description of the current state of professional sociology, with its penchant for technical sophistication at the expense of human substance. At this year's convention of the American Sociological Association (A.S.A.) in San Francisco, one conference theme, "Macro and Micro Interrelationships," was essentially empty, so basic it could mean anything. Indeed, one participant suggested to me that the topic was chosen because an older generation of sociologists, disturbed at the "fragmentation" of the field, sought some sort of consensus, however minimal, on what the discipline is up to. The other theme of the meeting concerned the social dimensions of the AIDS crisis, but the relative lack of attention actually accorded AIDS cast doubt on its equal billing with "micro/macro" dilemmas.

These days the discipline of sociology falters, a victim of its misguided quest for a professionalism wrapped in the protective armor of "science." The New York Times recently reported that Washington University, in St. Louis, is dismantling its sociology department, and the University of Rochester, in New York, has already done so. Such developments are surely related to the profession's inability to infuse its descriptions with imagination and vision and make them accessible to a broader audience.

At last year's meeting of the A.S.A. in Atlanta, University of California, Berkeley, sociology professor Todd Gitlin decried the bad writing cultivated in professional journals and graduate programs. Most sociologists, he lamented, have come to write so obscurely as to preclude the scrutiny, or indeed the interest, of any but sociological insiders. When Herbert Gans, then the A.S.A. president, addressed the same gathering, he insisted that the profession must assure its fledgling practitioners that "they can be both sociologists and writers and will not be discriminated against for this combination of skills."

The case of Harvard University is instructive. Despite a history of orientation toward theoretical and public-minded sociology, Harvard has sought in recent years to recover its eclipsed status as one of the nation's top two or three departments. A review committee of prestigious sociologists decided the most promising path was to pursue what pays in the marketplace of ideas--namely, quantitative studies. When Paul Starr came up for tenure in a widely publicized 1985 case, one dissenter from the department's favorable recommendation derided Starr's accessible and comprehensive study, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, as mere "journalism." Despite the fact that Starr's book had won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, the 1984 Bancroft Prize in history and the 1983 C. Wright Mills award in sociology, president Derek Bok supported the dissenting minority, facilitating Harvard's move toward quantification. Berkeley was the only one among the top ten in a recent poll of the nation's sociology departments not strongly dedicated to a quantitative approach.

Quantitative sociologists tend to make a fetish of "hard numbers" rather than trying to understand how social groups interpret and act on the circumstances those numbers describe. But those scholars also constitute an important bulwark against the recent tendencies of others in the field who seem to privilege inspired insight over validation. Scholars influenced by post-structuralist and deconstructionist literary criticism have been reducing the concrete substance of social structure to a goulash of "texts." In this version of social processes, responsible actors are hard to find.

Despite their tendency to be obscure, some quantitatively oriented sociologists are carrying out important work. Among the best is Erik Olin Wright's research (in Classes) on class structure and class consciousness in industrial societies, and William Julius Wilson's on poverty, race and class (in The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged). …

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