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). Both continue to explore the classic sociological preoccupation with hierarchical structures and their effects on individuals. They are attempting to understand the fateful confluence of history and biography, as C. Wright Mills once described sociology's mission.
In contrast to the more quantified research approach, the "interpretive" tradition in sociology associated with such figures as Robert Bellah and Clifford
Geertz (actually an anthropologist) ` generally rejects the claim that sociology can be a science in the same sense as the natural science. Interpretive sociology typically has less to do with statistics and uses cultural meaning and subjective perception as the focus of investigation. It can be, as Bellah argues, a kind of public philosophy.
Squarely in the interpretive tradition, Alan Wolfe has recently attempted (in Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation) to renew sociology's relation to popular discourse. He examines the vanishing civil society that is pinched between markets and states in liberal democracies. Wolfe takes brilliant measure of the shock waves reverberating from the epicenter of "rational choice" theory, the University of Chicago. Despite its uselessness in accounting for moral obligations, Wolfe demonstrates, this view has crowded out sociological insight in much current debate, replacing reciprocity with market logic.
At times, however, interpretive sociologists lapse into an individualistic approach at odds with the core insight of any sociology worthy of the name: the notion that society exists as a reality outside individuals, fundamentally shaping the choices they make about their lives. This problem is especially apparent in such obscure branches as "ethnomethodology," which one critic has attacked as "sociology without society." The University of California's Los Angeles and Santa Barbara campuses were once bastions of these more social-psychological approaches, unflatteringly dubbed "California sociology." As a result of a recent infusion of European emigre sociologists, however, these are boom times for sociology in southern California, where a number of departments have reinvigorated the institutional orientation at the heart of the sociological tradition. Meanwhile, Berkeley continues its "sociologically informed social criticism," as a recent departmental review put it.
Perhaps the most significant trend in recent sociological thought is an attempt to understand the conditions in which social knowledge is created. This concern takes seriously Marx's crucial discovery that being determines consciousness, not the other way around. Since Karl Mannheim elaborated this insight into a sociology of knowledge, the relations of symbolic production have become a central preoccupation. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who rivals any German mandarin in the density of his prose, has done much to deflate the cultural pretensions of the dominant classes, seeing in them the basis for "symbolic domination." In his Homo Academicus he turns his attentions to the academic power game, suggesting that scholars pursue many things besides truth.
Understanding the origins of social knowledge is of more than academic importance. In her sharp-eyed Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates the importance of locating socially the producers of "scientific" knowledge. She draws on sociology mostly to indicate how middle-class prejudices toward workers shape broadly held but quite erroneous notions about the working class. Ehrenreich also shows how neoconservatives have used the insight about middle-class control over representations of social reality as a bludgeon against liberals.
The profession obviously still attracts many to its traditional domain--studies of inequality, domination and social conflict. A National Research Council panel dominated by sociologists issued a damning assessment this summer of the gains made by African-Americans over the past half-century (strangely titled "A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society"). The report concluded that the advances of the 1960s ended with the onset of economic malaise in the early 1970s, leaving a "great gulf" between blacks and whites.
A week later, sociologists at the University of Chicago announced their finding that racial segregation in housing is deeper and more profound than had previously been thought. Such studies may help to undermine the notion--attributable to the widespread lack of a conception of social structure--that racism has been eliminated simply because well-intentioned whites no longer refer to black people as "niggers" and the most explicitly racist laws have been rescinded.
These reports as well as Gans's and Gitlin's remarks suggest the persistence of a desire for the discipline to reach beyond its confines to risk addressing public concerns with investigations of power and justice. The new A.S.A. president is William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago. Wilson's work has profoundly influenced the debate on the urban "underclass," and he has mandated that next year's convention consider the topic of "Sociology and the Public Agenda."
Academic sociology was born out of a debate with Marxism. It grew strong in
dialogue with contentious social forces and derives intellectual sustenance today from its connection to movements for social change among workers, women and racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. Yet there are powerful institutional impulses to rationalize and reinforce a divided society. Younger sociologists devoted to understanding the sources of social conflict must confront an academic setting that, like the larger society, throws many obstacles in the way of that effort. The future of the field thus depends crucially on the strength of currents running outside and beneath it.…
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Publication information: Article title: What's in a Number?. Contributors: Torpey, John - Author. Magazine title: The Nation. Volume: 249. Issue: 11 Publication date: October 9, 1989. Page number: 393+. © 1999 The Nation Company L.P. COPYRIGHT 1989 Gale Group.
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