Magazine article Insight on the News

Lamenting the Left's Lock on Sociology

Magazine article Insight on the News

Lamenting the Left's Lock on Sociology

Article excerpt

Summary: Sociology has taken a disastrous lunge to the left, say some disillusioned practitioners, deploring a shift from objectivity to polemics. Although others acknowledge the field has become politicized, they view the situation as less dire.

University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small," said Henry Kissinger, once a professor as well as a statesman. Departmental colleagues stop speaking to one another. Carefully nutured reputations collapse. And if the battle's as bitter as the one now waging among American sociologists, the texture and tone of an entire scholarly field can change drastically.

Sociology has fallen into a "dismal abyss" and may soon go the way of phrenology, says Irving Louis Horowitz, Hannah Arendt professor of sociology at Rutgers University.

The field "is in a tailspin and no one seems to know what to do," says Lynn Rapaport, an assistant professor of sociology at Pomona College in California.

The social sciences and humanities in general are in a funk, says Jean Bethke Elshtain, Centennial professor of political science and philosophy at Vanderbilt University. "Things are strange in academia," she says, "and they're likely to stay strange for some time."

How has such a great tradition "turned sour if not rancid?" asks Horowitz in The Decomposition of Sociology, a 282-page jeremiad on the subject. Sociologists, rather than striving for objectivity, have turned into polemists advocating leftist programs, says Horowitz. Professorships have become bully pulpits for would-be revolutionaries. "Every disparity between the ghetto and suburb is proof that capitalism is sick," he writes. Every,social wrong is looked upon as evidence that the United States is a deeply flawed society.

Horowitz and his fellow critics may be overstating their case. Leading sociological journals are full of straightforward scholarship - articles with titles such as "The Effects of Family Disruption on Social Mobflity" and "The US. State's Dominance of the World War II Investment Process." But these disgruntled academics argue convincingly that sociology, a field founded on the notion of empiricism, has turned passionately partisan.

In fact, any careful observer could see that this scholarly vessel has been listing to port for decades. The American Sociological Review, the publication of the American Sociological Association, routinely carries articles that seem better suited for a journal of Marxist theory. "There are signs that in all advanced capitalist societies hegemonic regimes are developing a despotic face," a typical piece declared in the mid-eighties. "In this period one can anticipate the working classes beginning to feel their collective impotence and the irreconcilability of their interests with the development of capitalism."

Similar rhetoric decorates an article contributed by sociologist Martin Oppenheimer to a 1991 anthology, Radical Sociologists and the Movement. Oppenheimer, expressing his faith in socialism despite its setbacks in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, thanked his fellow sociologists for keeping the faith: "Some of us have developed solid bridges to progressive communities outside the universities, and to causes of many kinds. Our networks of comradeship are more or less intact:'

Contemporary sociology, Horowitz declares, "has the same hardcore fanatical belief that remedial efforts [to solve social problems] are doomed and that only revolution or the more frequently used word, insurgency, can be [sociology's] proper mission." He has gone so far as to compare American sociologists with those who practiced the profession in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, where sociologists were expected to serve the interests of the state.

In less extreme moments of reflection, he and other critics of the discipline lament that sociology has become the breeding ground for radical feminists, gays and lesbians. …

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