Methodological Contradictions of Contemporary Sociology

By Xie, Yu | Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Methodological Contradictions of Contemporary Sociology

Xie, Yu, Michigan Quarterly Review

In his essay "Cultural Contradictions of Contemporary Sociology," Irving Louis Horowitz paints a bleak picture of sociology. His finished rendering looks something like this: (1) sociology has lost its intellectual focus and rigor, letting other more applied fields (such as criminal justice) take over its place in discussions of social policy; (2) sociology has become a haven for political activists who often let their political ideology override their loyalty to scholarship; (3) in lining up with extremist liberal-Marxist ideologies, sociology has alienated itself from mainstream society and thus lost its legitimacy and credibility with the public.

To be fair, Horowitz is making some valid observations. There are some sociologists who are interested more in liberal ideologies than in understanding society. The influence of sociologists in policy circles is limited. There is also plenty of poorly executed sociological research that does not command respect from peer social science disciplines, or even from good scholars in sociology. The mere existence of these facts surely distresses anyone, including myself, whose profession is sociology.

However, I am a proud and committed sociologist. As an academic sociologist, I have always emphasized the importance of variability in my own teaching and research. This emphasis on variability can be traced back to Charles Darwin.1 Indeed, one can make the argument that modern sociology should be primarily concerned with variability.2 Social phenomena and human behaviors are so diverse that a careful empirical study of them almost always defies simplistic characterizations. The discipline itself is no less diverse. Indeed, sociology is so heterogeneous in topic, method, and approach that any sweeping characterization is at best misleading. It is in this sense that Horowitz's characterization of sociology comes up short. A wholesale rejection of contemporary sociology as an ideology-based enterprise is a claim that is itself an ideology.

Now, let me take a look at three primary dimensions along which sociology varies. First, sociology covers a large number of specialty areas, and the differences across these fields are large. Today, there are forty-three sections in the American Sociological Association (ASA) and fifty-three research committees in the International Sociological Association (ISA). The diversity of sociology is evident in the titles of some of these sections and research committees: Animals and Society (ASA), Emotion (ASA), Population (ASA), Arts (ISA), Leisure (ISA), and Sports (ISA). While I am not an expert in most of these areas, I know enough about demography to appreciate that the methods and style of demographic research are very different from those of the other specialty areas listed above. Sociology is an overly broad discipline under which many subdisciplines are located. Some subdisciplines are so different from each other that it is futile to search for common characterizations of them. We just need to learn how to live withand take advantage of when possible-the intellectual diversity that has resulted from sociology's historical development.

Second, even within each specialty area, we find a large variation in the quality of scholarship. There has been excellent work produced by many first-rate sociologists, particularly in the areas of social demography, organizational behavior, social inequality, economic sociology, education, race, gender, and the family. However, it is also true that some published work in sociology is fairly poor. Horowitz seems to attribute this phenomenon to the problem that sociology is too occupied with liberal ideologies to maintain scholarly rigor. I do not know the extent to which this is true, but I doubt that the problem is universal, or even prevalent, in any major sociology department that emphasizes research. I offer an alternative explanation for the appearance of low-quality sociological work: many sociologists did not receive adequate training in research methodology and as a result sometimes find themselves in need of "stretching" empirical evidence to support a particular line of plausible argument, which may or may not be politically based. …

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