Twilight of Sociology?

6 February 2007 at 5:57 pm 8 comments

| Peter Klein |

I haven’t seen anything from our sociologist friends at about Wilfred McClay’s piece in last Friday’s WSJ, “Twilight of Sociology,” so I’ll take a stab. (The gated version is here; this public link should work for a few days.) Ruminating on Seymour Martin Lipset’s death in December, McClay wonders “whether the discipline of sociology itself may now be ebbing away, as so many of its leading practitioners depart the scene without, it seems, anyone standing ready to replace them.”

McClay blames the decline of sociology on two factors: politics and scientism.

Sociology fell victim to a dogmatic belief that it was not enough to understand the world; one must also change it. And if, as many sociologists came to believe, all reality was “socially constructed,” then nothing was grounded in nature, nothing was justified by tradition or custom, and nothing was to be treated as enduring. All things were provisional, and all could be reshaped, usually along predictable political lines. Thus academic journals and scholarly monographs were given over to supporting the reigning views of race, gender and class — and fiercely suppressing any inquiry that might challenge these views.

But it is equally the case that many sociologists, while seeking to avoid politicization, fell into the trap of scientism, of thinking that by imitating the methods of the “harder” social sciences, such as economics, they could achieve for sociology the precision, and status, of the natural sciences. Studies of, say, social mobility or family structure came to bristle with tables and formulae that only a mathematician could love. One could answer one’s questions with precision. But were such questions worth asking?

Both issues are near and dear to our hearts here at O&M. We worry about academic sociology becoming the handmaiden of “progressive” politics (1, 2, 3). And we worry about the obsession of contemporary social science with quantification, which can easily lapse into a crude kind of scientism, an uncritical imitation of the physical sciences. (Well, I worry about it; Steve doesn’t.)

My sociologist colleague David O’Brien adds some valuable context:

Very interesting article and I agree with most of it. However, the free wheeling inquiry in the hey day of S. M. Lipset, Daniel Bell and others was the late 50s, early 60s, post-McCarthy period, or as Bell called it, the End of Ideology. Lipset was an especially important figure because he understood that the real dynamic keeping the American political system working was the conflicting interests and values within each of the two major parties, which forced each of them to bargain and move toward the middle. The key assumption of intellectuals during the End of Ideology period was that there was a basic consensus on the American version of a limited welfare state and a containment policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, that all changed with the Vietnam War and the intellectual chaos that ensued, first with a kind of “purging” within the Democratic Party and then with a similar purging within the Republican Party. I started my doctoral work in 1967 just as the End of Ideology period was coming to an end (although we didn’t know it at the time) and can testify to this huge shift that the author of the WSJ article describes. Maybe we will have a post-Iraq period when social scientists get back to science, not scientism of post-modern nihilism. I think some good insight into all of this can be gained from reading T. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and effect of paradigms that don’t work. My sense is that in applied areas, like natural resources, gerontology, medical sociology and economic sociology the situation is very good, but the generalists, like Lipset, are not very evident these days. My hope is that the New Institutionalism will help to create a workable paradigm.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Recommended Reading.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. brayden  |  6 February 2007 at 10:07 pm

    You hadn’t heard from me about this because I had decided to ignore it as just another “the sky is falling” complaint about the modern state of academia. Sociology frequently is targeted in these rants. In part we deserve the criticism. Much of sociology is very scientistic, and some of it, especially that which is taught in classrooms, is overly-political. But I think McClay drastically overstates the argument. You only need to look as far as the business school to see how influential sociology has become in certain areas of scholarly and practical life, although sometimes the label of sociology is absent. His discussion about the avoidance of discussion about universal constraints and norms seems absolutely ludicrous. I don’t know which sociology journals he’s reading if he thinks we’re no longer interested in studying structural and normative constraints.

  • […] old friend, Peter Klein of the evil twin Organizations and Markets blog, draws our attention to a recent Wall Street Journal article called “The Twilight of Sociology” by Wilfred […]

  • 3. David Gordon  |  7 February 2007 at 11:15 am

    Friedrich Hayek once recommended an article by Robert Merton on functional explanation. He said, “Merton is one of the best of the sociologists. Of course, that isn’t saying very much.” This was in a course on Philosophy of the Social Sciences, given at UCLA in 1969.

  • 4. David Hoopes  |  7 February 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Finding social theory in sociology.
    It seems to me that sociological theories in the strategy neighborhood tend to be undersocialized. Population ecology is supposed to be sociology, but their is little social about it. Similarly, much of “network theory” is largely strcutural, with little to say about behavior. If the theories “worked” I don’t suppose being structural per se would matter. But, I rarely find such work insightful.
    Certainly, a great deal of sociology is based on socialist political premises (a lot of the work on the sociology of knowledge). If you don’t agree with the political premises, then the work has little to offer.
    Sociolgical work on cognition is another odd area. The work that passes itself as social psychology from a sociological perspective can be very rigid. “Everything is a social construction.”
    Anthropology has divided into to two camps (or you can frame it that way). The neo-Gertzians have given up on traditional anthropology to focus on political commentary. The neo-Goodenough (one example is cognitive anthropoloyg: D’Andrade and others) still examining culture.

  • 5. Jay Livingston  |  10 February 2007 at 6:59 am

    As with most golden eras, those of us who lived through it didn’t realize at the time that it was golden. So it’s possible that some McClay counterpart a half-century from now will tell us that 2007 was a golden era and name the Big Names whose like are no longer to be found now in 2057.

    I also find it odd that McClay doesn’t follow his own advice and look fo the external constraints that lead to “scientism.” The structure of academics (hiring, promotion) and publishing probably have a lot more to do with it that does ideology. It’s not just a question of whether a book like “The End of Ideology” would get published today but whether it would get written. At my own university, the Provost, in his reappointmnet statement for a junior faculty member, cautioned that the faculty member was too much oriented towards writing a book.

  • 6. Donald Douglas  |  10 February 2007 at 12:07 pm

    I blogged on this McClay’s piece as well. I had some similar concerns as Brayden’s above, though my feeling is that McClay sees constraints more on the political economy side (analyzed from a Marxian class perspective) rather than the individualist, cultural perspective of classically liberal norms and ideas. The piece is available free as well on the web page, and you’ll find the link in my post:

  • 7. Bruce’s Blog / links for 2007-02-13  |  12 February 2007 at 7:33 pm

    […] Twilight of Sociology? « Organizations and Markets whether the discipline of sociology itself may now be ebbing away, as so many of its leading practitioners depart the scene without, it seems, anyone standing ready to replace them (tags: philosophy science social history sociology death) […]

  • 8. sozlog » Blog Archive » Twilight of sociology?  |  19 February 2007 at 2:38 pm

    […] Fabio at orgtheory and Peter Klein at organizations and markets comes Wilfred McClay’s pathbreaking article in the Wall Street Journal. The author observes […]

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