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Whatever Happened to Sociologists?

Sociology wasn't always the brunt of jokes from other scientists

smithsonian.com

It’s a running joke in academic circles. There are scientists, and then there are “scientists.” Physics, math, most of biology, that’s all science. Psychology, evolutionary biology, ecology, that’s a little softer. And then there’s sociology.

Uncyclopedia defines sociology as “a cult based around the intellectual pseudoscience of studying society. Physicists in particular like to rag on the discipline. Take Alan Sokal, who submitted an entirely nonsensical paper to a sociology journal and got it published. The paper, called “Transgressing the Boundaries – Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” contained sentences like:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability — it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something — of a center starting from which an observer could master the field — but the very concept of the game.

Its publication prompted a call to re-evaluate just what sociological journals were publishing and how rigorous they could possibly be.

But sociology wasn’t always the brunt of jokes from other scientists. In fact, for a long time sociology was just another scientific discipline. Stephen Turner recently wondered just what happened? He writes (in the Journal of Sociology no less):

Sociology once debated ‘the social’ and did so with a public readership. Even as late as the Second World War, sociologists commanded a wide public on questions about the nature of society, altruism and the direction of social evolution. As a result of several waves of professionalization, however, these issues have vanished from academic sociology and from the public writings of sociologists. From the 1960s onwards sociologists instead wrote for the public by supporting social movements. Discussion within sociology became constrained both by ‘professional’ expectations and political taboos. Yet the original motivating concerns of sociology and its public, such as the compatibility of socialism and Darwinism, the nature of society, and the process of social evolution, did not cease to be of public interest. With sociologists showing little interest in satisfying the demand, it was met by non-sociologists, with the result that sociology lost both its intellectual public, as distinct from affinity groups, and its claim on these topics.

Basically, he’s wondering: what happened to sociologists? When did they give up questions of human nature, altruism, society? Well, Turner argues that a big problem is that sociologists started getting political. “It is evident that many of the most enthusiastic adherents of the new model of professionalization in the United States had roots in the left, and not infrequently in the Communist Party itself.” And that political slant limited the types of questions sociologists were allowed to ask. He writes:

Sociology was once a place where intellectuals found freedom: Giddings, Sorokin, Alfred Schutz and many others who could have pursued careers in their original fields chose sociology because of this freedom. To some extent sociology still welcomes outsiders, though now it is likely to be outsiders with ties to the Women’s Movement. … But in general, the freedom of the past is in the past.

Turner’s basic point is that sociology is now a joke because every sociologist is a liberal. That’s not untrue: over 85 percent of the members of the American Sociological Association (ASA) vote for either the Democratic or Green parties. One survey found the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the ASA to be 47 to 1. Now, whether or not sociology is joked about because its researchers political leanings is another question. But that’s the argument Turner seems to be making here.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Sociology of Picky Eating
Is Race a Social Construct? The Natural History Museum Investigates

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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