the rumors of sociology’s demise have been greatly exaggerated


Our 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 McClay. Peter has a nice summary of its main points. According to the article, sociology is doomed because it is too political and too “scientistic,” which means a shallow aping of economics and political science. McCly also points out that wide ranging generalist sociologists, like the recently departed Seymour Martin Lipset, are not to be found these days (unless you read

Sociology does have some serious issues, but the patient isn’t dead. Any long time observer will know that sociology’s demise has been predicted for decades, yet has never happened. Anti-sociologists like McClay remind me of orthodox Marxists waiting for the revolution that never came. Remember the “coming crisis of western sociology” in the 1970s? Never happened. Remember the impending “death of white sociology” predicted by Joyce Ladner in the late 1960s? Didn’t happen either. Sociology is academia’s Desdemona. You keep suffocating her, but she won’t give up the ghost.

Let’s get down to McClay’s two major points. First, he claims that academic sociology became too political. Guilty as charged. Even a casual observer will note that sociologists really do want to change the world. Any sociologist who has served on graduate admissions knows that aspiring sociologists want to help the disadvantaged. Casual observers will also notice that the sociological profession goes through fits of wanting to be relevant. Right now, we sociologists are having a discussion about “public sociology,” proposed by Berkeley sociologist Michael Burawoy. It’s a pretty open idea, but it seems to imply a more activist stance.

Has that really throttled sociology? A few professors probably spent too much time in the barricades, and not enough getting published. But sociology has many vibrant areas that are progressing in a normal science manner despite the calls for revolution. For example, my co-bloggers contribute to these areas, such as social pyschology, culture, organizations and social movements. Similarly, you can look around the top departments and see many folks engaged in terrific research projects. The empirical evidence suggests that normal science coexists rather well with the politicization that McClay observes. I have yet to see a discussion of, say, affect control theory stifled because one of the discussants isn’t sufficiently enraged by George Bush, though I would readily admit that this might occur in some “hot button” areas like socio-biology.

McClay’s second point is probably more serious. He claims that sociologists are too “scientistic” in that they mimic the harder social sciences. And there is truth to McClay’s point. We have all read articles in top journals whose main claim for attention is that they used the latest statistical technique. There are also specialities where the main advances revolve around technique, such as social networks, applied statistics, mobility research, or experimental social psychology.

Has this somehow stunted sociology? I’ll side with my other O&M nemesis, Steve Postrel, in saying that some basic math and “scientism” is required for progress. It is simply impossible to talk about social mobility without a serious statistical model for measuring associations in tabular data. Similarly, network theory remains a vague metaphor without a healthy dose of graph theory. My guess is that if sociology didn’t have statistics and math, McClay would probably be accusing the field of being fuzzy and vague.

McClay’s second grudge is that he wants sociology to have more people like Lipset, people who can ask big questions in a humanistic vein. I can’t argue with McClay. Such people are wonderful. But McClay has to show a little perspective. Has any discipline *ever* been the home of legions of great “free wheeling” humanist thinkers like Lipset?

Of course not! Why? First, such people are rare. If you go back to any sociology department of the 1950s, you will find that there were staffed with narrow specialists, just like we have now. Sure, maybe a few departments had clusters of stars for brief periods, but the normal state of academia is to be focused on accomplished specialists. I think McClay has a very selective memory in this regard. Second, academia encourages narrow specialization, which discourages people of Lipset’s generalist bent. Few people, and Lipset was special in this regard, have the ability to appeal both to academic specialists and a broader educated audience. We should be grateful for the Lipsets of the world, but we shouldn’t expect them to be common.

So what does McClay really have against academic sociology? His two charges of political tilt and “scientism,” both true, yet ultimately shallow, points. They are really an excuse to offer his real complaint:

As Nathan Glazer has put it, Mr. Lipset had a lifelong interest in how societies, guided by their histories, “set limits for their development that are difficult to transcend.”

Those words express one of the abiding themes of the “old” sociology: how the stubbornness of social forces circumscribes what is possible for us as individuals. Around every man, said Tocqueville, a fateful circle of freedom is drawn, beyond which that man ceases to be free. Such an observation is unwelcome in a culture that values the free individual above all else and imagines that all things should be possible. But by denying Tocqueville’s insight, and by treating the structures of society as infinitely malleable, sociology betrayed its calling: It ceased to study society in a profound way, acknowledging difficult truths, and substituted activism, usually aimed at an ungrounded notion of “social justice.”

McClay beats the drum against the idea that social institutions are very flexible, and bundles this into an argument against “social justice.” He would probably be surprised by the wave of sociological theory that has been written since 1970. For example, new institutional theory is all about how social institutions constrain action. Similarly, Mark Granovetter has written insightfully about how social networks provide important constraints on action. If we ignore the red herring of activism, which is rarely, if ever, a serious issue in our top journals and publishing houses, we see much modern sociology is actually about the interplay between individual choice and non-malleable social structure. Modern sociology is actually the *opposite* of what McClay claims it to be. If he were actually familiar with recent sociology, he might appreciate that the big argument right now is all about how to bring theories of change and action in theories of persistent social structures (like neo-institutionalism and ecology theory).

Like many critics, McClay thinks he’s shooting at what he thinks is an easy target: relativistic sociologists with their fancy math, who chase away the future Lipsets of the world. Yet, despite its flaws, academic sociology seems to be on the right track – thinking hard about human action and social structure using a variety of tools, mathematical and not, and occasionally making progress. And that, I know for sure, will continue to attract the Seymour Lipsets of the future.

Written by fabiorojas

February 7, 2007 at 4:00 am

Posted in academia, fabio, sociology

8 Responses

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  1. I saw this earlier today. First reaction: twilight of Wilfred McClay, more like.



    February 7, 2007 at 4:53 am

  2. Maybe mr. McClay can put in a good word for the 5000 history PhDs who didn’t get a job this year. Or maybe the hundreds of (Lefty) sociologists PhDs who did get jobs, can set up a welfare type of transfer system to help their unemployed history brethren.



    February 7, 2007 at 11:29 am

  3. On the history Ph.D point…I remember looking into history PhDs as an undergrad, and being counseled by even some fairly prominent folks to NOT do it. I have a talented friend, Emory history PhD, who went on the market three-four years in a row, and had no luck landing a decent tenure-track job (now runs a non-profit I believe). Rather tough sledding in that field…



    February 7, 2007 at 4:53 pm

  4. The history of outsiders commenting on the state of other disciplines is synonymous with the history of really smart people making complete fools of themselves. Want to know the “state” of sociology? Listen to Art. He is one of the cool kids.



    February 7, 2007 at 6:20 pm

  5. I second Omar and Teppo’s points. History is a much more sick patient than sociology. While we do have some serious issues, as Art Stinchcombe points out, we are fairly comfortable. Our undergrad classes fill and our PhD students do ok, and some even find homes in other programs.

    But history is definitely in a crisis of overproduction. Many trees die so that PhD history student may graduate and not get jobs. It’s quite sad. I have no beef with historians, but it does trouble me that there has been no serious cut back in the graduate enrollments. While we have our intellectual issues, the humanities disciplines that churn out endless PhD’s have way more serious problems than sociology.


    Fabio Rojas

    February 7, 2007 at 8:58 pm

  6. The thing about golden ages is their goldenness is rarely recognized at the time. Maybe some McClay type in 2050 will look back at sociology today and see it as another golden age and lament that there are no giants like . . . whoever turns out to have been a giant among current sociologists.

    What I find curious in McClay’s analysis is that when it comes to explaining why sociology is the way it is today, he ignores his own advice about looking for external constraints. I supsect that the structures of academia (hiring, tenure, promotion) and publishing have a greater impact on what gets studied and published than does ideology.

    In my own university, a young professor moving towards tenure received a reappointment notice from the provost that included the caution that he was being “distracted” by his orientation towards writing books rather than articles.


    Jay Livingston

    February 10, 2007 at 4:07 pm

  7. […] Fabio at orgtheory comes Wilfred McKay’s pathbreaking article in the Wall Street Journal observes the […]


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