maybe public sociology was better in the 50s
As has been noted too many times (like here, here, and here), the discussion of public sociology often assumes that there was a golden era when sociology was filled with dazzling intellects who amazed the public with their incisive analysis. But was there ever such a golden era? I’ll admit many contemporary sociologists do work that rightfully merits attention and they often get the attention of the wider public, but I think something different was going on a few decades ago:
- There were quite a few sociologists who seemed to capture the attention of the educated audience and the attention was not limited to news coverage about “the latest study.” These folks influenced educated opinion about the world: Mills, Riesman, Daniel Bell, James Coleman, Moynihan, Lipset. From Europe, we had Frankfurt school folks who were self-identified sociologists, such as Adorno and Marcuse, who definitely had a wide ranging impact on the intellectual left. You even had a few conservative sociologist intellectuals, such as Irving Horowitz. These were all sociologists who were respected for their academic contributions and their ability to communicate to a wider public. I don’t think we have a public figure that has quite risen to the level of Coleman and some of these other folks.
- Also, sociologists were often seen as important students of society that decision makers paid attention to. The Institute at Columbia routinely got research grants from both major private clients and the state. Jane Adams and the early Chicago school was seen as speaking to the practice of social work, Parsons was hired to analyze the Nazi regime for the US govt, and Merton used his social psychology tools to assist in the war effort. Do any modern sociologists draw such respect that major social actors come to them for advice on how to make the world a better place? When was the last time a sociologist was entrusted with a task that our nation literally depended on?
- Major sociological studies used to have a major impact on the way we thought about the world. For example, the Coleman report really rocked people. The Moynihan report was another shocker. When was the last time sociologists rocked anyone’s world? Sure, we may publish the occasional contrarian article, but it’s been decades since the work of sociologists has changed how the educated public views social life.
- Even when we do produce studies of public importance, the sociological profession’s contribution is minimized. For example, in the recent media coverage about obesity and networks, how many news outlets noted that one of the principle investigators was an MD who also holds a PhD in sociology? Heck, how many news outlets even noted that the study was even sociological at all? Basically, one of sociology’s biggest contributions of the year was totally ceded to the medical profession. Yes, it was published in a medical journal, but it is the outcome of sociological research.
As far as raw talent and creativity, our era has some heavy hitters and history will be kind to post Parsons era sociology (1970+). But I think there has been a qualitative shift in how the sociological profession relates to the wider society. We have shifted from being a profession that was seen as a tool for policy and society’s self-examination, and become just another academic profession producing occasionally newsworthy sound bites.