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is sociology a conservative discipline?

Yeah, I know, the answer to this question is no. In numerous ways, sociology has evolved into a discipline with a strong liberal tendency, especially inasmuch as much sociological research is about inequality, its causes, and potential solutions. Our emphasis on inequality, economic and social, is perhaps the distinctive feature of a contemporary sociological perspective. You can’t get any more liberal than that, right?

But a couple of things happened at the last ASA that made me rethink this fairly simplistic take on sociology. Both of these issues have been discussed on other blogs and so I’ll refer you to those blogs to get more information. The first issue was the pointedly negative reaction that a number of sociologists had to Vegas as a host city. It was actually surprising to me that many sociologists’ reactions to Vegas were so condemning and prudish. It wasn’t just they disliked the Vegas aesthetic – in my conversations with some of my colleagues, whose opinions I greatly respect, there seemed to be a condemnation of the very idea of Vegas as something morally reprehensible. This made me think twice about my long-held view that sociology is morally relativistic.  That’s not to say that I thought sociologists didn’t have morals, but I just like to imagine that the discipline itself is more-or-less value neutral. Maybe that’s a bad assumption. Deep inside the sociological imagination, I think there are a strong set of values that guide sociologists’ work (e.g.,  an aversion to exploitation). Vegas seemed to provoke that moral center.

The second issue was the award given to David Brooks for “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues.” Now I’m not a huge Brooks fan, and I think a lot of sociologists share this view. In fact, enough sociologists have a distaste for Brooks that the reception of his award was apparently accompanied by some jeers and boos. I wasn’t there to see this, but it’s not surprising to me. It is disappointing though. Despite my reservations about the quality of Brooksian analysis, I do think that it’s wise to cultivate relationships with journalists who read and translate sociology to the masses. Brooks is definitely in that camp. But Doug Hartmann thinks there is another reason we shouldn’t exclude people like Brooks from our discipline’s outreach efforts. It is because he believes there is a genuine conservative perspective within sociology. Here’s Hartmann:

But even to the extent he does represent particular ideological points of view (and who doesn’t?), we will step up and defend Brooks’s right to read, interpret, and mobilize our work. Anything less would be both elitist and a failure to appreciate our discipline’s genuinely conservative (not Republican) impulses and insights with respect to norms, solidarity, and the high ideals that support and sustain social order and democracy in the contemporary world.

I like the distinction Hartmann makes between conservatism and Republicanism. The two shouldn’t be equated. I think what he means is that many sociologists do ultimately care about designing institutions that promote ideals and values. We may not always agree on what those values are (although we have a general consensus that exploitation and inequality are bad!), but sociology should be open to a conversation about what those values are. Anyway, if nothing else, the Vegas-ASA experience has made me aware of the need for greater disciplinary self-reflexivity about the values that motivate our work.

Written by brayden king

September 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, sociology

22 Responses

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  1. I agree. And I posted this in Hartmann’s comments too. My issue with Brooks would be less political, than with the word “excellence.” Now, I don’t think this is political because I also object to Gladwell getting the award (but perhaps I’m deluding myself). Brooks gets social science wrong more than he gets it right (ditto, Gladwell). And that’s a problem when giving a guy an “Excellence” award. If it’s a public sociology award, I’m all for giving it to these guys (though there’s something sad about the desperation of trying to capitalize on their fame). But if we’re talking about excellent work, we should look elsewhere. I mean, did anyone else read The Social Animal?!? Wow. Also, the guy pretty much rejects sociology in that book in favor of evolutionary psychology, neurobiology and cognitive science. But hey, he’s famous! Let’s give him an award!

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    Shamus Khan

    September 1, 2011 at 5:15 pm

  2. Excellent post. I wasn’t at the ASA, but I read enough negative tweets about Vegas to know that many sociologists were, indeed, unhappy there. And I’m disheartened to learn that *any* professional would boo or hiss at another, particularly in public, particularly at what was, in effect, an awards ceremony. Brooks adds a needed challenge to some long-held assumptions among sociologists, and he is to be commended for paying attention to sociological research in the first place.

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    Elaine

    September 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm

  3. On the reactions to Vegas (which for the record, I enjoyed visiting), I think a lot of this is about the decoupling between explicit ideology and implicit habitus, with sociologists just being an extreme case of the general trend that the educated upper-middle class is skeptical about traditional morality as a matter of explicit principle but in practice has much more stable marriages than evangelicals in the Bible Belt. It’s one thing to consciously entertain the idea that sex work (under certain conditions to ensure public health, freedom from coercion, yada yada) is a legitimate occupational option and it’s quite another thing to have a “girl to your room in twenty minutes” flyer thrust in your hand or see a moving billboard advertising a strip club every time you leave the sanctuary of the casino’s air conditioning and walk down Las Vegas Boulevard. It’s one thing to talk about cultural capital being a mechanism for class reproduction and another thing to see giant theaters permanently hosting Celine Dion and shops selling t-shirts air-brushed with a cartoon torso in a pink bikini.

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    gabrielrossman

    September 1, 2011 at 5:29 pm

  4. Well said, Gabriel!

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    Shamus Khan

    September 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm

  5. Maybe Robert Nisbet is due a revival.

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    Kieran

    September 1, 2011 at 6:28 pm

  6. @Kieran I might argue that Nisbet has had a bit of a revival in some of the civic engagement/social capital literature. Though I might get panned for saying such.

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    Scott Dolan

    September 1, 2011 at 6:54 pm

  7. Re: David Brooks. I hear lots of sociologists moaning about how sociology isn’t more relevant (and thus that there isn’t more societal change – of the sort that we prefer – due to exposure to sociological ideas and data). And yet there was indeed lots of condescension toward Brooks and Gladwell, and there’s also some hostility that I’ve seen to sociologists teaching in business schools.

    The charge made at times in regards to sociologists in business schools is that they’re “selling out” and simply going for the money. Here’s where that mindset goes wrong – we all know that the job market is very, very tight and that the position of full-time, tenure-track professor is under attack. Well, in that case, how can we judge people who are trying to get work and feed their families? On the other hand, what better way to make sociology relevant than to get sociological ideas (and perhaps the values, political or moral or otherwise, that sociologists tend to hold) into the minds of tomorrow’s business leaders. I for one wouldn’t mind some kind of “V for Vendetta” event where the societal zeitgeist moves toward radical social justice or something. But that’s kind of hard to bring about, so for now I’ll content myself with whatever moves us in the direction of positive reforms. Getting business school grads to think sociologically rather than simply like a businessman (or economist) is not only good for business, but has the possibility of being better for society.

    That being said, there’s a possibility that the tools of sociology may be “subverted” for the ends of the “elites,” but that’s a possibility with pretty much any situation. Whether sociology ends up making corporate america more socially responsible or not is not is partially up to us.

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    Andrew

    September 1, 2011 at 6:55 pm

  8. I wasn’t at the Brooks thing, but generally agree with the commentary here about him. Frankly I don’t think ASA ought to give out that award, or at least ought to give it out only when there are actually people who deserve it — which Brooks certainly doesn’t. Not because he’s conservative but because, as others have noted, he routinely misunderstands or misinterprets social science in order to make it fit his politics, which is not what we ought to be supporting.

    Yes to Nisbet. Peter Baehr is, by the way, working on a project on his work and collaboration with Bottomore.

    Yes to conservative, particularly in a social-norms sort of way; conservative but not neoliberal.

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    andrewperrin

    September 1, 2011 at 7:04 pm

  9. First, I agree with your sentiment about needing to be more reflexive with the values motivating our work. But am I reading the below quote wrong? Is he saying that sociologists are conservative because we have our own ideals?

    “our discipline’s genuinely conservative (not Republican) impulses and insights with respect to norms, solidarity, and the high ideals that support and sustain social order and democracy in the contemporary world.”

    I agree with Hartmann, sociologists start with ideals (biases?), but I disagree that seeking to promote democracy is conservative. I think we sociologists come off as being liberal (reform-oriented) because democracy has never been fully achieved. I agree sociology has a tendency to want to promote institutions that support ideals of equality, fairness, and democracy. But, historically, democratization has been in tension with prevailing social orders. Thus, if our aim as sociologists is to promote democracy, we often find ourselves seeking to reform existing institutions.

    Research on democratization and democracy (I think here of the work John Markoff or Tilly’s 2007 book) is constantly trying to remind us that democratization is a process that can both expand and contract. We seek to conserve the few existing institutions that support democracy, but we also seek to create and expand the mechanisms that will allow for more democratization.

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    Scott Dolan

    September 1, 2011 at 7:05 pm

  10. Good observation, Brayden. This belies sociology’s history. Sociology emerged from 19th century progressive politics. Back then, progressive politics is very liberal in terms of economics, but fairly conservative in terms of morals. The wild relativists are more likely to be found in anthropology depts.

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    fabiorojas

    September 1, 2011 at 8:13 pm

  11. My 2 — maybe 3 or 4 — cents on the conservatism of sociology issue:
    * Sociology — like most scholarship — is probably inherently “subversive” in that it analyzes away ideological facades. Thus, sociologists in the Soviet Union were subversive when they strayed from parroting strict, Stalinist Marxism and turned to analyzing reality.
    * That does not make sociology necessarily conservative or liberal in the very time-specific senses we now use the terms. After all, the meanings and political stances of conservative and liberal themselves shift over time.
    * Particular sociologists have emphasized “conservative” themes when struck by the fragility of social order (how do we avoid the war of all against all?) and “liberal” ones when struck by the power of the social order (how do we allow for individual freedom?). Both stances are legitimate views.
    * Post-1960s sociology has increasingly conflated a certain life-style perspective — call it NPR Prius-ism (and I share it) — with a sociological perspective. Thus, many sociologists sneer at the spending choices of middle Americans, like vacationing in Las Vegas, but have no problem with the much more indulgent, say, wine tour of Tuscany. That’s not sociology; that’s class prejudice.
    * Brooks: He may get some of the sociology wrong — but, heck, so do thousands of sociologists, some of whom we also give awards.

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    Claude FischerClaude Fischer

    September 1, 2011 at 8:36 pm

  12. Given his admitted “NPR Prius-ism,” I always find myself on the “other side” of nearly anything that CF has to say. Well, there is a first time for everything…well-played sir.

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    JK

    September 1, 2011 at 8:57 pm

  13. I really like the phrase NPR-Priusism. Of course, I also liked the related phrase Bobo for bourgeois bohemians, including its application to the more left-leaning members thereof. Where did that come from again?

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    jeremy

    September 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

  14. Brooks may have coined the term “Bobo,” but it’s hard to find a single idea of his on that topic that was not said first and better by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool (1998) or in the pages of The Baffler. Where is Frank’s ASA award?

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    jerrydavisumich

    September 2, 2011 at 1:17 am

  15. I am rather mystified by the response to the dislike of Vegas. I don’t see how my dislike of Vegas represents class prejudice–or prudishness. I can certainly deal with (legal and regulated) sex work, large frozen alcohol drinks, or flashing lights (hmmm, writing it that way makes it sound like Times Square 15 years ago, which I rather enjoyed). On the other hand, having ASA procure a showgirl without a comparably-attired male entertainer demonstrates the continuing sexism of the discipline. The cigarette smoke made me sick day after day and it took me a week to recover; I could barely leave the hotel because of it. And I do not appreciate having to pay $50 to eat a meal in a mall. Quite frankly, my working-class students would never be able to afford Las Vegas, and given the lack of conference cost reimbursement, many attendees could not really afford it either. Perhaps we have a coastal bias, but I don’t think it’s a conservative one or an anti-middle-America one. If we want to know what sociologists think of middle America, let’s try having the conference in Detroit, where we could really experience that life. Because it sure is not Vegas.

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    Mikaila

    September 2, 2011 at 3:52 pm

  16. What’s the story of ASA procuring a showgirl? I’ve heard someone else allude to it but don’t know any details.

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    jeremy

    September 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm

  17. Mikaila – I know there are lots of idiosyncratic and legitimate reasons that people have for disliking a host city, and perhaps Las Vegas had more idiosyncratic things to dislike than most host cities (e.g., the smoke). So my comments were directed more at the complaints about the ASA meetings talked about in the Scatter post, including Sharon Zukin’s anti-Las Vegas rant. About the cost thing, I’m still not convinced that Las Vegas was any more expensive than other host cities. I think I spent as much or even less than I normally do, and the food was better than in many host cities (or at least you didn’t have to take cabs to the outer periphery of the city to find good food).

    I saw a showgirl at the ASA reception. She was there to take pictures with sociologists, and it looked like she wasn’t short on business. I saw it as ironic and amusing, as I think a lot of things in Vegas are.

    Did anyone go to the CBSM reception in the Erotic History Museum? I wasn’t able to go, but I’m guessing it was a very distinct Vegas experience.

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    brayden king

    September 2, 2011 at 4:35 pm

  18. @Jeremy: at the presidential reception on Friday night, there was a showgirl in full headdress taking pictures and “entertaining.” She told someone I was conversing with that her job was to make sure he “had a good time.” Again–I would not have found this offensive if she had had a male equivalent. Apparently ASA thinks that the fact that the band was male makes the situation gender-neutral, but I don’t think showgirls and musicians in suits are quite equivalent.

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    Mikaila

    September 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm

  19. Mikaila — The point is not that you are wrong or bigoted to dislike Vegas. I don’t particularly like it either. The problem is to claim that sociology shows Vegas to be objectively bad, to mistake taste for scholarship.

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    Claude FischerClaude Fischer

    September 2, 2011 at 6:59 pm

  20. @Claude–I think that might be a symptom of a broader issue. As I was just telling my students yesterday, sociology cannot tell us what is “good” or “bad”. It can only tell us what something is and what its consequences are. While I know this doesn’t always make us objective in our scholarly work, this sort of empiricism is, to my mind, one of the major attractions of the discipline. But I think it is sometimes hard for those many of us who do have strong normative values to separate our personal commitment to those values from our sociological commitment to empiricism. I guess explaining it 50 times a year to undergraduates helps me remember it ;-)

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    Mikaila

    September 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm

  21. So ASA fled the original host city in solidarity with hotel workers, chose the only city with sufficient capacity to accept that size of convention on short notice (with cheap flights), and now there is bitching about it? Imagine that…

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    Randy

    September 2, 2011 at 10:01 pm

  22. @Mikaila – If it was at a giant opening reception, my guess about the showgirl–be very curious to know for sure–is that having a showgirl as a bit of local color was part of whatever was Caesar’s Palace standard package for a major reception in this kind of large-scale convention booking. The guess is based partly on having seen things along broadly similar lines advertised in other contexts, and partly on difficulty imagining ASA folks independently devising the idea of “Yo! Let’s rent us a showgirl!” Of course, if I’m right, I recognize one can say that ASA should have explicitly declined the showgirl or shelled out extra to rent its own showguy, but it would put it in a bit different light.

    @Randy – I think you are probably right about there not being really any/many alternatives to Vegas given the short timeframe–and even then we had to change the dates–but I’m not sure if the range of possible options has been publicly described anywhere.

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    jeremy

    September 3, 2011 at 1:54 am


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