homeland security does not think sociology is a science

This guest post on Federal government’s classification of sociology is written by Bogdan State, a doctoral student in sociology at Stanford University.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Sociology is not a true science.  Among its many attributions, the Department of Homeland Security is in charge of separating, for immigration purposes, the imposter from the “real” sciences. Seemingly, our discipline does not pass muster.

The story is – by now – a familiar one. The DHS divides academic disciplines into two categories: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and non-STEM. The former get a lot of attention and dominate the immigration debate while the latter are relegated to marginality. The official list is available here []. Needless to say, the very idea of such a blunt distinction between science and non-science is problematic and misguided. Nonetheless, it’s a distinction that has very important consequences, which I am currently sorting through myself.

I am a doctoral student in a Sociology PhD program. About a year ago I decided to give industry a try and I was lucky enough to be offered a job at a major tech company, headquartered in the US. For someone who thrives on data and short publication cycles the job is a dream come true. And even though my title says I do “data science” (already derided by some naysayers as “not a science”), even though my days are spent defending the idea that Sociology can and should be a science at least as rigorous as Biology, Homeland Security seems to have a clear message: no way.

My problem is a common one for international students. I need permission to work outside of my University while in the US. Since my landing here for the first time in 2005 I have become ever more painfully aware of the difficulties involved in staying in the country post-graduation.

International students have twelve months during which they can work in the US in a job related to their specialty under what is called Optional Practical Training. Past those twelve months their options for continued employment in the US usually revolve around the H1B visa, which allows them to work for a US company while seeking a green card through a lengthy and costly process of “labor certification” (which is supposed to ascertain the wholly-undecidable claim that the “alien” is not taking an American’s job). H1B visas are hugely controversial and their issuance has been capped at 85000 per year for most of recent memory (20000 of which are reserved for people holding graduate degrees). Last year the cap translated into the DHS refusing to process (and thus practically denying) about a third of H1B applications filed. This year the ratio may be closer to one in two.

Compared to what comes after, Optional Practical Training is a relatively benign period during which the “alien” can focus on doing their job rather than on learning the regulatory alphabet soup inflicted on them by contradictory and sometimes outright hostile acts of Congress. The Government itself recognized the self-defeating nature of forcing international students – otherwise content to stay and contribute to the US economy – out of the US after American entities had invested huge amounts in their education. As a stopgap measure, foreign STEM graduates of American higher education institutions were granted a one-time, 17-month extension to their Optional Practical Training.

Sociology falls on the wrong side of the arbitrary divide imposed by the DHS (examples of some disciplines considered to be sciences by DHS: Archeology, Social Psychology, Management Science). Interestingly, the NSF does consider Sociology to be STEM. This would be funny were it not the source of a lot headaches, dislocation, uncertainty and plain misery.

In my own case, this policy has meant that I have not been able to access these extra 17 months of headache-free OPT extension that typically serve as a bridge to the much-desired (and irredeemably broken) H1B visa. It is part of why I have to leave the US and go pay taxes somewhere else. But our discipline’s location outside the STEM divide may have far more important consequences in the future.

Specifically, there has been a lot of talk about “stapling” green cards to STEM degrees, or of other important facilities afforded to the immigration of STEM graduates. Presumably, Congress will eventually pass an immigration law, and Sociology will be left on the outside of an admittedly artificial divide.

Let me emphasize that I do not believe for a moment in the validity of a division of the academic world made by government bureaucrats. But while fighting the idea of this division would be quixotic (given the current fixation on STEM), I believe that there is a sufficient number of Sociologists who do not have US citizenship or permanent residency and who would be affected by this omission in the future.

The ASA has come up against this issue before (, but it does not look like they have ever addressed it on the immigration front. This is of course more than a matter of immigration policy: it also concerns our discipline’s being recognized as a bona fide science. As Sociologists we often deride the shortcomings of our methods, and that is certainly a healthy attitude. But we cannot let cocktail-party observations about “true” and “fake” sciences be enshrined into government policy.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 26, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio, sociology

13 Responses

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  1. I think the idea is for you “to leave the US and go pay taxes somewhere else” unless you are doing something that is too hard for Americans to do. Sociology, even “data science,” isn’t (yet) considered too hard for Americans to do. Therefore, step up your hunt for an H1B. We can argue over the definition of STEM, but it is not just an “arbitrary,” definitional debate. Compare the proportion PhDs awarded to foreign born students in some disciplines to that in sociology in the US and…there is no comparison. That is the signal that, however noisily, translates into policy. Until Fabio becomes president and institutes his immigration rulz, we play the cards we are dealt. On the bright side, it could be worse, you could be looking to stay in Switzerland or Japan or an E.U. country, and there are many other ways to stay in the US.



    March 26, 2014 at 10:56 am

  2. There’s actually a super-easy test for whether your academic field warrants being considered a STEM field for purposes of immigration. All you have to do is consider this cartoon:

    Inserting the name of the field in question. The better the joke works, the less the field deserves to be considered STEM in terms of the national interest.

    (Note: this is the cartoon the ASA selected as the cover for the Sociologists’ Book Of Cartoons that they published.)



    March 26, 2014 at 12:06 pm

  3. Regarding the cartoon linked to on comment 2: so basically, will the nation be *really* in peril if clinical veterinarians go on strike?



    March 26, 2014 at 2:36 pm

  4. @Rek: that is exactly what I am doing right now – playing the cards I have been dealt. But I did feel like I had an obligation to do something beyond the H1B application. I would accept this is not an “arbitrary, definitional debate” but I simply cannot see why Archaeology merits such a classification as STEM and why Sociology does not. What I also do not understand is the logic according to which foreigners are only welcome in fields that are “too hard” for the natives to do. I suspect most foreigners who get PhDs from (decent) US institutions would have a net positive contribution to the American economy (yes, even the Art History PhDs) were they allowed to stay after a lot of American resources were in fact invested in them. To me that should be the standard and not some blunt notion of “national interest.” I also suspect not much would happen if most people who are working in STEM fields would go on strike either.

    Also, I would say the following: the reason the joke is so funny testifies to our discipline’s ongoing failure to achieve scientific relevance. We are stuck in endless review cycles and on theoretical discussions around framing. I do believe that the computational turn is bound to change a lot of this.



    March 26, 2014 at 2:43 pm

  5. *theoretical discussions not *on theoretical discussions (also please excuse the typos in the main post).



    March 26, 2014 at 2:46 pm

  6. @Bogdan: Sure, I have no beef with either the idea that immigrant academics benefit US life more broadly than STEM (of course they do) or that sociology would benefit from working to be more scientifically relevant.

    I just get ornery at the idea that sociology as a whole has some right to be treated as a science when so much of the discipline is explicitly (even proudly) antipositivistic and a good bit could be fairly characterized as straight-up antiscience. When sociology was included in the NSF after WW2, it was a different-looking enterprise and even then it was a highly contingent matter. If sociology back then was like sociology today, I don’t think it would have been included. Whether this represents intellectual progress or regress for sociology is a debatable matter, but work that has all the trappings of being part of the humanities doesn’t deserve any special treatment STEM-wise from the rest of the humanities.

    Archeology is a good example because it’s usually housed in anthropology, but has managed to distance itself from anthropology in such a way that many people see archeologists as doing something that provides a higher-priority social value than cultural anthropology. Demography may be the closest counterpart in sociology.



    March 26, 2014 at 3:39 pm

  7. @Bogdan: You are preaching to the choir with me. However, while I may disagree with the logic that “foreigners are only welcome in fields that are “too hard” for the natives,” I understand it. Within current constraints – in a world in which all don’t get to stay – what is a better rule than “let in people in fields where we aren’t producing them?” Also, what Jeremy said.



    March 26, 2014 at 4:44 pm

  8. […] “Homeland security does not think sociology is a science”… […]


  9. Jeremy: “Entomologists on strike” or “Astrophysicists on strike” doesn’t sound that perilous, the “hardness” of the subjects nonwithstanding…


    Andreas Baumann

    March 27, 2014 at 1:52 pm

  10. One way to think about this is prospectively given that human beings react to incentives, especially as such reactions get institutionalized. There’s a big difference between giving a green card to the most compelling members of class x, or even to every current member of class x, and giving one to every future member of class x. As someone who favors a shift towards a Canadian/Australian high skilled immigration model, I generally favor giving green cards to STEM higher graduates but I do worry that there will be a nontrivial amount of fraud. Universities are currently reaching the culmination of a law school bubble based on chasing tuition dollars driven by the counter-performative perception that a JD guaranteed middle class employment. Likewise we see some schools engaging in academic fraud in order to support their athletic programs. Now imagine if every STEM MA/MS came with a green card — there would be a huge demand for MA/MS in STEM and therefore a huge incentive to scale up enrollment and have low standards for graduation in order to get the tuition of paying customers. Nonetheless, it’s probably worth doing for STEM in order to promote high skilled immigration. However that’s assuming you limit it to STEM since STEM actually does imply high skill and it is relatively easy to adjudicate what belongs in STEM and what doesn’t (even if there are false negatives like data scientists whose PhDs are in sociology). But what happens when you expand it to fields like the social sciences (or God help us, the humanities) that are much fuzzier in their nature and, let’s be blunt, have a much lower floor on competence? I’ll tell you exactly what would happen, you’d end up with a bunch of schools charging $25,000 for a one-year MA consisting of reading the Protestant Ethic and then interviewing one’s roommate about what it’s feels like to be a grad student in the US before collecting the MA and getting a retail job because the MA hasn’t actually provided any real skills. If I have to choose between those policy implications and a STEM only policy where our most hardcore foreign students have to get a joint MA in statistics to stay here after graduation (as I would certainly like them to), I’ll take the STEM only policy.



    March 27, 2014 at 4:51 pm

  11. Gabriel: I am in fact getting an MS in Computer Science. I am far from completing it though and being split between STEM and non-STEM creates problems of its own. I left the US because the international student advisor at Stanford, though well-intentioned was quite confused as to what to do with me himself. The bureaucratic nightmare looked like a pretty long-lasting one. Luckily I am a EU citizen so I have the option of not accepting this treatment.

    As for what system would work best and be least vulnerable to fraud – I would imagine one where the University’s and the department’s reputation also matters. The H-Index is a faulty measure but I think it would be many times better than what we currently have (i.e., DHS could have a bar of “selective” program that could be met in similar ways – similarly to how O-1 visas are done, but with a slightly less stringent set of requirements).



    March 27, 2014 at 7:19 pm

  12. As an international student and a PhD student in Sociology, I am afraid I will be in a similar situation as OP in the not so distant future. Being pretty proficient in statistics, I have always considered an industry job outside of academia to be a possible career path. I am aware of the H1B and the OPT but I wasn’t aware about the issues that the OP raised. Now it appears that looking for a tenure-track position (as dwindling as they are) is the only way to secure some sort of visa-based employment. Thanks for writing this post and letting people like myself know the situation.

    Gabriel: Talking about fraud is such a straw-man argument. I think the issue at hand is the generalization that STEM=productive/useful/can be monetized and non-STEM=nonproductive/not useful/difficult to monetized. It appears that an evaluation should be made on the potential contribution of the “alien”. OP = data scientist should be, under even the most stringent evaluation, considered productive and useful. Moreover, it is a job that requires advanced training and not everyone fresh out of college is equipped to do. In that way, a person with a PhD in Fashion History(insert what you feel are the most un-stem-ish degree here) but is employed as a data scientist should be treated as “worthy” of a green card. The job is STEM-ish in nature. Conversely, a PhD in Engineering who is employed as a curator in a local museum shouldn’t qualify for OPT extension. Tying it exclusively to degrees creates such complications and unfair treatment of international students.

    This situation is somewhat unique to international students pursuing advanced degrees. We don’t see a similar situation for other occupations/industries that employ large numbers of foreigners. I cannot imagine Justin Bieber with his 0-1 visa (yes, he is on a visa!!) having to submit his youtube videos as evidence of his unique contributions to the US economy



    March 28, 2014 at 6:33 pm

  13. Foreign,

    If I was dictator personally adjudicating each case in my infinite wisdom and benevolence? Sure, it should be on a case by case basis. (And I hasten to add that in this benevolent dictatorship, keeping data scientists like Bogdan would be a very easy call).

    However realistically that’s not how policy works. Policies are based on rules and “staple a green card to any STEM graduate degree” is one such rule that has been proposed and seems relatively likely to become policy sooner or later. And note that any time you have a rule, you’ll see reactivity to that rule which is what I meant by fraud. Perhaps you don’t like that proposed rule and would prefer an alternate model of high-skilled immigration reform like a visa auction or expanded H1B or whatever, which is fair enough. However my point is that if you have a rule saying all graduate degrees count then you’re not just getting those [insert low status and useless discipline here] MAs/PhDs who happen to also be [insert high status and useful job here] but a lot of much more typically useless folks, especially after a couple years and we see business models developed around the rule.



    March 28, 2014 at 10:03 pm

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