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 [http://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/stem-list.pdf]. 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 (http://www.asanet.org/footnotes/feb13/vp_0213.html), 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.