on dreamland and the difference between journalism and sociology
What’s the difference between journalism and sociology? (I ask as someone who’s gotten article reviews that said my works reads too much like journalism).
I just finished, at Gabriel Rossman’s recommendation, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is an incredibly ambitious (and beautifully executed) work of journalism by Sam Quinones. It won the National Book Critics Award for General Nonfiction and has gotten a lot of buzz from all sorts of people. It really is necessary reading: I feel like I finally have some sense of how and why the opiate epidemic is happening, as well as what we might be able to do about it.
And after I finished the book, I thought, how is what I read not simply a mixed-methods work of sociology, using interview and comparative-historical work? I’m not sure I have an easy answer—this is a loose set of categories—but if I had to make the distinction, I’d say that sociology suggests generalizable categories, mechanisms, or causal accounts. We’re looking for the logic beneath the story.
This gets to some of the grumbling I’ve heard about Matt Desmond’s book, or Alice Goffman’s, or many other works within the sub sub category of urban ethnography. These books and articles (but they’re usually books) are often criticized for simply being stories, or, in other words, not having clear theoretical payoffs. That’s certainly not always true of ethnography, or even urban ethnography. Iddo Tavory’s recent book, Summoned, is very much a theoretical contribution, and, I think, so is Alice Goffman’s, in that she subtly provides a theory of fugitive life that is, in fact, generalizable to other contexts. While Desmond can clearly do high level sociological work, his book appears to me a bit less transferrable, but, of course, I don’t think that’s the point. (And it’s clearly not what the National Book Critics Circle Award committee cared about: it gave Evicted the same award it gave Dreamland the year before).
Now not having some generalizable or transferrable theory might not be a problem of course—Andrew Abbot famously defends these forms of “lyrical” sociology, which he (somewhat confusingly) contrasts to narratives. (He doesn’t mean narrative in terms of the story of a particular community but narrative in terms of causal accounts.)
Could we generalize from Quinones’s book? Not really except inasmuch as we get access to a careful analysis of how various organizational structures happened, wholly unintentionally, to lead to one of the worst public health crises our country has ever seen. It’s a story of how drug marketing, changes in medical practice, adaptations of Mexican drug production and distribution, and the hollowing out of middle America all came together. Yet this isn’t all that different from a certain way of doing comparative historical work, which is to start with a neat empirical puzzle (why is the opiate epidemic so terrible?) and then provide a compelling empirical answer. The difference from sociology is that there’s usually some theorist we’re modifying as part of that answer, something like, well, Tilly would have said X and Sahlins would have said Y, but if you combine them with a little bit of our own magic, you get what explains this social outcome. That’s not what we get in Quinones: we just get the stories. This is another difference from urban ethnography: even if the authors aren’t as explicit about their sociological upbringing, even if they’re the most unrepentant grounded theorists who just figure it out as they go, you can always sense the Goffman (or any other theorist) just a little bit below the surface.
You don’t get that sense of a theorist lurking somewhere beneath the stories in Quinones. It makes the book easier to read, of course, and it makes it—sure—more lyrical too.
I sent the above to Gabriel Rossman, and he pointed out that there is underlying theory in Quinones about, among other things, unintended consequences and social capital. It’s a good point, and it makes me wonder about the difference between evidence of a theory (or even of a theory’s influence) and articulation and development of a theory. So I guess I have to restate what I write above: there is a sense of a theorist somewhere in Quinones—quite a few of them actually, as Gabe pointed out in his thoughts on the book at his blog, but it’s not an implicit theorist we see so much as data that, because it is so well documented, is easily theorized or related to theory.
Gabe argues that “every detail of the book illustrated and illuminated another aspect of sociology” and I think that’s right: it’s part of why I found the book so captivating as well. You really should read his post: it’s an excellent list of evidence of all sorts of sociological theories. Gabe describes themes in his post and I think he’s right to do so , so but themes aren’t the same as theoretical arguments, or, if they are, they’re implicitly there. Of course these distinctions don’t actually matter all that much: we could all agree it’s a great book that helps us understand the opiate epidemic, and just leave it at that. But figuring out the boundaries of a particular category is something both emic and etic within sociology, and, as scholars of boundaries point out, it’s a helpful way to determine (and maintain) who we are and what we do.