stirring a storm in an electoral teacup

(the following is a guest post from Professor Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra)

Following the breaking news of her election as President of the American Sociological Association, Mary Romero’s personal statement made the rounds on Twitter with the usual smattering of commentary. Some voices were critical: they claimed that Romero’s call to “emphasize social justice in sociological inquiry” and engage with “public engagement and scholar-activism” were at odds with the scientific character of the field. If sociology is to remain relevant, argued colleagues, it must strive for objectivity rather than activism. The consequences of not maintaining objectivity are dire: sociology might become the “next geography […] increasingly marginalized because it tried to open it to everyone”, argued Tim Scharks; it might lose public authority, as journalism did over the past three decades; and it might lead to a decreased membership as sociologists vote with their feet against the epistemic weakening of their professional organization (the complete thread is here).

However small, the episode is interesting because it reveals some of the current contours of well-trodden discussions about boundary-work, professionalization, and public engagement within the discipline, speaking to the anxieties and hopes of sociology in unsettled times. Here, I offer some thoughts about this commotion.

First, it is curious that demarcation has become a matter of concern yet again. I really hoped that demarcation was as dead as phrenology, but I also hoped Hillary Clinton would win, so there we go. The problem is an old one: demarcation simply doesn’t work, other than as a means for pursuing particular institutional/political projects of inclusion/exclusion. Indeed, demarcation often constrains more rather than what it enables. Think further afield: physicists rarely engaging in this type of boundary work when evaluating for-all-practical-purposes non-falsifiable theoretical claims; in chemistry, the criterion of falsifiability is less important than just synthesizing new compounds; and in economics, designing markets is probably more relevant than testing the validity of Walrasian equilibrium. Predictably, anthropologists are slightly ahead of the curve: they dropped references to ‘science’ from their association’s long-range plan (not, of course, without controversy), stressing instead “application of knowledge to the solution of human problems”. The type of intra-disciplinary demarcation raised against Romero’s call for ‘scholarly activism’ seems dated—largely because it is.

I want to be clear: I have no qualms in expecting sociologists to guarantee the quality, robustness, and validity of their research, whether through training, professional standards, institutionalized forms of peer evaluation, or through the journals that showcase exemplars from the field. But invoking objectivity as the boundary between ‘actual’ sociology and some lesser form of scholarly activism is decidedly problematic on historical, methodological, and epistemic grounds. Objectivity is not an obvious principle of science: it is just politics by other means (plug: like science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated over the past six decades or so). Let’s not walk that path—it leads no-where.

Second, the timing of these criticisms is telling. They join heightened scrutiny of sociology and its methods from within and without the ranks (e.g. recent debates about ethnography in sociological research) and the erosion of the institutional structures that traditionally support careers in the field (e.g. dramatic changes in employment trajectories within the profession). I am unsure, however, what claims of objectivity can do to make our discipline and professional organizations better prepared for the challenges of the future. ASA has a definite problem, and anyone who has served in a section membership committee in the past few years knows this well. Between 2007 and 2016, membership fell by 19.8%. This is not everyone’s headache. The International Sociological Association’s  membership grew from around 3500 to more than 5000 between 2006 and 2010; the British Sociological Association’s  membership is near historic highs; from what I can tell, the American Anthropological Association’s membership has not suffered dramatic declines; and the American Physical Society’s memberships grew by 16.7%. At least the fall in membership is not as steep as the fall in student numbers. In 1975, 3.5% of the degrees conferred by 4-year colleges were in sociology; by 2008 it was 1.77% (late night calculations, so numbers might be off). Sociology in the United States is under pressure. Advocating scholarly purity might just be a consequence of these circumstances, but I suspect clearer demarcation is not the solution. Claims of objectivity might have resulted in broader public support forty years ago (just maybe, though the argument is not too convincing…), but this is not necessarily the case today. The decline in public confidence in scientific institutions might be indicative of this: scientific authority no longer sells as well in the public marketplace of ideas. But evidence might also exist elsewhere, in the historical success of other fields that have an at best tenuous connection to claims of objectivity (names shall not be named).

The risk for the Association isn’t “public engagement and scholar-activism” as a threat to social science, but rather how it serves its membership. This is what we need to talk about. The ASA has been perhaps too slow in reacting to changes in the academic environment. Despite recent projects in open access, the discipline is still commanded by a handful of journals; publication standards and procedures do not offer spaces or incentives for rapid communications and preliminary findings (theoretical and empirical) as happens in other fields; conferences are large and unavoidably expensive; the annual meeting is far from being the type of clearinghouses that other associations set up (wink, wink, Alvin Roth et al); and the organization could have more proactive stances in a number of areas that relate to the careers of sociologists (including debates about inclusion, adjunctification, tenure, inequalities within higher education, but also evaluating activism, training for citizen engagement, and exploring forms of participation as means for making sociology legible to broader audiences). Again, look beyond our field: the statement of Patricia Dehmer, candidate for the vice presidency of the American Physical Society, calls for her association to “engage its members and the broader society” by playing “a major role in expanding and diversifying the physics workforce, [which requires] very new ways of thinking about who studies physics, who doesn’t, and why these choices are made.” Nothing too controversial there, other than the fact that physicists are no experts on education, but they are nevertheless tackling the issue. People are voting with their feet, but not around ‘objectivity’.

Third, it is unfortunate (and quite sociologically unreflective) that this commotion happened when a woman from a minority was elected ASA president. Twitter is relatively composed in its comments, but it is difficult to say the same about other cyberspaces. In one of the rumor mills of the discipline, Romero is disqualified on the basis of her scholarship. “The President of the ASA”, writes one contributor, “should be one of the best people in that discipline, as measured by the intellectual standards of the field. The ASA President’s leadership role, such as it is, is primarily intellectual in nature.” The first post in that thread is perhaps more telling though less articulate: “That is a really, really thin CV for an ASA president. […] No AJS/ASR, no A-level publishing presses, and only four pieces (two second-authored) cited over 100 times.” What can I say? Comments seem unnecessary. Romero’s scholarship is indisputable, meticulous, and respected, and she was elected after all, so surely that says something about the preferences of the community and what they value.

One-book wonder, no-AJS Max Weber once wrote about science (I am, of course, being completely sarcastic). Maybe then, devoting one’s self ‘solely to the work at hand’ was a wise prescription for producing credible knowledge of the world. But perhaps it wasn’t, and this—as well as other ideals of science—has always been a politically charged mirage. In any case, we confront real challenges that cannot be solved through elitism and introspection. And in the face of uncertain, unsettled times, the traditions of objectivity seem not to offer a sensible solution. Maybe it is time to rethink the politics. Maybe it is time to experiment. But please, above everything, let’s not make sociology great again.

Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Diego.  His work engages STS, economic sociology, and organizations. There’s a great video interview with him at his UCSD website.


Written by jeffguhin

June 6, 2017 at 6:51 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , , ,

10 Responses

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  1. What a great post Juan Pablo! Really well said!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a really excellent post, Pablo. Thank you. What really baffles me is how people rail against “scholar-activism” as if the question of what that term means is not a deeply contested one. Almost all sociologists are attempting to use established, reliable methods to generate knowledge that is useful to society. How people are so confident in categorizing some of this work as “activism” and the rest of it as “science” completely evades me. The elephant in the room, of course, is that these criticisms–both in terms of who make them and who they target–fall along conspicuously racial lines.

    Liked by 2 people

    Soft Scientist

    June 6, 2017 at 8:02 pm

  3. The people who make these claims about Romero don’t recognize that they represent a shrinking proportion of our discipline. We can have important arguments about the nature and desirability of objectivity in scholarly, disciplinary publication–but those arguments do not reflect the work that the majority of sociologists are doing, work which involves applied or interdisciplinary research, sociological practice, public sociology, and/or teaching.

    For the rest of us out here who have fulfilling, meaningful careers as sociologists (including as research sociologists) without ever publishing in a “top” journal, there are different concerns. We are concerned about whether our disciplinary association will help us weather the storms of consolidation and accountability as they blow through our institutions, whether it will provide venues and opportunities to help us stay engaged with scholarship despite our minimal or absent institutional support for publication and conference fees, whether it will help us keep our classrooms attractive to the increasingly diverse and increasingly first-generation students we seek to reach and engage. I hope Romero can do some of that.

    But I will admit, at this point, that I vote against institutional prestige when I vote in ASA elections. I want to see ASA officers who do excellent, rigorous scholarship, who are experts in their subfields, who have a long and documented trajectory of engagement with the discipline and with the ASA, of course. But there are many people who fit the bill, and among them I prefer officers who remember that so many of us first generation scholars, people of color, teaching outside of research universities, holding positions in sociological practice, or marginalized by the discipline in other ways. If that makes the R1 people unhappy, the biggest loss will be to their students, who need an ASA which will prepare them for the real careers they will have, not the fantasy careers their dissertation advisors wish they had (which I say as someone very happy to be where I am and not living in someone else’s dream world).



    June 7, 2017 at 3:54 am

  4. “I want to be clear: I have no qualms in expecting sociologists to guarantee the quality, robustness, and validity of their research, whether through training, professional standards, institutionalized forms of peer evaluation, or through the journals that showcase exemplars from the field.”

    Great, it sounds like we’re in agreement. I think we should have a professional organization dedicated to carrying out this agenda and call it something like the American Sociological Association. Of course, we would need to engage in some boundary work to prevent mission creep. And folks might accuse us of all sorts of ulterior motives along the way but its worth the trouble.

    “But invoking objectivity as the boundary between ‘actual’ sociology and some lesser form of scholarly activism is decidedly problematic on historical, methodological, and epistemic grounds.”

    Who says I consider it to be a lesser form? Boundary doesn’t imply hierarchy. I didn’t become a sociologist for naval-gazing, I did it because I wanted to change the world. As I’ve said elsewhere, I do more work (using my sociological knowledge!) oriented toward policy/activism than most self-described activists. Clearly, I think its immensely valuable. But I recognize that doing science and doing policy are two distinct endeavors. Folks interested in doing science can join the ASA while folks interested in doing policy can join Theda Skocpol’s wonderful Scholars Strategy Network. You’re most certainly allowed to be interested in multiple facets of sociology and join multiple organizations, each with a specific agenda for members while they’re participating. Let a thousand organizational flowers bloom.

    “Objectivity is not an obvious principle of science: it is just politics by other means (plug: like science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated over the past six decades or so). Let’s not walk that path—it leads no-where.”

    And this is where I strongly disagree. STS goes a bit too far in this respect. I found it pretty ironic that you and others alluded that my initial concern had a lot in common with Trump’s campaign. From my perspective, its the opposite. We’ve got the Fox News/Breitbart/Trump crowd telling everyone that sociology isn’t really science – that its political agenda masquerading as science – and the response from some sociologist is “We agree!” Perhaps I’m not as woke as the folks down at Breitbart but that’s really the path I’d rather not walk.

    Liked by 1 person

    Josh Mccabe

    June 7, 2017 at 11:57 am

  5. I want to thank all the very thoughtful comments, which I will now try to address by considering the following question: What happens if the ASA expands the scope of engagement and scholarly-activism in its work?

    One of the claims in this debate is that, by including non-scientific activism in its work, support for the organization and the discipline will decline. I am not convinced. Let’s look at what happens elsewhere. The list of scholarly organizations explicitly involved in policy, advocacy, and activities consistent with scholarly-activism is quite large. Such is the case of the American Political Science Association and its advocacy program. The American Historical Society also disseminates through its website statements of support and protest on a number of topics. But this is also something common in the natural sciences. The American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Chemical Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society, the American Society for Cell Biology, and the American Physical Society all have explicit references to advocacy and policy on their websites. This is not for just show: the APS, for example, runs an Office of Public Affairs that advocates for physicists and some of their shared values and concerns (from very practical discussions about helium supplies to more general issues around immigration and education policy.) I don’t see evidence of these activities detracting from the work of these organizations and the type of knowledge produced by cell biologists, chemists, and physicists. If anything, it is a positive resource for those communities.

    (A note: I do not claim that ASA doesn’t do some of this already—for example, in the shape of ASA’s task forces on a variety of topics or through sections of Footnotes. But it is not foregrounded and weakly institutionalized. We know all too well that organizational structure matters: a contingent task force is not the same as a well-supported standing office involved in policy work. Personally, I find it slightly shocking that our policy and advocacy resources are not even close to those of, for example, the American Society for Cell Biology which has a very useful toolbox/toolkit on their website.)

    I am also not sure that the problem of sociology lies entirely in the sort-of post-structural, relativist critique of objectivity. Look at historians. They, too, have gone through epistemic battles and controversies around the status of narrative accounts in the past decades. Yet they have fared better than us, if not necessarily in funding at least in public prominence, perhaps event confidence (recall The Chronicle’s interactive tool showing the rise of mentions of economists in the NY Times. Historians, at least for journalists, seem to be better sources than us.). I do not have a clear explanation for this, but from the top of my head I would imagine that historians’ training and professional standards (framed around “mastery of primary and secondary sources, analytical ability, methodological rigor, capacity for interpretation, originality, thoroughness, and skill in writing”) contribute to the type of ‘culture of virtue’ (to use Steven Shapin’s term) that is more legible to external audiences than references to some relatively hermetic form of ‘factism’ or scientific objectivity. Perhaps this invites a more pragmatist understanding of social science: yes, there are multiple interpretations of facts and politics are everywhere, but our work is the result of meticulous training, constant checking and review, countless discussions (and, why not, a certain set of social values). That might not convince Breitbart, but neither would objectivity.

    Josh is right that boundaries don’t *necessarily* imply hierarchy. The problem is that they often do in practice: boundaries are tied to specific institutionalized evaluations that reproduce some sort of difference. A thought experiment: imagine two sociologists facing promotion. One served for a number of years on committees on campus and elsewhere that promoted access and diversity in the discipline. The other one has given five keynote speeches in the last year and received numerous accolades from several associations. Both are similarly productive, though the second has a stronger profile in the field (say, twice as many citations). One’s work falls strongly within the formal remit of the professional association, the other one’s does so only in part. The promotion committee asks: Who did more for the discipline?

    As I hope the thought experiment suggests, drawing boundaries isn’t so simple or inconsequential (connect this to the very large literature on racial and gender differences in career structures, including those in academia, which is something that Soft Scientist and Mikaila refer to). This is why demarcation is a problem, at least within the professional association. The question of who is the ASA working for is critical. I fear that the argument for keeping things apart evokes a type of purity that does little service to the community of sociologists working in higher education (and elsewhere) in the United States. Indeed, the premise that we are free to participate of other organizations that engage in activism is only half true: even knowing how to get involved in effective forms of scholarly-activism requires some form of social and cultural capital that might not be equally distributed across sociologists. And as an organization that serves a wide and plural community, I see no problems with ASA providing platforms for fomenting these types of capital and forms of scholarly-activism relevant to our work.

    Sure, we might lose some friends. But if we do so, they weren’t our friends to begin with.

    Thanks again!


  6. Thanks for starting this conversation. Orgtheory is a much better venue for discussion than Twitter! I hope other folks join in with their thoughts.

    I think you’re right that it is an empirical question. But I’ll just note the conspicuously absence any mention of the American Psychological Association’s recent torture scandal in your list of advocacy work among other professional organizations. It is clearly an extreme example but important to consider nonetheless.


    Josh Mccabe

    June 7, 2017 at 9:17 pm

  7. […] a fierce debate about the public mission of sociology. In opposition to Romero’s position and Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra’s defense of that position, I would like to point out that objectivity is not opposed to social justice. On the contrary, […]


  8. maybe i’m naive, but when a discipline vows to emphasize social justice and scholar activism, does that not suppose a particular ideological and political bent? is everyone ok with this? i’m quite progressive myself, but i would like to believe that sociology hasn’t become a leftist advocacy organization. i would like to believe that there is a place for conservatives, libertarians, anarchists, and whoever else in the discipline, so long as they adhere to rigorous research methods and standards of intellectual honesty in the classroom. if we have become a leftist advocacy organization, then i feel like something has been lost.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 12, 2017 at 2:43 am

  9. emphasizing social justice and scholar activism does not preclude certain ideological and political leanings. now, if people of certain leanings opt out of the discipline’s professional organization, then the ideology and politics of the discipline will be determined by those who remain. that’s a natural selection effect. in the case, the mistake many make is that they believe that those who are interested in social justice and scholar activism are leftists when there is much evidence that shows that the U.S., at least, has become more polarized ideologically and politically, not more left-leaning. this means that social justice and scholar activism is being fought out by people of all ilks. we, in the close of objectivity, misperceive that we are not already a part of that conversation.



    June 15, 2017 at 9:59 pm

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