Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category
I have yet to read Aldon Morris’ The Scholar Denied, but Julian Go has written an extensive review of the book at the Berkeley sociology blog. In this post, I’ll offer some comments on how I view DuBois and then discuss Go’s opinions. Also, if someone (ahem) were to send a review copy of A Scholar Denied, I’d like to do a book forum on it later this semester.
My views on DuBois: Unlike a lot of sociologists, I’ve always been of the opinion that DuBois was a major figure in American intellectual history. As an undergraduate, I saw that many classes assigned The Souls of Black Folk, which is a seminal discussion of the psychology of race. In grad school, I read The Philadelphia Negro, which is also a seminal work in urban studies. I also discovered that he was a founder of the NAACP, consulted with the Federal government on educational matters, and founded an important research group at Atlanta University. After graduation, I learned tidbits about his biography such as being the first Black Harvard PhD and also being a well regarded historian of the Atlantic slave trade. Clearly, DuBois’ is a major intellectual figure, activist, and writer. This isn’t to say that DuBois is beyond reproach (e.g., check out his late career Stalinism – ugly, ugly, ugly) but he’s clearly earned his place in the intellectual hall of fame.
DuBois’ intellectual importance was so obvious to me that I always include him in my undergrad theory course and I never thought of it as odd. However, what surprised me is that for sociologists outside of critical race studies, DuBois is a non-entity. This struck me as bizarre. One time, Tukufu Zuberi gave a talk at IU about DuBois and one my junior colleagues even said afterward, “I still don’t see why DuBois is important for theory.” Later, I learned that there was a discussion among specialists about how much White sociologists of his era had hindered DuBois’ career. Honestly, I didn’t delve into it much further. I was neither a specialist in the history of social thought, and I trusted my own opinion of DuBois’ importance.
Julian Go’s essay: The Scholar Denied is a book by Aldon Morris that makes the case that DuBois was a (the?) founder of American sociology, that he was actively and indirectly hampered by other White academics, and that the history of the sociology needs serious revision. I am sympathetic, but I will address the book more directly once I have read it. Here, I want to explore Julian Go’s essay. In his essay, Go reminisces on his education at Chicago and how we should rethink the discipline given Morris’ new account of DuBois’ career:
If Aldon Morris in The Scholar Denied is right, then everything I learned as a sociology PhD student at the University of Chicago is wrong. Or at least everything that I learned about the history of sociology. At Chicago, my cohort and I were inculcated with the ideology and ideals of Chicago School. We were taught that American sociology originated with the Chicago School… The Scholar Denied suggests that Park plagiarized Du Bois, and that venerated sociologists like Max Weber were perhaps more influenced by Du Bois rather than the other way around.
It would be comforting to think that Du Bois was marginalized because of the narrow racism of the white establishment – the result of white racists who suppressed Du Bois out of their own deep prejudices against African-Americans… Still, there is another explanatory current amidst the flow. It is not only that Du Bois was black and other sociologists were white, or that Du Bois suffered from lack of capital, it is also that he had dangerous ideas. To be sure, Du Bois innovated by his empirical orientation and methodology. But Du Bois also innovated substantively, birthing a sociology of race that aimed to wrestle discourse on race away from the Darwinistic, biological and frankly racist sociological episteme of the day.
Here, what I find interesting is that collective memory, of which intellectual history is a part, is recognized as having individual components (quality of DuBois’ scholarship), structural components (DuBois’ location in the academic field), and larger context (DuBois’ non-biological and non-paternalistic approach to race conflicted with the rest of society). If you need an introduction to the debate that The Scholar Denied engages in, you can’t do better than Go’s essay.
My only criticism of Go’s essay is that he directly engages with rumor websites. If he is truly interested in the writings of anonymous cowards, he should go to the University of Chicago’s bathroom stalls where the griffiti has wit and substance.
Herbert J. Gans is an emeritus professor of sociology at Columbia University. This posts discusses how might define sociology as an academic discipline. This post originally appeared at Work in Progress, the blog of the Organizations, Occupations, and Work section of the American Sociological Association.
In his recent post on sociology’s image problem, Prof Rojas included a definition of sociology as “the scientific study of groups.” It is the same one I was taught in graduate school seventy years ago, and think it is now long out of date.
Let me offer the one I have used in recent years: Sociology is the study of what people in formal and informal organizations, institutions, communities, states and other social structures do, think and feel with, for, against and about others.
Three of its virtues are (1) it can be abbreviated or expanded for different venues; (2) it avoids the thorny questions of whether sociology is a science, or what kind of science, and something in addition to being a science; and (3) it offers a more graphic image of sociology to the lay people etc who now ignore sociology or do not understand what it is.
Previously, I have argued that sociology has an image problem. Too much social problems, not enough science. But that still leaves the question open: what, specifically, should our public image be? A few suggestions:
- Openly embrace positivism/science as our motivation and professional model.
- The use of science to study social problems, not the science of social problems.
- The holistic social science that employs different types of data for a rich picture of human life.
- “The crossroads of the academy:” We legitimately can speak to fields ranging from the biomedical sciences to the most interpretive of the humanities.
- Offer a few, simple to understand tools for those in the policy world that are focused on either policy evaluation or measuring social well being (i.e., go beyond “social studies of policy”).
Of course, we already do a lot of this in our research, we just don’t tell the public about it. In other words, sociology should be the queen of the social sciences, not the museum of social dysfunction.
Jorge Chapa was a sociologist, demographer, and Latino Studies scholar at the University of Illinois. He recently passed on, a result of natural causes. Here, I share a few thoughts about Jorge, who I got to know when he was a professor of Latino Studies at Indiana University. First, Jorge was simply a friendly, open person who welcomed many people, including myself, to his home. He always had time for people and helped many in need. Second, he dearly loved his family and it showed every time I visited his home. Third, even though he was a very open person, he still maintained his integrity as a scholar and teacher. He wrote award winning books on Latino demography, like Apple Pie and Enchiladas, a standard account of the growing Midwest Latino population. He also insisted on trying to make sure that public policy properly took into account all of the populations in the United States. Perhaps his most important contribution on this count was to testify in Texas and California as to the importance of properly measuring Latino and Asian communities.
There have been some new articles about the relative scarcity of Black, Latino, and Native American faculty. Phil Cohen notes that the news exaggerates the results, but the basic trend is still there. The growth in minority faculty is mainly in Asian American numbers and the gap increases as one goes up the ranks (i.e., the gap is largest among full professors). Cohen notes that when you look at the data, you see a poor pipeline – few Black undergrads at leading universities. I have also noted on this blog, that the pipeline is very leaky at many points for under represented groups.
There’s a lot of hand wringing on this issue, but precious little action. At the undergraduate levels, much of the problem is in poor high school preparation, steering people to competitive schools, and not letting people fall through the cracks during the undergraduate degree. At the graduate level, the problem, in my view (see this comment), is that the faculty at the PhD programs simply don’t co-author/collaborate with many students of color and so they either have poor CVs, or they have little connection to the profession.
For example, look at recent issues of leading journals, how many have co-authors from under represented groups? Answer: the last two AJS issues (July and September 2015), I think, have one African American faculty author and zero African American student co-authors out of 16; the previous two ASR (Aug and Oct 2015) issues have 35 authors and I could not identify any African-American authors. Please correct me. I emphasize that this is not an accusation of overt racism. I personally know editors at both journals. They are good people. What I am suggesting is that the pipeline is broken. The very best scholars in sociology appear in these journal issues (e.g., SEE NOTE) and they are not matching with the fullest spectrum of students available. This is not an editorial problem, this is a graduate school problem.
There are many parties that could step up to address the situation. Those in teaching intensive institutions can be on the look out for for talented folks and see if grad school is right for them. Those who work in graduate programs have a much harder task. They need to actively ask themselves: Am I working with all students in our program? Why not? We should look at the CVs of professors in leading programs and ask: who are the co-authors? The oldest among us should also ask how we can mentor younger colleagues, so they can attain a position of leadership. Only when this happens, will you see racial gaps in the professoriate decrease.
Note: Originally, I had listed some senior scholars by name if they appeared in the journal issues I discussed. Over email, a colleague suggested that I was casting these scholars in a way that suggests ill intent or downplayed their work co-authored with people from under represented groups. In fact, the opposite is true. These people were highlighted in the post because they are decent folk and highly regarded scholars, which magnifies the blog post’s original point. If you look at the gate keeper journals, you see a co-author imbalance even among people who are on the right side of things. That suggests to me that the problem is structural and that graduate programs are set up in ways that discourage matching of minority grad students with the faculty who can best promote their careers. So I stand by my original point (and data), but I do recognize that my argument can be read opposite to my intent. Thus, the names have been removed and I apologize to readers who may have thought I was disparaging these scholars.
In the grand scheme of things, sociology is not in a bad position. Most colleges have sociology programs and our PhD grads find work. But I do not think that sociology lives up to its potential. We live in an economy where tech giants are building massive social networks, but our undergrad enrollments decline. We live in a world that asks for more rigorous social analysis, but sociology has limited impact in the policy world. My belief is that this is partially due to sociology’s poor public image. Here, I suggest ways to work on our public image.
The basic issue is that our image is driven by undergraduate enrollment processes and lack of interest in presenting ourselves as an easy to understand scientific toolkit for people in policy, business, and the non-profit world. To understand the first issue, ask yourself the following questions – what is the most common encounter that the average college educated person has with the discipline of sociology? Answer: the intro course or the social problems course. What message do they take away? If you read intro textbooks or syllabi (including my own!), the message is a combination of social problems with some theory sprinkled in, or a topic survey.
What you don’t get is a set of widely applicable theoretical tools. This might be taught in the course called “social theory,” but this course is usually taught as a kind of history of social thought. To compound the issue, most programs fill out the list of electives with courses that don’t present core theoretical ideas. This is done for a number of reasons such as retaining students with an interest in criminology, health, or business. The bottom line is that nowhere in the curriculum, as it now stands, do we actually present to the average college student with systematic thinking about social processes. Students, understandably, think that sociology is the study of oppression or marginality. Some of our instructors actively cultivate the view that sociology is museum of oppression. It is not surprising that the average college undergrad walks away from our courses not realizing that are a general social science.
A second issue is how we think of ourselves as professionals. If one asked the typical sociologist if they agree that they are doing some sort of scientific activity, they would likely say yes and they would be justified in saying so. However, that is not what is conveyed to the public. For example, sociologists are often called upon to translate poverty and criminality for the wider reading public. Perhaps the exception is the area of family research, where the media seems genuinely interested in what sociologists have to say as experts on a topic. Another dimension of sociology’s unusual reputation is that we are often associated with theories that were not created by sociologists and have much (if any) sway in sociology. Even other academics lump sociology in with deconstruction and post-modernism.
How do we change this? A few suggestions. First, create a “social analysis” course that acts as a foundation for all other courses and that teachers truly general social concepts. In terms of substance, you would teach traditional topics, like race, but instead relate them to general theoretical ideas (i.e., social construction, biological theories of behavior, rational choice, etc). The way it should work is: theory –> topics not “a bunch of topics.” In terms of methods, make sure that every one understands core concepts such as variables, social process, identification, qualitative vs. quantitative, basic hypothesis tests, case studies, inference, etc – AND make other courses use these concepts. In other words, don’t let the curriculum be a bunch of electives on neat social science topics. Instead, build it around sequences of courses that first present general ideas and tools and then move into specifics.
Second, to alter our reputation in the intellectual field, I think it would be great to engage in more outreach. I recently gave a presentation on economic sociology, where I boiled down a lot of simple concepts and showed how they related to economics. The response was strong – people had never seen a sociologist speak to them directly and make the ideas clear. This outreach can happen in many ways – co-authoring with people, public speaking, and so forth. On a more ambitious scale, sociologists should set up institutes that facilitate strong interactions with other fields.
To summarize: reformat the curriculum so it builds on core theories on research methods and gets away from the bundle of interesting electives; emphasize the scientific content of our discipline in ways other people can understand; co-author work people outside the discipline in fields with large intellectual or policy relevance.