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will sociology build the wall? on objectivity in social science

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(The following is a guest post from Barış Büyükokutan)

ASA President-Elect Mary Romero’s call to put sociology in the service of social justice by doing away with “false notions of ‘objectivity’” triggered 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, objectivity is a prerequisite of any effective prosecution of injustice.

We live in a time period in which injustice is objectively a problem, both for scholars as a puzzle – i.e. “why so much injustice here but not there” – and for citizens as actual experiences. And we do not lack for decent methods of showing this objective reality. Take, for a very basic instance, the Gini coefficient, which is not just relatively easy to calculate but also easy to explain to laypeople: by the Gini coefficient, the United States has less social justice than Finland, Switzerland or New Zealand; that is a fact. Even if such facts are already interpretations, some interpretations are more authoritative than others. More importantly, it is difficult – though, I admit, not impossible – to interpret ad infinitum against reality. We sociologists might want to keep to those “interpretations” rather than shooting ourselves in the foot by pointing out, for instance, that the Gini coefficient has many weaknesses without explaining that its weaknesses are tolerable for good reasons in many, if not most, contexts.

At the heart of my argument, therefore, is a commitment to the pursuit of reality: there is a reality out there, independent of what any one person might think of it. (It obviously doesn’t mean there is a reality independent of what all persons think; social reality is, after all, transitive.) A commitment to objectivity, in other words, is a commitment to following the study of reality wherever it takes us. As such, if an aspect of reality is unjust – if people are treated unfavorably, as a fact, simply because they are not male, white, straight, or middle-class, for example – objectivity requires, first, acknowledging that reality. Second, it requires trying and changing that reality with skillful means—objectively speaking, individual human beings have very similar capabilities, therefore arrangements that treat them differently are objective violations of this higher aspect of reality. By skillful means, I intend simply that one has to take responsibility for one’s actions. Good intentions do not by themselves good people make; people with good intentions have to at least try to find effective ways of getting the right things done. Max Weber was right here—we cannot limit ourselves to an ethic of ultimate ends; an ethic of responsibility is also required of the scholar.

Objectivity does not, therefore, mean value-free science as it is commonly understood—which, by the way, is not how Weber understood it. Weber meant his injunction to stay away from politics to apply in the classroom, and perhaps only in the classroom. This was for reasons our age will easily sympathize with: one should not use one’s superior status to shove one’s ideas down other people’s throat (especially if the shoving will suffice to defeat its own purpose). His many writings – for he was not, contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s sarcastic-but-not-too-much-so portrayal, a “one-book wonder” and would have dominated AJS had AJS existed then – on Junker agriculture, Polish immigration, and the postwar reconstruction of Germany, are all but apolitical. (That they are not the right kind of political for most sociologists today is irrelevant.)

Ironically, without a commitment to objectivity as commitment to the pursuit of reality, one cannot even, as Pardo-Guerra does, write that “science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated” anything “over the past six decades or so.” For without a reality that can be pursued, one cannot demonstrate at all, at least not in the  sense of the word in use here: to demonstrate something presumes not just two parties, one of which conveys to another a message, but also the existence of the objects the message concerns and the veracity of the message. If, as Pardo-Guerra writes, science and technology studies have indeed argued that science – or objectivity, as it is not clear to me which is meant in that particular sentence – is simply politics by other means, which I take to be equivalent to saying that science does not concern itself with a commitment to the pursuit of reality, the argument is stillborn. In this case and in this sense, objectivity is, again contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s argument, indeed an obvious principle of science. That some scientists have historically failed to take the hint proves only those scientists’ inability to correctly assess the stakes involved. (That some such scientists were nevertheless successful in their fields proves absolutely nothing—scientific skills are many; lacking one does not mean one lacks all the others as well.)

I am not making a pitch for standpoint epistemology. Humans live in spaces structured by various hierarchies, just or unjust, and it is true that where one stands in those spaces shapes one’s vision. But an objective account of those hierarchies – the identification of the principles, again just or unjust, that bring them about – is more than possible as those principles are usually sufficiently legible. In other words, one’s standpoint does not determine one’s vision—one can learn. As such, what the principle of objectivity calls for in a scholar is virtue: One must have the strength of character to, first, admit that one doesn’t know everything and that what one believes one knows may be wrong, welcoming corrections with an open heart. Second, one must admit that one’s own position may provide one with unearned privileges to be renounced. Third, one must accept the fact – fact – that practicing good scholarship might make one unpopular and jeopardize one’s own safety and welfare.

Social justice also requires respect for work that we may find thoroughly apolitical. The pursuit of social justice is the pursuit of a real utopia, and real utopias are frequently the unintended consequences of action initially devoted to something else. Omar Lizardo’s distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture on the pages of ASR may strike some activists as much ado about nothing, but who can say with certainty that other activists will not at some point find it useful? What Gary Snyder wrote about poetry applies equally to sociology: Today we write about trees for seemingly apolitical reasons like getting tenure, tomorrow a lawyer files a claim of personhood on behalf of trees using our work, helping in the fight against the destruction of nature by capital.

The ASA and its president can help individual sociologists in upholding the joint commitment to objectivity and social justice only if they too commit to both objectivity and social justice. Without the principle of objectivity, we will be vulnerable to various misuses of the postmodern condition and the President of the ASA is in a unique position to help the public distinguish between use and misuse; s/he should be willing and able to play this role. The ethic of ultimate ends wouldn’t care about what these misuses will accomplish, but the ethic of responsibility requires us to anticipate the moves of the powers-that-be—after all, we do not just want to fight the good fight, we want to fight it well and, if at all possible, win it. Twenty-one years after the Sokal Affair, it should be clear to anyone that one cannot chase away misuses of postmodern thought easily; it certainly cannot be done in 140 characters.

Committing ASA jointly to objectivity and social justice means effectively mobilizing resources to protect and enhance the security, social standing, and welfare of its members: We must individually or in groups be able to pursue reality freely. In other words, ASA must be a conduit for the “corporatism of the universal”—it must preserve, as much as it can, our autonomy from states, markets, closed moralities, and the popular element. It must confront, on our behalf, populist politicos who want to do away with tenure; university administrators whose job definition is to extract from us as much as possible while giving us as little as possible; publishing houses that make fat loads of money off our backs while preventing people who stand to learn most from our work from accessing it; students and their families who see us as barriers to be cleared on the way to lucrative professional careers; and portions of the public that are impatient with our freedom and want easy, formulaic solutions to problems in which they themselves are enthusiastically complicit. In this regard, Romero’s promise to fight for tenure and academic freedom is obviously good news; so too is her identification of ASA’s declining membership rate as a key problem.

Yet it should be clear that tenure and the membership rate are objectively problems. Granted, they are problems within specific historically instituted settings. These might not be problems for thirteenth-century artists in Beijing, say, or for the food service industry in New York. But to acknowledge that our problems are historically situated and culturally contingent should not ignore that there are, nonetheless, objective conditions that hold in their description and in their critique. In emphasizing justice over objectivity, we run the risk of losing both. Whether objectivity, like anything else, is commingled with power is a very different question than whether it is simply politics by any other means.

As such, the “broad appeal” Romero speaks of as a way to increase membership may not be such good news. For fighting the good fight, not just ASA but also other established disciplinary traditions and institutions, with their hopefully meritocratic hierarchies, are crucial. (If the hierarchies are not sufficiently shaped by the meritocratic principle, one must of course denounce them and start from scratch, but in the case of sociology I do not think we are there.) AJS and ASR may be faulted for many things, but not for turning their back to the pursuit of social justice—just peruse the latest (April 2017) issue of ASR, which features back-to-back pieces on inequality that show that it’s there objectively and denounce it as unjust. Arguably, these publications are more skillful means for the pursuit of social justice than those in, say, Thesis Eleven or the New Left Review, both excellent outlets, both incapable, by virtue of their names alone, of having a significant portion of educated laypeople read them with an open mind. On the other hand, AJS and ASR, which Romero hasn’t published in and which Pardo-Guerra seems to me – I hope to be wrong in my assessment here – to dismiss without explaining why – “What can I say?” he writes – are far more resilient against such bad faith. Again, we are dealing with the difference between the ethic of ultimate ends, which would be scandalized by my comment about journal names, and the ethic of responsibility, which highlights the strategic aspect of knowledge transmission, including journal names, as a crucial bottleneck.
What we need, therefore, is a strong disciplinary core. This is no wish to do away with interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, for these ideals presume distinct disciplinary cores—in order for one to be located between disciplines or cross from one discipline to another, at least two disciplines must be there. Nondisciplinarity, however, is a recipe for disaster—sociology needs STS and justice studies, not to mention anthropology and political science, but erasing all distinctions between them is a bad idea.

This is because structures enable as much as they constrain. As a structure, a discipline – including its professional association and leading journals – is a common language. Instead of decrying the fact that people speak different languages and so do not always understand one another and thus implicitly calling for an Esperanto-like lingua franca to replace them all, we must remember that different languages capture different aspects of reality and therefore that speaking multiple languages gives one a better understanding of reality. Speaking no language, on the other hand, means reality will overwhelm you. As a result, Romero’s distancing herself from research universities is not necessarily good news for sociology or for sociologists—it is primarily in major research universities that contact between well-formed disciplinary cores happens.

And no, a strong disciplinary core will not “make sociology great again,” at least not in the Trumpian sense Pardo-Guerra seems to refer to. A discipline with a strong core is one that has a healthy dose of self-esteem, such that fear of contact with others does not exist—such a discipline will not “build the wall.” Instead, it will have the capacity to speak about a world we can actually know fairly well, even if that world is (social) scientists themselves and their many flaws.  And from that knowledge, we will be able to leverage critiques. If objectivity is truly nothing more than politics by any other means, then we are all of us nothing but rhetoricians and might be better off just becoming full-time activists, or simply focusing on our teaching (though what are we teaching? How is its validity distinct from Breitbart’s own rhetoric?).  But if there is actually data out there, data whose interpretations can be objectively sifted as better or worse, data that provides leverage for social and political critique—then it seems better for us to keep at work.

Barış Büyükokutan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University. His research interests include intellectuals, culture, field theory, secularization, and a German fellow named Max.

 

Written by jeffguhin

June 10, 2017 at 2:11 am

stirring a storm in an electoral teacup

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(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

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Maintaining gaps and maintaining fits

New institutionalists like Meyer and Rowan use the term “decoupling” to describe a phenomenon: when employees or managers create and maintain gaps between the formal and informal, mainly, gaps between formal policies and organizational practices on the ground. This literature, then, at its core is about creating and maintain gaps. The upshot: decoupling allows firm managers to appear bona fide on the surface (thus gaining legitimacy) in the eyes of relevant external agents and funding sources, and they can do this while keeping the organization (back home) flexible enough to maintain old practice inconsistent with external demands or allow employees the freedom to pursue other matters of operational interest.

In contrast, one of the livelier debates in contemporary STS is about work-arounds (sometimes referred to as “kludges”), a term that Pollock (and others) use to describe the following phenomenon: when employees, mainly programmers in Pollock’s research, bypass certain elements of software coding in order to make failing systems operate (at least, for a while). Of course, this raises the issue of “who’s developing software?” when users contribute and share such work-arounds with designers hired by software firms. In the end, he says the boundary separating users and designers is a dynamic network effect; sometimes expanding, other times contracting, but certainly not static; work-arounds become a way to understand users’ and designers’ relational qualities. In addition, work-arounds are not just liberating; meaning that work-arounds do not merely “free” users from the constraints “scripted” into technologies; instead, work-arounds are also the source of much tension in the workplace, and even between workplaces (especially between client organizations and vendors of packaged software). As a class of phenomenon, work-arounds happen when employees create and maintain fits amid gaps, in the above cases, between packaged software systems and organizational operations. This literature, then, at its core is about creating and maintain fits.

So, its not that simple to compare them — right? Decoupling is mainly about inter-organizational relations with implications, sometimes obvious at the level of work, for organizations. Working-around is mainly about inter-organizational relations with implications, oftentimes obvious at the level of work, for organizations. Oh wait, maybe they do have something in common, even if they were birthed in homes far, far from one another.

A new line of research could look at how once decoupled policies and practices (and maybe even machines) get fit back together — when, why, and under what circumstances. It would help us to understand the boundary between or maybe alignment of policies and practices as relational, dynamic network effects. No doubt, the growing conceptual apparatus used to study work-arounds could be used to describe the reunion between formal policy and organizational practices called “work” (or would we be writing about “work-togethers,” which sounds terrible?).

Likewise, that work-around literature might learn something about where (some) gaps come from in the first place, if only STS would consider policies and practice in work-around literature, which they increasingly are. Still, in defense of new institutionalists, there must be examples where creating, not fixing, gaps promotes the organization’s well-being — a potentially important lesson for work-around literature.

The upshot for organizations: by comparing what it takes to create and maintain a gap and what it takes to create and maintain a fit between policy, practice, and maybe even some supporting software the choice to couple or decouple might be more efficiently or strategically decided upon. Or, are these theoretical approaches too analytically divorced to cogently compare….?

Written by Nicholas

May 26, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Posted in guest bloggers, sociology, uncategorized

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