should sociologists have political commitments?

Over on OrgTheory, Steve Vaisey takes sociologists to task for what he seems to perceive as unwarranted political commitment. Apparently because sociologists tend to be “liberal” (as useless a term as that is), we are less objective than we ought to be and we think stuff for partisan, as opposed to soundly scientific, reasons. (I am paraphrasing here, of course.)

I beg to differ. The American political landscape is bizarre and extraordinarily narrow by any big-picture measure. The idea that any smart group of people ought to be randomly scattered between Obama and McCain is silly, for (at least) three reasons:

1.) One of the two may be <strong>better</strong> than the other; a random scatter suggests no underlying difference in quality of candidate, party, or philosopy.

2.) The true range of political views is in fact far broader than the range between Obama and McCain. It starts further “left” and goes further “right.” There’s no sound reason to mark the two presidential candidates as the boundaries of reasonable political thought. So if we were to assume, even, that sociologists’ political views are randomly distributed across the true political spectrum, but the Obama-McCain continuum is right of the center of that spectrum, we would observe so-called “bias” because American political discourse is biased, not because sociologists are.

3.) The hack-Weberian idea that sociologists ought to avoid making politico-moral commitments in professional life is, IMHO, literally untenable after Riesman, Marx, Adorno, Arendt, Chodorow, Foucault, Bauman, etc., etc., etc. I think this is just a kind of tilting-at-scientific-windmills that imagines sociology as a pure, sterile science, but one that misunderstands both science and sociology.

Look for another post soon considering so-called bias in academia.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

9 thoughts on “should sociologists have political commitments?”

  1. I didn’t read Steve’s post at all as some sort of indictment about sociologists’ political commitments. He only brought it up as a humorous aside in a later comment. Steve’s point that sociologists often sidestep or overly-simplify theoretical conceptions of motivation could be made without bringing up sociologists’ own political motivations.


  2. Brayden is right: insofar as my own intentions are known to me, my goal was not at all to criticize sociologists’ political commitments. Rather since nearly all sociologists are on the left, I was wondering whether the preference for “infrastructural” explanations (in Marx’s sense) was a sociologist thing or a left-leaning thing. Hard to disentangle.


  3. OK, I withdraw the reference to Steve’s post and just ask the question de novo: I have heard many people say, essentially, that sociologists’ purported liberalism hampers their scientific acumen. I beg to differ….


  4. For what it is worth, my own view and practice is a kind of vulgar Weberianism. Of course sociologists have political views, just as we have religious views and tastes in music and favorite leisure activities. And of course these different parts of our lives influence each other — we are intact whole people. My own sociological, political and religious views are all intertwined with each other and cannot be disentangled. This is just as true for mathematicians and biologists and economists as it is for sociologists.

    I also understand the social construction of knowledge and why the boundary between knowledge and belief is blurry. Nevertheless, I believe in holding myself and others accountable to evidence, to facts outside my own preferences and desires. I translate “science as a vocation” into adhering to the tools of methodological rigor and the principle of inter-subjective reliability coupled with the value orientations of a willingness to face facts and a belief that the truth is your friend.

    I argue that political/value commitments can improve science because a genuine social commitment makes you care what the right answer really is, instead of just looking for something you can publish and build a career on.


  5. I have less of a problem with sociologists having political commitments and more of a problem with the lack of diversity in political views in sociology departments. It feels like everyone thinks kind of alike and there is a very strong peer pressure to not discuss certain things that are considered “right wing”.
    I also think that, if sociologists want to be able to have political influence and have a reach beyond academia, we shouldn’t look at U.S. mainstream political views just as “biased”, but as an audience whose views we should try to understand and speak to.


  6. What socfreak said — I resent the snickering and eye-rolling when a question that doesn’t toe the party line is raised. Regardless of my political beliefs (which are often perfectly in line with the crowd), I expect some empirical realities to be orthogonal to my political beliefs.


  7. I live in a liberal community and know a lot of [liberal] math and science majors who do similar eye-rolling and pressure about non-liberal statements. And when my [liberal] son was in a conservative engineering school, he was made very uncomfortable by the assumptions and remarks of the prevailing right-wing religious conservatives there. The problem (which I agree is a problem) is about what happens when people are surrounded only by people who agree with them. But I have seen little evidence that sociologists are any worse about this than any other group.


  8. personally, i’d put most sociologists at center-right. I meet very few that are not fairly conservative or at least anti-progressive, but then again, i put most people in the green party at center-right too and let’s not even begin to think about the democrats most of which seem to have forgotten what the left looks like in the 90’s…


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