are sociologists too nice?

Alan Sica argues that perhaps it is. One quote:

Our special and newly formed version of Nice-Nellyism is different, in banishing to the outhouse scholarly criticism that might be interpreted by somebody or other as “harsh” or “unfeeling” or “off the wall” or “unsupportable,” et cetera. If an entire generation of bright young scholars is schooled to believe that one should only write complimentary commentary about research which falls squarely within one’s zone of competence, the future for serious thought and analysis does not look promising; worse, those so socialized will have been cheated of their right and their responsibility as intellectuals: to tell it like it is.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

12 thoughts on “are sociologists too nice?”

  1. This seems to me a rather transparent canard. One can be respectful, supportive, “nice” AND rigorously critical- and I know and value many scholars who achieve this balance without an issue. It’s a false choice that those who are seriously concerned about quality scholarship or a thriving academic community (or both!) should reject.

    It seems to me that the real skeleton in our cultural closet is the very substantial number of scholars who lack interpersonal social skills such that they can be critical without being offensive and mean spirited. This shockingly pervasive lack of interpersonal skills is the real threat to scholarship and teaching- to the extent that both enterprises involve- you know- other people. Friends and family members outside the discipline remark on this point more than any other, and find it very curious. I’m not sure that we are exceptional within the academy in this respect, but it is deeply ironic and troubling that we should suffer such a widespread difficulty among those whose primary intellectual concern is social in nature.


  2. Without getting too much into the blow-by-blow, the Biernacki-Evans kerfuffle suggests that this concern isn’t totally unfounded. Biernacki was sanctioned by the vice chancellor at UCSD because Biernacki’s critical reevaluation of Evans work “may damage the reputation of a colleague and therefore may be considered harassment.” (For details, see coverage here.) It’s a weird – and hopefully uniquely extreme – case, but one that suggests Sica may be on to something to suggest that we lack a robust culture of criticism, and interpret critique as hostility, meanness and even harassment.


    1. Where can one go to find out more about the Biernacki-Evans “disagreement”? Is the book by Reed and Alexander the core of what exists in print?


    2. The Biernacki-Evans exchange in the Reed book linked to above does become hostile, though. Biernacki’s initial critique is fine — highly critical, but well-reasoned and well-within the bounds of constructive criticism. However, the exchange that follows shifts into something less constructive when they begin to discuss whether emails sent between them (and in particular, an unanswered email Biernacki sent to Evans) were “collegial” or not.

      None of this is to say that the university should have made any objections to the publication of the initial piece (it’s not their place), but I would hardly hold up that exchange as something that it would be totally inappropriate to interpret as “hostility” or “meanness.”


  3. I agree that there’s no necessary contradiction between nice and critical, but I do think what Sica points out is true, particularly in book reviews: people rarely review books negatively. I’ve got a small collection of them because I think they can be really interesting, useful documents, but from my experience book review editing for Social Forces, most potential reviewers just decline to review if they can’t give it a positive review. Which is part of why CS gets so bloody boring to read! I thought Abbott’s review of Wacquant was great precisely because it offered serious, sustained critique.

    That said, the fact that just about every editor’s intro to CS by Sica has been on how hard it is to get people to review books is getting a bit tiresome.


    1. A quote from Abbott’s review reveals one of the reasons people avoid giving negative reviews:
      “But most of Wacquant’s concluding chapter is spent not in developing new lines for research or insights into neoliberalism, but in ungenerous commentary about the work of others. (Reading this commentary, one can well understand why so many colleagues refused this journal’s invitation to review Wacquant’s book, leaving its editor—no expert on neoliberalism-to take that responsibility.)”

      Abbott can get away with it because he’s Andrew f***ing Abbott but less senior scholars don’t want to piss off the wrong people. Rather than being an issue of niceness, it looks like an issue of pettiness among sociologists.


  4. Is this review in philosophy what we want more of? You can get the idea from the first two sentences. (The author is a grad student. I’m not sure where it was published, but it’s been blogged and tweeted more than most philosophy reviews.)


    1. That review is priceless! Of course I don’t know the book, or the field, but yes, I would say the review is at once a great read and a substantive take-down of the book, and thus a useful contribution.


      1. It’s a lively piece of writing, but can’t the reviewer entertain without belittling the author? For example:

        “McGinn’s theory does not merely bypass the re- ceived wisdom amongst empirically-minded scholars of disgust; it bypasses the received wisdom amongst moms and schoolmarms about basic hygiene. Our re- vulsion at corpses, feces, and open wounds is gen- uinely puzzling to him: “Why should we be so averse to what is actually not intrinsically harmful to us?” Is this a joke? Is McGinn really this obtuse, or is he over- stating the mystery in order to make his theory seem more profound? It is impossible to tell.”

        I don’t see why it’s helpful to write something to the effect of, “McGinn is either disingenuous or dumb” rather than just presenting McGinn’s position and offering counterexamples where appropriate.

        Well-written reviews are inherently exciting: Here is the argument, here is the evidence, and…drumroll…does the latter convincingly support the former? I agree with Sica that endless positive reviews are boring and to our scholarly detriment. But publishing reviews with personal insults intact undermines a culture of collegiality, and I assume those norms help us use critiques of our work more constructively.


      2. I have not read the review, but the paragraph aaronplatt quotes seems to me to be appropriately lively writing to make a point rather than an ad hominem attack. The main implication of the sentence is that McGinn is posing a question that does not really need an answer. It (the review) is assuming without proof that it is “natural” to have such disgust and is thus challenging the need to explain this. So McGinn may well say in retort that this is precisely the point, that what seems “natural” and obvious isn’t. But I don’t think it would be appropriate to read the sentence as an attack on McGinn as a person, and I think McGinn would be thin-skinned to take it that way. I read it as an attack on the idea.


      3. @olderwoman: While I agree that most of what I cited is an appropriate critique of an idea, it was this sentence — “Is this a joke? Is McGinn really this obtuse, or is he over- stating the mystery in order to make his theory seem more profound?” that I thought crossed the line. He can say it is natural to have such disgust for hygienic reasons without asking rhetorical questions about whether McGinn is dumb or disingenuous. McGinn would need thin skin to focus on that sentence at the exclusion of the rest, but it still seemed to me unnecessary to the larger point being made.


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