So much self-loathing in sociology, so many different diagnoses as to why. Overall, it gets frankly tiresome, even though I find particular sociologists’ particular (parting?) shots interesting. The latest: Orlando Patterson has an essay on “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant” in today’s Chronicle. I thought his best lines were toward the end:
The first is the Garfinkel rule, mentioned earlier: Never treat your subjects as cultural dopes. If you find yourself struggling to explain away your subjects’ own reasoned and widely held account of what they consider important in explaining their condition, you are up to something intellectually fishy.
The second is this: If you end up with findings that have policy implications that you would never dream of advocating for yourself or your loved ones, be wary of them. A case in point: If you find that neighborhoods have no effects, you should be prepared to do the rational thing and go live in an inner-city neighborhood with its much cheaper real estate, or at least advise your struggling son or daughter searching for an apartment to save by renting there. If the thought offends you, then something stinks.
Anyway, his call for a more “public sociology” is just using the slogan to call for–what I do agree with–sociology that is more connected to social policy. I mean, I like that sociology allows one to think about big-picture questions that don’t always have to come back to policy–indeed, I think that is one of the great privileges of being in our field.
I’m glad there are people out there obsessed with figuring out the effect of changing this subsidy from $X to $X+1000, but have no desire to think on that plane. However, sociology’s divorce from policy goes much further and deeper than that. Not sure whether and how sociology per se can get back on that train given how long ago it hopped off. Opt out of something long enough, and it’s no longer really your choice.
An eye-opening experience for me was when I was part of the RWJ Health Policy program at Harvard. There, you’d have person after person come in who actually thought of themselves as, in one way or another, involved in a conversation about what social policy should actually be. What it brought home for me was how ingrained I was into a way of thinking that policy was something that other people figured out, and that our role was more about articulating complaints or explaining why the deciders went with this policy instead of that one.
Whole thing reminded me of a former colleagues who once described the difference between teaching about unfair aspects of society to undergrads at Wisconsin versus Stanford was a difference between having undergraduates who would raise their hands and say “They should…” versus “We should…”