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…”

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.

9 thoughts on “antimatter”

  1. Syed Ali wrote a response on the Contexts blog ( I’m quoted there on the 124 different sociology professors quoted in the NYTimes in 2013. Sociologists aren’t writing many federal policies, but they’re participating in a lot of public debates.

    There is no reason for Patterson to have made this about “sociologists” — he’s really talking about the Black youth poverty policy debate, which has its own history. That he implies Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper is “molding the most important social enterprises of our era” is a strong clue that he’s a little too close to that subject.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol. I think if we consider how many core principles citizens can regurgitate from a discipline, sociology and other social sciences would show much stronger influence than economics. Everyone knows what “institutional racism” (soc) and “subconscious mind” (psych) mean. Try “average cost curve.”

        For people who believe that social systems are more emergent than designed, that influence probably matters a lot more than having our resident public intellectual in the NYT every week or advising the president.


  2. I’m not a national figure, but I’m something of a local policy figure and I’ve spent a lot of time in local policy circles. It is, in fact, a ton easier to document a problem than to find a solution to it. I think sociologists need to be in the game, but we’re going to be just as bad as economists if we just impose policies based on theories generated by the disconnected intellectuals instead of digging in and actually spending time with an understanding the people we are proposing policies for. In my case, for example, both understanding what is going on with people who do commit crimes at racially disparate rates as well as with police, prosecutors, etc. who generate racial disparities in processing.

    As I’m reading the article, and not actually knowing Patterson (although I did give a talk once that he listened to) is engaging an ongoing Black debate that White liberals (IMO) don’t really understand. Whites (to overgeneralize) think you choose between racist structures and cultural practices as explanations, while Blacks (to overgeneralize, although less so) assume the structures are in fact racist and think in terms of Black agency, how should Blacks respond to the structures, and see “negative” cultural forms as an unconstructive response to racist structures. An oversimplified version of the debate (again as I’m following it) is basically that your best play as a Black person is to resist the “bad” cultural practices even in the face of racism. But the whole debate gets played in the presence of a White audience who imagines that any critique of Black people’s behavior implies a pass for White people and the racist structures White people create.

    As an oversimplified example, I was once in a conversation involving several Black people, including a young Black man and an older Black woman about whether they should be stressing to Black kids the importance of being deferential toward police. The young man was saying that the kids had a reason to be angry and shouldn’t have to tolerate mistreatment. The older woman (who is an ADA and who is very active in anti-discrimination efforts) said, “I know why they are angry. My brothers’ first encounter with the police is when they were preteens and were thrown on the ground by the police when the had not done anything wrong. I know why they were angry. But it ruined their lives. It is a felony to hit an officer. They have to learn not to resist.”

    I realize Patterson is trying to talk more about sexual restraint and fatherhood and all that, but I see is as the same debate that is happening in a context.

    Where was I about public sociology? Um, could we maybe talk sociologically about how acknowledging a political critique of (say) racist structures or economic inequality coupled with a discussion about personal choice or responsibility or culture as a resistance to racist structures might be a more effective intervention than just lecturing people and blaming them for their problems?


    1. As a cultural sociologist, I’m on Patterson’s side, at least as far as the culture of poverty stuff goes. Sociologists need to be much more aggressive in responding to culture of poverty arguments, not by denying them, but by arguing that culture (and values, beliefs, norms, etc.) doesn’t come from nowhere; it comes, at least in part, from the social structures and the material conditions that shape our lives. (I think Marx basically had it right that people’s real-world conditions shape their ideology.) To oversimplify, structure–>culture–>agency. So if you want to change how people act, you need to wrestle with the complex relations between culture (or cultural structures) and material reality (non-cultural structures).

      That said, as a teacher, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with sociology’s message that to achieve real social change, you have to change the social structures that shape people’s behavior. It’s not that I think it’s wrong; it’s just that it tends to be a disempowering message, even if you go out of your way to explain how it need not be disempowering. As an individual, your agency–the difference you can make–is going to be inherently limited. Sure, combine your agency with others in collective action, and you can make a big difference; but you still must rely upon others to make it happen. At the end of the day, if you want to make a difference in your own life, you can’t pretend you’re going to change the structure of the society; you have to act in the small, limited domain that you can, to some extent, control. So if I want to help an individual student improve his/her life, to some extent, they have to abandon the hope of changing the structures and focus on their own domain.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with you about disempowering and empowering and agree that the straight structuralist message sounds disempowering unless you talk about how to change structures. When I give my disparities talks to Black audiences, they immediately get to “what can we do about this?” People see themselves as agents. It is the only empowering stance. You can see yourself as an agent who is maintaining personal responsibility in the face of a structure that is trying to beat you down and make you feel bad about yourself and you can see yourself as an agent who is working to fight unjust structures, and you can see yourself as both. Maintaining dignity and self-respect can be an act of resistance if you are facing institutions trying to strip them from you.

        Liked by 1 person

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