Alford Young on race and sociology

Alford Young is professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and an expert on the life experience of inner-city African-American men. He is also chair of the department of sociology at Michigan. His 2006 book, The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances, is based on several dozen interviews in Chicago of young men in one of the most segregated parts of the city.

Professor Young’s research falls within “cultural sociology,” and is an effort to gain more nuanced understandings of the mentalities and thinking of one segment of America’s racialized society. Young is unambiguous in endorsing the value of qualitative methods in sociology, although he observes late in the interview that his conversations with young black men are always set in the context of a set of structures of race, economy, and opportunity that need to be investigated through other methods as well.

Young has some boundary-breaking ideas about how urban sociology can be pursued, and his research is an important contribution to contemporary sociology. Here is an earlier post on Young’s work; link.

This month Young agreed to participate with me in a wide-ranging discussion about the content and aims of his research and the ways that it relates to his own early experiences as an African-American young man growing up in East Harlem. The discussion ranges over a number of topics of interest to anyone wanting to understand contemporary sociology better. He talks about the methods and content of his research (wide-ranging, intensive conversations with young inner-city men); some of the surprises this research leads to; the importance of this kind of research as an antidote to the stereotypes that white Americans and commentators often share about inner-city youth; and the question of how these qualitative interviews contribute to a level of generalization about contemporary inner-city experience.

Another important thread in the conversation has to do with Young’s own childhood and adolescence in Harlem, and the ways in which his family’s status in the world of African-Americans professionals in New York intersected with his residential experience in one of the most segregated and impoverished parts of the city. This duality of experience gave Young a cultural fluency that allow him to navigate both worlds as a social science researcher.

Young also talks about the importance that specific role models played for him in the formation of his own career goals and intellectual values: exposure to African-American civil rights lawyers as a high school student and exposure to a charismatic African-American professor in college. The professor served as a mentor to Young, permitting him to gain an appetite for a career as a researcher and teacher in the university.

Young’s work focuses on the experience of young African-American men in segregated American cities. But the insights and approach are equally relevant to a very wide range of subjects, both domestically and internationally. How do Chinese migrant workers perceive the choices open to them and the working conditions they find in Chinese cities? What is the worldview of young immigrant men and women in Stockholm, and how does that fit into the outbreak of extended rioting there in the past month? How do homeless people in Boston or Chicago think about their situations and the choices available to them? Everywhere there are distinctive human communities and bodies of experience that are worth knowing more about, and almost always the preliminary stereotypes we have about those communities are wrong or seriously incomplete. So the kind of qualitative cultural sociology to which Al Young has contributed is an important addition to sociology that can be extended in many different ways.

Here is a link to the interview.


The sociology of ideas: Richard Rorty

Where do new ideas and directions of thought come from?  Is it possible to set a context for important changes in intellectual culture, in the sciences or the humanities?  Can we give any explanation for the development of individual thinkers’ thought?

These are the key questions that Neil Gross raises in his sociological biography of Richard Rorty in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (2009).  The book is excellent in every respect.  Gross has gone into thorough detail in discovering and incorporating correspondence with family and friends that allow him to reconstruct the micro setting within which the young Rorty took shape.  His exposition of the complex philosophical debates that set the stage for academic philosophy in the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s is effortless and accurate.  And he offers a very coherent interpretation of many of Rorty’s most important ideas.  Any one of these achievements is noteworthy; together they are exceptional.

Gross is not interested in writing a traditional intellectual biography. Rather, he wants to advance the emerging field of “new sociology of ideas” through an extended case study of the development of a particularly important philosopher. The purpose of the book is to provide a careful and sociologically rich account of the ways in which a humanities discipline (philosophy) developed, through a crucial period (the 1940s through the 1980s).

My goal is to develop, on the basis of immersion in an empirical case, a new theory about the social influences on intellectual choice, particularly for humanists—that is, a theory about the social factors that lead them to fasten onto one idea, or set of ideas, rather than another, during turning points in their intellectual careers. (kindle location 95)

The argument I now want to make is that the developments considered in chapters 1–8 reflect not Rorty’s idiosyncratic and entirely contingent biographical experiences but the operation of more general social mechanisms and processes that shaped and structured his intellectual life and career. (kl 5904)

Here is how he describes the sociology of ideas:

Sociologists of ideas seek to uncover the relatively autonomous social logics and dynamics, the underlying mechanisms and processes, that shape and structure life in the various social settings intellectuals inhabit: academic departments, laboratories, disciplinary fields, scholarly networks, and so on. It is these mechanisms and processes, they claim, that—in interaction with the facts that form the material for reflection—do the most to explain the assumptions, theories, methodologies, interpretations of ambiguous data, and specific ideas to which thinkers come to cleave. (kl 499)

The goal is to provide a sociological interpretation of the development of thinkers and disciplines within the humanities (in deliberate analogy to current studies in the sociology of science).  Gross acknowledges but rejects earlier efforts at sociology of knowledge (Marx, Mannheim), as being reductionist to the thinker’s location within a set of social structures.  Gross is more sympathetic to more recent contributions, including especially  the theories of Bourdieu (field) (Homo Academicus) and Randall Collins (interaction ritual chains) (The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change).  These theories emphasize the incentives and advantages that lead strategically minded professionals in one direction or another within a discipline or field. But Gross argues that these theories too are insufficiently granular and don’t provide a basis for accounting for the choices made by particular intellectuals.

One does not have to be a methodological individualist to recognize that meso- and macrolevel social phenomena are constituted out of the actions and interactions of individual persons and that understanding individual-level action—its nature and phenomenology and the conditions and constraints under which it unfolds—is helpful for constructing theories of higher order phenomena, even though the latter have emergent properties and cannot be completely reduced to the former. (kl 158)

To fill this gap he wants to offer a sociology of ideas that brings agency back in.  He introduces the idea of the role of the individual’s “self-concept”, which turns out to be a basis for the choices the young intellectual makes within the context of the strategy-setting realities of the field.  A self-concept is a set of values, purposes, and conceptions that the individual has acquired through a variety of social structures, and that continues to evolve through life.  Gross emphasizes the narrative character of a self-conception: it is expressed and embodied through the stories the individual tells him/herself and others about the development of his/her life.

The theory of intellectual self-concept can thus be restated as follows: Thinkers tell stories to themselves and others about who they are as intellectuals. They are then strongly motivated to do intellectual work that will, inter alia, help to express and bring together the disparate elements of these stories. Everything else being equal, they will gravitate toward ideas that make this kind of synthesis possible. (kl 6650)

There is good reason to believe that such stories or self-narratives are not epiphenomenal aspects of experience but influences on social action in their own right. Indeed, few notions have been as important in social psychology as those of self and self-concept. (551)

Simply stated, the theory of intellectual self-concept holds that intellectuals tell themselves and others stories about who they are qua intellectuals: about their distinctive interests, dispositions, values, capacities, and tastes. (kl 6487)

And Gross thinks that these stories are deeply influential, in terms of the choices that a developing intellectual makes at each stage of life.  In particular, he thinks that the academic’s choices are often inflected by his/her self-conception to an extent that may override the strategic and prudential considerations that are highlighted by Bourdieu and Collins. Bourdieu and Collins offer “no attempt to think through how the quest for status and upward mobility in an intellectual field may intersect and sometimes compete with thinkers’ cognitive and affective interests in remaining true to narratives of intellectual selfhood that have become more or less stable features of their existence” (562). In his view, identity trumps interest–at least sometimes.

Here is how he applies this analysis to Rorty:

My central empirical thesis is that the shift in Rorty’s thought from technically oriented philosopher to free-ranging pragmatist reflected a shift from a career stage in which status considerations were central to one in which self-concept considerations became central. (576)

Or in other words, Rorty’s early career is well explained by the Bourdieu-Collins theory, whereas his later shift towards pragmatism and more heterodox, pluralistic philosophy is explained by his self-concept.

In Gross’s telling of the story, much of Richard Rorty’s self-concept was set by the influences of his remarkable parents in childhood and adolescence, James Rorty and Winifred Raushenbush.  The parents were politically engaged literary and political intellectuals, and they created an environment of social and intellectual engagement that set aspects of Richard’s self-concept that influenced several key choices in his life.  Gross’s depiction of the social and intellectual commitments of James and Winifred, and the elite milieu in which they circulated, is detailed and striking. This “social capital” served Richard well in his course from the University of Chicago to Yale into his academic career.

Gross believes that the key turns in Rorty’s development were these: first, the decision to do a masters thesis on Whitehead at Chicago; then his choice of Yale as a doctoral institution, with a Ph.D. dissertation on “The Concept of Potentiality” (a metaphysical subject); his shift towards analytic philosophy during his first several years of teaching at Wellesley; his deepening engagement with analytic philosophy in the early years at Princeton; his eventual critique of analytic philosophy in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; and his further alienation from analytic philosophy in the years that followed towards a contemporary pragmatism and a more pluralistic view of the domain of philosophical methods.  In other words, he began in an environment where pragmatism and substantive metaphysics were valued; he shifted to the more highly valued field of analytic philosophy during the years in which he was building his career and approaching tenure; and he returned to a more pluralistic view of philosophy in the years when his career was well established.

Rorty’s turn to analytic philosophy makes sense in a Bourdieuian way. Gross describes his Wellesley-era and early Princeton philosophical writings in these terms:

They represent Rorty’s attempt to make contributions to analytic thought of a piece with those that other bright, young analytic philosophers of his generation were making. They were, in other words, part of Rorty’s efforts to position himself even more squarely within the mainstream philosophical establishment. (kl 4642)

Those observing Rorty’s career from afar might have interpreted this spate of analytic publications, coming on the heels of The Linguistic Turn, as evidence that Rorty had joined the ranks of the analytic community and saw his work as of a piece with that being done by other analysts. (kl 4853)

But eventually Rorty shifts his philosophical stance, towards a pluralistic and pragmatist set of ideas about philosophical method and subject matter.  Here is how Gross summarizes Rorty’s turn to pragmatism:

On this understanding, a pragmatist is someone who holds three beliefs: first, that “there is no wholesale, epistemological way to direct, or criticize, or underwrite, the course of inquiry”; second, that “there is no . . . metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science”; and third, that “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones.” (kl 719)

As Rorty went about developing a historicist, therapeutic alternative to the analytic philosophy he saw being practiced by his Princeton colleagues and others, no one’s work was more important to him than that of Thomas Kuhn. (kl 5054)

And Gross dates Rorty’s impulses towards pragmatism to a much earlier phase of his intellectual development than is usually done:

Far from it being the case, as some Rorty interpreters have claimed, that Rorty’s interest in pragmatism arose only after he made a break with analytic philosophy, his earliest work is characterized by a desire to harness pragmatist insights in the service of a revised conception of the analytic project. (kl 4037)

Rorty rode both of these intellectual waves, becoming caught up in the rigorism of the analytic paradigm in the 1960s and then emerging as a leading figure in the antirigorist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. (kl 7058)

The book repays a close reading, in that it sheds a lot of light on a key period in the development of American philosophy and it provides a cogent sociological theory of the factors that influenced this development.  It is really a remarkable book. It would be fascinating to see similar accounts of innovative thinkers such as Nelson Goodman, John Rawls, or (from literary studies) Stephen Greenblatt.  That’s not likely to happen, however, so this book will probably remain a singular illustration of a powerful theory of the sociology of ideas.

Sociology in China

Social investigation has a history in China that extends into the Ming-Qing dynasties and earlier, in the form of reports by scholar-officials on local conditions. Scholars undertook to provide descriptions of agricultural conditions, farming methods, famines, drought and flooding, the conditions of the poor, banditry, and many other topics of interest to the state or potentially of value to the people. These reports often show great attention to detail and concern for veracity, and they provide important sources of data for contemporary historians. They do not constitute “scientific sociology,” any more than the writings of Mayhew or the findings of Parliamentary commissions constituted a British sociology in the 18th century. They fall in the category of careful fact-gathering, with some efforts at diagnosing causes of some of the phenomena identified. We may also refer to the tradition called “evidential research” (kaoju), which emphasized “empirically rigorous methods” by historians and linguists to gather evidence for reconstructing China’s early history.

Sociology as a science involves several more specific ideas over and above simple descriptive reportage of social behavior: the idea of empirically rigorous methods of data gathering and analysis, the idea of providing explanations of the phenomena that are discovered, the idea of formulating theories about unobservable social processes or mechanisms, and the idea of identifying some level of patterns or regularities among and across groups of phenomena.

So what were some of the main turning points in the development of modern sociology in Chinese academic institutions in the twentieth century? How did sociology first appear in China? What were the primary influences? What assumptions about social theory and social research methodology were important, at what periods in time? When did the institutions of academic sociology develop—departments, associations, and journals?

As a European intellectual development, sociology took its shape in the 19th century as a result of several important currents of thought: the development of empiricism or positivism as philosophical theories of human knowledge, the development of “classical sociological theories” of modern societies (Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Tocqueville, Simmel); and the refinement of the methods of social description and analysis associated with public policy and reform efforts. Durkheim’s theories of social solidarity and cohesion, Weber’s theory of rationality and norms as causes of large historical developments such as the emergence of capitalism, and Marx’s theory of class conflict as the historical cause of social change—these classical theories constituted a first generation of sociological theory that twentieth century sociologists worked with in their efforts to deal with complex sociological phenomena. New theories in the twentieth century acquired classical standing as well: Parsons’ structural-functionalism as a general theory of social organization, the anthropologists’ formulation of theories of culture and language, and the Chicago School’s blend of pragmatism and policy provided a reservoir of theoretical ideas in the context of which more specific sociological inquiries could be framed.

Early in the twentieth century there were several important early Chinese sociologists who studied these theories in the west and brought them back to Chinese universities. There was a “founding group” of sociologists who studied in the US, in Chicago, California, and other universities in the 1930s and who created significant pockets of social research in China. The primary fields were rural development, ethnic groups, labor issues, gender and family. These founders published in English and Chinese. Yan Fu (1853-1921) was one of China’s first scholars of sociology, and translated Herbert Spencer’s Study of Sociology into Chinese in 1903). Quite a few Chinese students received Wisconsin, Columbia, USC, Chicago PhDs in the 1920s and 30s, and one students received a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1936.

Following the Communist Revolution, sociology went through several serious periods of crisis. In the 1950s the “socialist” character of the revolution led officials in China to ideological objections to the science of sociology.  The view was that sociology had to do with addressing social problems.  But this is a socialist society, so how can we have social problems?  Therefore, we don’t need sociology.  Departments of sociology were disbanded in the universities.  A few went to the Labor Cadre School.  Others went to statistics departments.  Quantitative and statistical methods were acceptable; but sociological theory and applied research were not.  This was described as “bourgeois science.”

In 1956-57 there was an attempt by some professors to revive sociological research.  Prof. Ma Yinchu wrote an article addressed to Chairman Mao about population issues.  He advocated for research on this question, arguing that population increase could interfere with China’s economic future.  There was some openness to this research, and Chairman Mao invited open thinking and ideas.  There had been an important meeting of a group of social scientists to re-start sociological research.  All the participants in this meeting were identified as “rightist”.  Participants included Yuan, Chen, Ma, and Fei.  Yuan was identified as “ultra-rightist” because he had done some organizational work for this small informal group.  He was sent to Northeast China for “labor re-education” in 1957.

Some opinions that emerged during the apparent thaw in 1956 were critical of one-party rule. There was an elite of scholars and officials from pre-1949 who were critical of one-party system. An important turning point was Wang Shengquan’s “Big Character Paper” in 1956 or 1957. He criticized Leninism as contrary to Marxist theory. Marx believed that socialism could only occur when the world had developed to the point of socialism; not “socialism in one country. Lenin and Stalin deviated from this belief. Wang said that Lenin was untrue to Marxism. He was consequently labeled “rightist”.

The brief emergence of critical opinions among social scientists in 1956 led to a crackdown on “Rightist thinking” and the squelching of emerging social research.  The emerging sociology and social science, social reform, political reform thinkers were all identified as rightists. Even criticism from the left—e.g. “The Party is not doing enough for peasants” was identified as rightist and counter-revolutionary.  In the anti-Rightist campaign in 1957 about 100,000 people were labeled as “rightist”.  There were quotas for institutions to identify a certain number of rightists among them.  The anti-Rightist Movement by the CCP/Propaganda Department crushed the re-emergence of social science research at this time.  The fear was that social research would turn to criticism and lead to calls for changing the political system.

The period of the Cultural Revolution was also an unpropitious period for sociology as a discipline.  The universities were closed for much of the period of 1966-76, and when they reopened, sociology remained a suspect discipline.  It was only in the early 1980s that sociology began to regain its place in the university and in the field of social-science research in China.  “In 1980 the Institute of Sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was established with Fei Xiao-tong as director” (Zheng and Li, 461).

Important Chinese sociologists

A particular leader in Chinese sociology was Prof. Fei Xiaotong.  He was educated in the 1930s and did field research in Jiangsu and Yunnan in the 1930s-1940s.  He was the first president of the Sociological Society of China, and he was a leading figure in re-establishing sociology after 1979.  He became a party official in a “democratic party”.  He died in 2005. Prof. Fei was a major influence after the Cultural Revolution in reviving sociology in China. An important book in English translation is Peasant Life in China: a Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley, based on his field survey in a village in Jiangsu province in 1930s (Google Books link).  Later he did field research in Yunnan.  After 1979 his best work was field research on the rise and roles of small market towns after the collapse of the people’s communes, focusing on Jiangsu Province.  (See David Arkush, Fei Xiaotong and Sociology in Revolutionary China.)  Fei became the first President of the Sociological Society after the CR in 1979. Yuan became the second president. (Here are obituaries from the New York Times (link) and ChinaDaily (link).)

Chen Da took a PhD at Columbia and became a specialist on Chinese labor.  He was a prominent sociologist in the 30s and 40s.  He became a key influence on the development of sociology at Tsinghua University, becoming founding director of the General Census Center there in 1939.  After the revolution he was prohibited from research and teaching and was eventually assigned to the Labor Cadre School.  His areas of research included survey methodology and surveys of workers’ households.  (Here is a brief history of sociology at Tsinghua University; link.)

Another important figure is Yuan Fang. He was educated at Kumming at Southwest Union University, a university that was relocated during the anti-Japanese War. He was a student of Chen Da.  He taught quantitative methods at a time that this was dangerous; “bourgeois science”.  Some professors disapproved of the workshops he organized.  People who participated were told to “be critical from a Marx-Mao-Lenin point of view.” After the anti-Japanese War, he went to Tsinghua as professor. He then went to Peking University as chair of sociology in 1984.

Lei Jieqiong.  USC 1932.  She advocated for the five-city survey. Family and marriage.  After the Cultural Revolution she became Vice Mayor of Beijing, representing a “showcase democratic party.”  She was also a Peking University professor.  Here is a ChinaDaily article on the occasion of her 105th birthday.

Pan Guangdan.  Sociology/anthropology.  He studied ethnic groups.  He was a professor of Fei.  He was the first translator of Darwin into Chinese and became China’s leading promoter of eugenics.

Yan Yangchu [James Yen].  Another renowned sociologist in the 1930s.  See Charles W. Hayford, To the People: James Yen and Village China (Google Books link).

Li Jinghan. Ph.D. from Chicago (?) in the late 1920s. Social survey methods.  Statistical study of household surveys.  Both rural and urban. Major report of fieldwork: Dingxian shehui gaikuang diaocha (a general social survey of Ding county); first published in 1934 and recently reprinted.

Wang Shengquan.  Chen and Yuan educated him.  His “Big Character Paper” in 1956 or 1957 was a precipitating incident leading to the Anti-Rightist Campaign.  He was sent to the Cadre School.

A chronology

A History of Chinese Sociology, by Zheng Hang-sheng and Li Ying-sheng (China Renmin University Press) includes a fairly detailed appendix listing “Major Events in Chinese Sociology.” Here are a few significant events from the early twentieth century:

  • 1921 Xiamen University established the department of history and sociology — first department of sociology in universities run by the Chinese
  • 1922 Yu Tian-xiu set up “Association of Chinese Sociology” and started Journal of Sociology
  • 1923 Shanghai started the department of sociology; stipulated that the teaching took the theoretical basis of Marxism and Leninism, i.e. historical materialism as its guide.
  • 1924 The Fund Board of Chinese Education and Culture was established in Beijing and the Department of Social Survey was led by Tao Meng-he and Li Jing-han.  Published a large number of findings reports, including Rural Families in the Suburbs of Beiping.
  • 1926 Li Da published Modern Sociology.
  • 1928 Chen Han-sheng conducted three large-scale surveys of rural areas in Hebei, Jiangsu and Guangdong Provinces through the early 1930s.
  • 1930 The department of sociology in Yanjing University established an experimental base at Qinghe Town, where Xu Shi-lian and Yang Kai-dao directed students to survey the population trend, families, bazars, organizations of village and town in Qinghe Town (Google Books link)

The entry for 1957 is laconic:

1957   Inspired by the principle, “let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend” set forth by the Central Committee of the CPC led by Mao Ze-dong, Fei Xiao-tong published an article A Couple of Words about Sociology in Wenhuibao.  Chen Da, Wu Jing-chao and other distinguished sociologists also expressed their opinions about the restoration and reconstruction of Chinese sociology at Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conferences and in influential newspapers or journals in Beijing and Shanghai.  The opinions of the former sociologists evoked big repercussions and attracted the attention of the leaders in departments responsible for the work.  However, when the Anti-Rightist Campaign began, the opinions about restoring and reconstruction of sociology were criticized as part of the plot to restore capitalism, and a number of former sociologists were mistaken for rightists and were persecuted.  From then on, sociology became a restricted academic zone.

The next entry is 1979, 22 years later.

Was Durkheim a professional sociologist?

At some point in the history of sociology there was a transition from the founding non-professional genius to the professional disciplinary researcher. Marx and Tocqueville certainly fall in the former category; Robert Merton, Mayer Zald, and Neil Smelser fall clearly in the latter. By some time in the mid-twentieth century sociology had become “professionalized.” What is the situation of the “professional” sociologist? To what extent and why is this an improvement? And where do Durkheim and Weber fall in this transition?

We might characterize a discipline as —

a complex set of social institutions that organize, validate, and evaluate the work products of knowledge seekers. 

This means several things: organized processes for identifying and ranking important research problems; institutions for selecting and training young scientists; formal processes for evaluating scientific work; institutions for valorizing and disseminating scientific results; and ways of prioritizing certain methods of knowledge formation and discouraging others. As Andrew Abbott shows in Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred, the discipline of sociology is an amalgam of journals and editorial boards, annual conferences, associations, research universities, departments of sociology, tenure processes and standards, and funding mechanisms. And the discipline succeeds to a substantial degree in fostering certain forms of scientific behavior among young sociologists while discouraging other forms. Heterodox researchers and innovators — counter-disciplinary thinkers — have a harder time in building a career in the discipline at every stage: dissertation, job seeking, promotion and tenure, and publication in high-value journals. So we might say that an academic field has become professionalized when it has created the institutions and norms that serve to guide, constrain, and regulate the scientific activities of its practitioners. (Abbott offers an extensive sociology of the professions in The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. And he analyzes academic disciplines in Chaos of Disciplines.  Here is an earlier post on the sociology of the professions.)

We should begin by asking this basic question: why might professionalization of sociology be thought to be a good thing? Why is the formalization of a scientific or academic discipline a good step forward? The answers, if there are any, ought to be epistemic. We’d like to think that the professionalization of science leads to an improvement in the quality of the product — the veridicality, scope, depth, and practical value of the products of the social activity of science. And disciplines might do this in at least two ways.

First, they might serve to embody and enforce standards of scientific rigor; they might give institutional expression to valid methods of scientific research and inference. And on the people side, they might create mechanisms of evaluation of researchers and their products that consistently identify talent and sort out high quality researchers. This promotes the high achievers, motivates everyone, and winnows out the unproductive.

And second, the institutions of a discipline might serve to enhance the collective effectiveness of the research community by establishing and organizing a scientific division of labor; they might serve to focus collective attention on a limited set of problems selected to be important — cognitively or practically. In other words, the rules and norms of the discipline might be epistemically virtuous: they might serve to ratchet up the veridicality and scope of science as a social activity.

But do the norms and institutions of the social science disciplines actually achieve these good results? Not always. In fact, we can identify directly dysfunctional features of the disciplines: a dogmatic insistence on some methods over others, a myopic focus on research problems that are ideologically selected; a tendency to discourage innovators. (See several earlier posts on the negative potential of disciplines in the social and human sciences; sociology, political science.)

So now let’s return to the cases of Tocqueville and Durkheim. How do these beacons of French sociology fare on the spectrum of the academic professions? Tocqueville is the easier case. He was an innovative and rigorous thinker when it came to understanding the social world around him. But he was clearly not a “professional,” for several reasons. He was not immersed in an evaluative framework in the context of which his scientific work was to be judged. His research questions were of his own design, not part of an active community of sociologists with considered judgments about what topics were important. His reasoning about society and history followed his own intuitions about inference and explanation, not a community-based set of norms dictating answers to these questions. There was no professional discipline of sociology in 1835, and Tocqueville was not a professional.

The case of Durkheim is a bit more difficult.  (Steven Lukes’s Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study is a superb critical discussion of Durkheim’s intellectual development (google books).  Robert Nisbet’s The Sociology of Emile Durkheim is also valuable.)  Durkheim was highly credentialed, with degrees from the École Normale Supérieure — and of course credentialing is a crucial component of professionalization. At the same time he was a founder; he was a highly original thinker with his own intuitions about what society consists of and how to research it. This implies that he was a “genius founder” or a sui generis amateur. But he was also embedded within a tradition of thought that was beginning to look more like an emerging discipline of sociology. His thought fit logically and clearly — albeit with originality — into a tradition of teachers and writers like Fustel de Coulanges and Hyppolite Taine — another mark of being part of a discipline or research tradition.  And he distinguished himself from Comte and Spencer by committing himself to specialized studies of particular social phenomena — yet another sign of professionalism (Lukes, 137-38; 289).

And what about publications and external standards of quality assessment? Here again, Durkheim was on the cusp of a transition. He himself was the creator and long-time editor of one of the first sociological journals in 1896, L’Année Sociologique.  His goal was to establish a working collaboration of young sociologists to contribute to the progress and specialization of the new science of sociology.  Other young sociologists associated with the journal included Célestin Bouglé, Marcel Mauss, Henri Hubert, Robert Hertz, Maurice Halbwachs, and François Simiand.  Durkheim was a prolific reviewer of other people’s academic work in the journal (a discipline-like activity), and he did so on the basis of standards that were clearly sociological.  And of course he published numerous important and influential books on different aspects of social order, and these books helped to set the research agenda for French sociology for the next generation — yet another disciplinary activity.

So perhaps we can say that Durkheim played a dual role with respect to sociology as a professional social science. He both contributed to the definition and articulation of a discipline of sociology, and he also fell within that discipline. He was a professional sociologist in the somewhat unusual sense that Bob “Barky” Barkhimer was a professional NASCAR driver: he helped to create the very institutional processes and institutions that would eventually validate his work.

Alternative economists

Traditional neoclassical economics has missed the mark quite a bit in the past two years. There is the financial and banking crisis, of course; neoclassical economists haven’t exactly succeeded in explaining or “post-dicting” the crisis and recession through which we’ve traveled over the past year and more. But perhaps more fundamentally, neoclassical economics has failed to provide a basis for understanding the nuance and range of our economic institutions — nationally or globally. Contemporary academic economics selects a pretty narrow range of questions as being legitimate subjects for economists to study; so topics such as hunger, labor unions, alternative economic institutions, and the history of economic thought generally get fairly short shrift. Don’t expect to see the perspectives of Steven Marglin or Samuel Bowles in Economics 101 in most U.S. universities! The profession has a pretty narrow conception of what “economics” is.

And yet, when intelligent citizens think about the key problems of economics in a broader sense — the problems that we really care about, the problems that will really influence our quality of life — we certainly think of something broader than the mathematics of supply and demand or the solution of a general equilibrium model. We’re ultimately not as interested in the formalisms of market equilibrium as we are in an analysis of the institutions that define the context of economic activity. We want to know more about the ways in which features of economic organization and the basic institutions of our economy influence individual behavior; we are curious about how our institutions create distributive outcomes that fundamentally affect people’s lives differently across social groups. We would like to have a clearer understanding of some of the ways that non-economic factors — race, gender, age, city — influence people’s economic outcomes. We want to know how the institutions and incentives defined by our economic system bring about effects on the natural environment. And we are often curious about how it might be possible to reform our basic economic institutions in ways that are more favorable to human development. In other words, we are often brought to think along the lines of some of the great dissenters in the economics tradition — Polanyi, Dobb, Marx, Sen, McCloskey, and Dasgupta (An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution), for example. (In a very contemporary and topical way, Richard Florida takes on a lot of these issues; see his blog, the Creative Class.)

It is therefore pleasing to find that some publishers like Routledge are bringing out serious academic works in what they refer to as “social economics”. The Routledge series, Advances in Social Economics, has a list of titles representing recent work that is rigorous and insightful but that explores other points of the compass within the field of political economy. I certainly hope that university libraries around the world are paying attention to this series; these are titles that can add a lot to the debate.

One book in the series in particular catches my eye. My colleague Bruce Pietrykowski raises an important set of “alternative” economic issues in his recent book, The Political Economy of Consumer Behavior: Contesting Consumption. (Here is a preview of the book from Routledge.) The book is a valuable contribution and very much worth reading.

Pietrykowski has two intertwined goals in the book. First, he wants to provide a broader basis for understanding consumer behavior and psychology than is presupposed by orthodox economists. And second, he wants to help contribute to a broader understanding of the scope, methods, and content of political economy than is provided by mainstream economics departments today.

Here is his preliminary statement of his goal:

I argue that in order to arrive at a more compelling account of consumer behavior we need to transform the discipline of economics by opening up the borders between economics and sociology, geography, feminist social theory, science studies and cultural studies. (2)

The fact of consumption is a crucial economic reality in any economy. How do individuals make choices about what and how to consume? Pietrykowski makes the point that consumption behavior shows enormous heterogeneity across groups defined in terms of ethnicity, gender, region, and time — a point made here as well (post). So a single abstraction representing the universal consumer won’t do the job. The standard economic assumption of the rationally self-interested consumer with consistent and complete preference rankings is seriously inadequate; instead, we need to develop a more nuanced set of views about the psychological and social factors that influence consumer preferences and choices.

So it is important to develop alternative theoretical tools in terms of which to analyze consumer psychology. Here Pietrykowski draws on ideas from Karl Marx (fetishism of commodities), Amartya Sen, and other political economists who have attempted to provide “thick” descriptions of economic behavior. The point here is not that we cannot usefully investigate and theorize about consumer behavior; rather, Pietrykowski is looking for an analytical approach that operates at the “middle range” between complete formal abstraction and the writing of many individual biographies.

Second, Pietrykowski is interested in contributing to a “re-mapping” of the knowledge system of economic thought, by exploring some of the alternative constructions that have been bypassed by the profession since World War II. (These arguments are largely developed in Chapter Two.) Pietrykowski begins with the assumption that the discipline and profession of economics is itself socially constructed and contingent; it took shape in response to a fairly specific set of theoretical and methodological ideas, it was subject to a variety of social and political pressures, and there were viable alternatives at every turn. Here is how he formulates the social construction perspective:

The claim that economic knowledge is socially constructed allows for an understanding of the field as the outcome of interpretation, negotiation and contestation over the constituents of economic knowledge and the legitimacy of particular practices, methods, and techniques of analysis. (19)

Like Marion Fourcade, Pietrykowski argues that there is a great deal of path dependence in the development of economics as a discipline and profession; and there are identifiable turning points where we can judge with confidence that themes that were eliminated at a certain time would have led to a substantially different intellectual system had they persisted. Pietrykowski’s analysis of the fifty years of development of professional economics in the first half of the twentieth century is a very nice contribution to a contemporary history of science, and very compatible with Fourcade’s important work in Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s.

The discipline of “home economics” in the 1920s and 1930s is the example that Pietrykowski examines in detail. “This task … of defining economics as a distinct professional discipline involved both recruitment and exclusion” (28). Here is how Pietrykowski describes home economics:

Departments of home economics were quite diverse in the early twentieth century. Commonly associated with maintaining and preserving the cult of domesticity, home economics programs emerged from multiple sources including progressive political reform of public health, labor conditions, and household management. (35)

And, of course, home economics did not long remain a part of the professional discipline of economics. Pietrykowski looks in detail at the way in which home economics developed as an academic discipline at Cornell University; and he documents some ways in which the discipline of economics was constructed in a gendered way to exclude this way of understanding scientific economics: “The decision was made that women involved in the emerging field of home economics were to be excluded from the AEA…. Economics was to be concerned neither with women’s activities in the home nor with women’s activities in the workplace” (28-29).

Pietrykowski develops his full analysis of consumption by focusing on three heterodox approaches to understanding consumption: home economics and feminist analysis, psychological and behavioral research on consumer behavior (George Katona), and Fordism and the theory of mass consumption. He also gives some attention to the emerging importance of experimental economics as a tool for better understanding real economic decision-making and behavior (20-25).

After discussing these heterodox theories, Pietrykowski illustrates the value of the broader framework by examining three fascinating cases of consumption: the complex motivations that bring consumers to purchase the Toyota Prius, the motivations behind the Slow Food movement, and the choice that people in some communities have to engage in a system of alternative currency. These are each substantial examples of arenas where consumers are choosing products in ways that make it plain that their choices are influenced by culture, values, and commitments no less than calculations of utilities and preferences.

Between the theories and the cases, Pietrykowski offers a remarkably rich rethinking of how people choose to consume. He makes real sense of the idea that consumption is socially constructed (drawing sometimes on the social construction of technology (SCOT) literature). He demonstrates that models based on the theory of the universal consumer are not likely to fit well with actual economic outcomes. And he makes a strong and persuasive case for the need for academic economics to expand its horizons.

I find it interesting to notice that Pietrykowski’s account of the ascendency of neoclassical economics since the 1950s converges closely with prior postings on positivist philosophy of science. One of the explicit appeals made by neoclassical economists was a methodological argument: they argued that their deductive, formal, and axiomatic treatments of economic fundamentals were more “scientific” than case studies and thick descriptions of economic behavior. So many of the failings of mainstream economic thought today can be traced to the shortcomings of the positivist program for the social sciences that was articulated in the middle of the twentieth century.

History of sociology as sociology

I find the history of various approaches to sociology to be an interesting subject. When we look at the history of the Chicago School of sociology or the positivist-quantitative paradigm of the American 1950s and 1960s, we see a very particular set of intellectual problems and theories; we see personalities and universities; and we see specific prominent social problems that come in for study. And the resulting frameworks of assumptions about topics, scope, and method are very different. So there is a lot of contingency and path-dependency involved in the development of a sociological research tradition. I’ve commented on differences in national approaches to sociology in earlier postings (French sociology, Chinese sociology). Here I’d like to reflect a bit on some of the complexities involved in doing a history of a particular sociological tradition.

Craig Calhoun’s Sociology in America: A History illustrates much of what I find interesting about this subject; the contributors have generally provided fascinating and nuanced insights into some of the main currents of American sociological thinking over the past century or so. George Steinmetz’s contribution, “American Sociology Before and After World War II” is particularly interesting, in that it is both empirical and epistemic. “The burden of my argument in this chapter is to track the postwar narrowing of sociology’s intellectual diversity or, more precisely, the shift from a relative equality between nonpositivist and positivist orientations in terms of scientific prestige to a condition in which positivism as defined here was clearly dominant” (315-6). Andrew Abbott and James Sparrow look at the impact of massive social events on the development of American sociology — the events of World War II. And they treat this question in a rigorously sociological fashion; they examine the institutions, the demography, and the funding mechanisms that influenced the development of sociology in the United States between 1940 and 1955. And Doug McAdam provides a really fascinating and insightful examination of how the social context of the 1960s affected the discipline of sociology. Altogether, the collection represents the best historical sociology of the disciplines of sociology that I’ve seen.

A key foundational question in considering this subject is this: what is the historian of sociology trying to accomplish? What does he/she hope to discover? There are a range of possible questions: Where did the fundamental concepts and methods come from? How were the founders influenced in their theories and methods by prior intellectual frameworks? How did institutions and funding mechanisms influence the particular directions that were taken in the research tradition? How did individual innovators and pathbreakers impose their own innovations into the emerging tradition? How do the concepts and methods reflect background social conditions and events? These are all questions of causation and genesis, and they can be treated empirically — even sociologically.

What is the intellectual standing of this sort of inquiry? What does a good history of the Annales school or the Chicago school tell us? Here are a couple of possibilities.

First, a good history of a concrete sociological tradition may lay out some of the intellectual influences that stimulated thinkers through the formative period–the ideas about science and knowledge, the ideas about what the interesting historical questions are, and even what’s involved in being an iconoclast in the current state of the broader discipline. In the case of the Annales school, the history will likely drill down on the concrete influence wielded by Durkheim, Mauss, and their tradition on the Annales founders; and it will highlight what the founders were reacting against in defining their approach — perhaps the towering influences of Ranke and Michelet. And the history will be attentive to detail — not just the broad brush, but the specific controversies and influences that shaped the development of the field at various points. This aspect of the work converges with the methods and content of intellectual history more generally.

Second, the history of a sociological tradition may give a lot of attention to uncovering the specific institutions of knowledge validation and dissemination that set the context for the founders — the universities, journals, state institutions, funding sources, and academic associations that promoted or impeded the creation of new knowledge. This is core sociology of science, reflecting the recognition that science is a social product and is deeply influenced by the concrete institutions that exist or are subsequently created.

A third component of a history of a sociological tradition might be an account of the historical and social environment in which the tradition takes shape. In the case of the Annales school, the fact that it emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Great War is surely relevant; Marc Bloch’s experience of war and the French army surely had some influence on his development as an historian. Likewise, the Frankfurt school’s development within the jaws of emerging fascism must be relevant to understanding of the social theorists of the school (and of the New School in New York!). And the buoyant optimism of America in the 1950s must play a role in the development of American sociology (e.g. Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties).

But now we’re brought face to face with the crucial questions of validity and truth. We want our sociologies to shed real light on the nature of various social settings. We want sociological results to be validated by empirical investigation. We want sociologists to be in a position to create genuinely innovative ideas and representations of the social world — ideas that genuinely increase our ability to understand society. And therefore we want to avoid any sort of determinism in the realm of scientific inquiry; we want it not to be the case that the sociologist is trapped in the “prison-house” of ideas and social context that surround him/her. Marx’s simple formula, “the hand-mill gives you the feudal lord” (German Ideology) makes scientific knowledge impossible; likewise with Karl Mannheim’s deterministic sociology of knowledge (Ideology And Utopia).

Here is the picture I favor in understanding the evolution of the various traditions of social knowledge (post). There is no such thing as comprehensive social knowledge; there is no general “first theory” that we might aspire to as a universal sociology. Rather, social knowledge takes the form of an indefinite series of sometimes overlapping domains and definitions of knowledge. Some of these give us a better understanding of social factors like race or caste; others focus on agency and constraint; yet others try to discover quantifiable patterns within the social world. So social knowledge is a dynamic and expanding tool box of theories and approaches, each of which adds something to our overall understanding of society.

And if this is our view of social knowledge, then the history of sociology has a very substantial role to play in helping us understand the intellectual and practical path that brought us to various sociological approaches, without undermining the epistemic status of those traditions. There is a lot of contingency in the story; there is an unavoidable incompleteness in the composite mosaic of traditions of inquiry and knowledge; but there are straightforward intellectual strategies that permit us to empirically evaluate the theories and traditions. Criticism, validation, and knowledge are consistent with the fact that specific historical paths led us to the theories we currently possess. Of course, we need to recognize that those traditions could have emerged significantly differently.

This understanding of the relationship between sociology and the history of sociology means, in turn, that we can treat a sociological tradition simultaneously in terms of …

  • the specific sociological and institutional pathways through which it developed and
  • the degree of truth, justification, and insight that it has as a partial representation of the social world.

In other words, an historical sociology of sociology can be both empirical and institutional, and at the same time epistemic and critical. It can shed light on how we got where we are, and on the question of how good are our current understandings of the social world.

Proto social inquiry

We sometimes imagine that the current disciplines and methods of the social sciences represent a more or less inevitable set of approaches to the problem of understanding social phenomena. But really, the latter task is much larger than the specific sets of disciplines and methods we have currently developed. It is worth turning back the dial a bit and reflecting on the intellectual currents that led to contemporary programmes for the social sciences.

Reflective people have been curious about the workings of the social world for as long as they have observed and commented upon the world of actions and institutions that they found around themselves. The Greeks were particularly interested in such things as the causes and outcomes of war (Thucydides), the properties of different kinds of states (Plato), the nature of the family (Aristotle), and so on. Often the focus was on the question of “justice”—the features of social arrangements that were justified on moral grounds. But there are also many examples of philosophers and writers who were interested in the question of the how and why of social life: how does it work, what sorts of causes are at work, and why do certain kinds of outcomes occur (poverty, war, violence)? These reflections often represented systematic thinking and observation, but they did not amount to what we would call “social science” today.

Several important changes occurred in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that created a new impulse towards a different kind of study of the social world. One was eighteenth-century globalization. There was more knowledge available from travelers and colonial administrators about exotic social and familial practices in non-European places. The fact of religious and moral diversity was itself a startling discovery. This set of discoveries demonstrated the unavoidable fact of human social diversity. In the eighteenth century European thinkers raised questions deriving from the observed differences in social orders around the globe; so thinkers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu considered the significance and causes of different patterns of social organization in Europe, the New World, Africa, and Asia. So the questions arose, how do these alternative social orders work, and why are there such wide differences in the first place?

Second was an increasing recognition of the interconnectedness of economic and political life within European societies themselves. The physiocrats and the British political economists began to postulate causal connections between certain kinds of social facts—settlement, trade, extension of agriculture, and law—with certain kinds of outcomes—the creation of the wealth of nations. The physiocrats particularly highlighted the systematic relationships that exist between environment, land, food production, prices, rents, and other forms of economic development. And debates about economic policies in the nineteenth century — debates over the Corn Laws, for example — likewise pointed towards the discovery of previously unobserved causal connections among economic facts.

A third major change carried over into the nineteenth century—the advance of modern industrial production, urbanization, bureaucratic states, class formation, migration, and a recognition of major social changes associated with urbanization and industrialization. These changes, associated with the industrial revolution, set urgent new intellectual challenges to thoughtful observers; why were these changes taking place, and where were they going? Even Hegel expressed theoretical interest in the rise of the bureaucratic state — Shlomo Avineri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State makes a very clear case for the historical and empirical interests that Hegel had, along with his abstract philosophical theory of Right. What would be the consequences for European (or French and English) civilization of these basic seismic shifts in the order of society? Thus, for example, Engels, Tocqueville, and Carlyle all reflected intensely on the meaning of Manchester for the new society (link, link, link).

Fourth, a raft of novel and urgent social problems—destitution, factory safety, crime, widespread hunger, deracination of the majority population, and the creation of enormous cities—loomed large in the emerging interest in creating “sociology.” How could a modern society cope with these problems? (Gareth Stedman Jones’s book Outcast London is particularly interesting for the insights it shed on how nineteenth-century observers, including Alfred Marshall, attempted to understand the problems and changes associated with London’s rapid development.) Parliamentary commissions on conditions of labor, public health, and other important social problems provided an empirical basis for more systematic study by theoretically minded thinkers. The systematic collection of social statistics in turn created an intellectual demand for analysis in the form of the mathematics of probability and statistics. (Ian Hacking’s book, The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference, provides a nice account of some of these developments.)

Finally was the rise of full-blown results in the natural sciences in the nineteenth century—chemistry, electromagnetism, mechanics, geology, and biology. So the idea of studying and explaining the patterns of the social world with the same kinds of “science” was a fairly natural next step. The sudden impact of Darwinian ideas about biological evolution and the origin of species at late century was also important for some early sociologists. Founding social scientists as diverse as Marx, Durkheim, Comte, and Spencer were influenced by the models of empirical and logical rigor associated with positive natural science — sometimes to the detriment of the future development of the social sciences. (See earlier postings on positivism and naturalism for more about these shortcomings.)

The point here is a simple one. The agenda for “understanding society” is an old one, predating the modern social sciences by centuries. And the needs that we have for understanding, explanation, and intervention in the area of complex social processes and problems inherently exceed the scope of the particular efforts we’ve made to date in constructing empirically rigorous social science. We need to keep our eyes open for new problems and new approaches in the social sciences, if we are to do a satisfactory job of understanding and coping with the social issues of the twenty-first century. (See earlier postings on world sociology , French sociology, and Chinese sociology for more thinking about the need for innovation in the social sciences.)

Discipline, method, hegemony in sociology

An earlier post referred to the “Perestroika” debate within political science. There are similar foundational debates within other social science disciplines, including especially sociology. What is particularly striking is not that there are deep disagreements about the methodology and epistemology of sociology — this has often been true within sociology, going back to the methodenstreiten that divided the German-speaking social sciences around the turn of the twentieth century, but rather the degree to which these disagreements have been so divisive and polarizing within the discipline in the U.S. in the past forty years.

Several interesting books that focus on some of these debates within sociology include George Steinmetz, The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others; Immanuel Wallerstein, The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century; Craig Calhoun, Sociology in America: A History; and Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. Andrew Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines is also a very interesting treatment of the sociology of the social science disciplines and the mechanisms through which a discipline defines its boundaries and maintains “discipline”.

In sociology it is possible to map the main fault lines within the discipline in several ways. First, we can distinguish quantitative-statistical research from both qualitative-ethnographic approaches and comparative-historical approaches. (It’s worth observing that this results in a tripartite division of methods rather than the simpler bipolar “quantitative-qualitative” divide. Historical and comparative studies are distinct from statistical studies, but they are also distinguishable from ethnographic interpretations.) Or we can characterize this space in terms of “large-N, small-N, single-N” studies. And we can distinguish broadly among positivist and anti-positivist perspectives; causal and interpretive perspectives; realist and anti-realist perspectives; critical and orthodox perspectives; and there are probably other important dimensions of disagreement as well. In addition to these large divisions among methodological approaches, there are also a large number of frameworks of thought that involve a combination of method and theory — for example, feminist sociology, post-structuralist sociology, critical theory, and post-colonial sociology.

The disputes between these methodological frameworks seem to continue to create large, fractious divides within graduate sociology departments, with advocates for one method or the other claiming virtually exclusive legitimacy. And this struggle for methodological primacy appears to extend to the editorial policies of major sociology journals, association programs, and tenure deliberations. Until fairly recently — the 1990s, let us say — the quantitative-statistical faction held sway as the hegemonic methodological doctrine. Inspired by positivism and the example of the natural sciences and perhaps guided by governmental and foundation funding priorities, quantitative studies were considered most scientific, most rigorous, most objective, and most explanatory. Historical and interpretive studies were treated as “ideographic” or anecdotal — not well suited to discovering important social regularities. And yet it seems apparent that many problems of sociological interest are not amenable to quantitative or statistical research.

Let’s consider for a moment how these issues ought to work — how method, theory, and the world ought to be related. In any area of science there is a range of phenomena that we want to understand. So we need to have tools for investigating the real, empirical characteristics of this stuff, and we aim to arrive at theories that explain the more interesting features of this domain of real phenomena. Finally, we need some intellectual resources on the basis of which to arrive at the desired knowledge — we need some methods of inquiry, some models of theory, and some ideas about the underlying ontology of the phenomena we are studying. So the world exists; we want to gain knowledge and understanding of this world; and we need some tools for investigating and theorizing this world.

But here is the key point: the central focus here is knowledge, not method. Method is a tool for helping us to arrive at knowledge. For any given empirical question there will be a variety of methods on the basis of which to investigate this problem. And ideally, we should select a set of tools that are well suited to the particular characteristics of the problem at hand.

In other words, analysis of the situation of knowledge producers would suggest methodological pluralism. We should be open to a variety of tools and methods, and should design research in a way that is closely tailored to the nature of the empirical problem. And therefore young sociologists — graduate students — should be encouraged to be eclectic in their reading and thinking; they should be exposed to many of the approaches, perspectives, and methods through which imaginative sociologists have addressed their problems of research and explanation.

This general recommendation in favor of pluralism in sociology is strengthened when we consider the fact of the inherent heterogeneity of the social world. (See an earlier posting on this subject.) There is not one single kind of social process, for which there might conceivably be a uniquely best kind of method of inquiry. Rather, the social world consists of a deeply heterogeneous mix of processes, some of which are better suited to an ethnographic or comparative approach, just as other processes may be best studied quantitatively. If one is interested in the topic of corruption, for example — he/she will need to be informed about institutions, culture, principal-agent problems, social psychology, and many other potentially relevant sociological factors. And these researches may well require a combination of statistical analysis, comparison across a select group of cases, and ethnographic investigation in a small number of specific cases and individuals.

In other words, there are very deep arguments supporting the value and epistemic suitability of methodological pluralism. And this in turn suggests that sociology departments are well advised to incorporate a variety of methods and frameworks into their doctoral programs.

Fortunately, it appears that this rethinking is now taking place in a number of top sociology departments in the U.S., and the formerly hegemonic position of quantitative methods is now being challenged by a more pluralistic treatment of methods and frameworks. And this is all to the good: the result will be a better sociology and a better understanding of the heterogeneous, novel, and rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves.

The "dis"-unity of social science

One of the central goals of Vienna Circle philosophy of science was the idea of the unity of science. The idea included at least two separable parts: methodological unity and unity of content under a single system of laws. On the methodological side there was the idea that the logic of explanation and confirmation should be the same in all the empirical sciences. If there were to be differences across disciplines, these should be heuristic rather than epistemic differences. (Jordi Cat provides an extensive discussion of the unity of science doctrine in an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

The more basic goal for unity was the idea of a single comprehensive theory that would, in principle, provide the foundation for the theories of all the special sciences. Physics was the intended foundation, and the goal was to demonstrate that all the fields of the natural sciences could be derived in principle from the laws of physics. For example, the hope was that the properties and laws of chemical elements and molecules should be derivable from fundamental physics.

The reasons for wanting to see a unified physical theory were a preference for parsimony and simplicity and a metaphysical conviction that all of nature must really derive from a single set of fundamental laws.

The fate of the unity of science doctrine can be pursued elsewhere. Here the question is whether there is a similar aspiration for the social sciences. The parallel principle could be stated along these lines: there should be some set of basic facts about individuals in social interactions that is sufficient to permit one to derive all varieties of social behavior, given relevant knowledge about context and boundary conditions.

The attractions of such a unified social science are the same as in the natural science case: parsimony, simplicity, and comprehensiveness. And, in fact, unifying theories for social explanation are sometimes advanced. The most thorough-going attempt is the effort by rational choice theory and microeconomics to unify all social action as the consequence of preference-maximizing individual rationality within constraints.

Attractive as this effort might be from an abstract or aesthetic perspective, it is profoundly misguided when if comes to understanding society. Social phenomena are not the law-governed consequences of a few underlying facts and features of individuals. Rather, they are the contingent and mixed results of an inherently heterogeneous set of motives, psychologies, and institutions. The fundamental problem is that the social world is not a system at all in the natural science sense. Instead, it is the contingent and dynamic sum of a variety of shifting processes and contexts.

A better metaphor for the social world — better than the metaphor of a table of billiard balls governed by the laws of mechanics — is a large urban flea market. The wares on sale on a particular Saturday are simply the sum of the accidents of circumstance that led a collection of sellers to converge on that particular day. There are some interesting regularities that emerge over time — in the spring one finds more used lawnmowers and in times of dearth one finds more family treasures. These regularities require explanation. But they do not derive from some governing “law of flea markets” that might be discovered. Instead, the flea market and the larger society are, alike, simply the aggregate result of large numbers of actions, motives, circumstances, and structures that turn kaleidoscopically and produce patterned but non-lawlike outcomes.

So where does this take us with regard to “unified social science”? It leads us to expect something else entirely: rather than unity, we should expect eclectic theories, piecemeal explanations, and a patchwork of inquiries at a range of levels of description. Some explanatory theories will turn out to be more portable than others. But none will be comprehensive, and the social sciences will always remain open-ended and extensible. Instead of theoretical unification we might rather look for a more and more satisfactory coverage, through a range of disciplines and methods, of the aspects of the social world we judge most interesting and important. And these judgments can be trusted to shift over time. And this means that we should be skeptical about the appropriateness of the goal of creating a unified social science.

(See an earlier posting on “Coverage of the Social Sciences” for more relevant comments on this topic.)

Interview with Mayer Zald

This week I completed an interview and discussion with Mayer Zald in the department of sociology at the University of Michigan. (The interview is part of an ongoing project of mine and is posted on my webpage and on YouTube.) Mayer’s career has been a long and productive one — his first publication was over fifty years ago, and his ideas have shaped quite a bit of the discussion in the past several decades in the fields of social movements and the sociology of organizations. Mayer did his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Michigan in 1961, and has taught at Michigan and Vanderbilt during a long and distinguished career. Mayer was very much influenced by some of the ideas and approaches of the Chicago school of sociology, and these influences persist in his thinking today. As he puts it in the interview, “I was trained as a social psychologist, and George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley were the founding fathers for American social psychology.”

Mayer surprised me at the beginning of the interview by defining social phenomena in terms of “signifying” and communicating — rather than in terms of rationality, purposive behavior, and collective action. Given how important collective action and social movements have been in Mayer’s research, I had expected that strategic behavior and purposive choice would be the organizing concept, but it wasn’t. (He pointed out that rational choice theory doesn’t have a lot of credibility in sociology, though there is a difference between the formalisms of rational choice theory and the more general concept of social action as guided by purposive, intentional agents.)

Like all creative thinkers — in the social sciences and in other fields as well — Mayer continues to think freshly about the puzzles and processes that the social world confronts us with. He continues to wonder whether there are new approaches that might be taken to shed more light on the sociological processes that we observe. For example, Mayer has paid a lot of attention in the past several years to the question of how the methods and approaches of the humanities might be valuable in sociological research.

Mayer also has a very reflective perception of the way in which sociology has developed over the past fifty years, and the ways in which the sub-disciplines have proliferated. And he has taken a fresh look at the question of what counts as “progress” or cumulativeness in the social sciences.

What I find fascinating and valuable about doing these interviews is the insight that comes from talking with a smart, innovative and experienced researcher with a long view of the social science disciplines. Somehow this level of discussion seems very different from reading the scholar’s published work. It is possible to probe into issues that don’t necessarily come into central focus in the published work, and it is possible to watch the gifted scholar’s mind at work. And it is possible to get past the big headlines of the person’s work and dig more deeply into the intellectual challenge of understanding society.

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