Experimental methods in sociology

An earlier post noted the increasing importance of experimentation in some areas of economics (link), and posed the question of whether there is a place for experimentation in sociology as well. Here I’d like to examine that question a bit further.

Let’s begin by asking the simple question: what is an experiment? An experiment is an intervention through which a scientist seeks to identify the possible effects of a given factor or “treatment”. The effect may be thought to be deterministic (whenever X occurs, Y occurs); or it may be probabilistic (the occurrence of X influences the probability of the occurrence of Y). Plainly, the experimental evaluation of probabilistic causal hypotheses requires repeating the experiment a number of times and evaluating the results statistically; whereas a deterministic causal hypothesis can in principle be refuted by a single trial.

In “The Principles of Experimental Design and Their Application in Sociology” (link) Michelle Jackson and D.R. Cox provide a simple and logical specification of experimentation:

We deal here with investigations in which the effects of a number of alternative conditions or treatments are to be compared. Broadly, the investigation is an experiment if the investigator controls the allocation of treatments to the individuals in the study and the other main features of the work, whereas it is observational if, in particular, the allocation of treatments has already been determined by some process outside the investigator’s control and detailed knowledge. The allocation of treatments to individuals is commonly labeled manipulation in the social science context. (Jackson and Cox 2013: 28)

There are several relevant kinds of causal claims in sociology that might admit of experimental investigation, corresponding to all four causal linkages implied by the model of Coleman’s boat (Foundations of Social Theory)—micro-macro, macro-micro, micro-micro, and macro-macro (link). Sociologists generally pay close attention to the relationships that exist between structures and social actors, extending in both directions. Hypotheses about causation in the social world require testing or other forms of empirical evaluation through the collection of evidence. It is plausible to ask whether the methods associated with experimentation are available to sociology. In many instances, the answer is, yes.

There appear to be three different kinds of experiments that would possibly make sense in sociology.

  1. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about features of human motivation and behavior
  2. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about the effects of features of the social environment on social behavior
  3. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about the effects of “interventions” on the characteristics of an organization or local institution

First, sociological theories generally make use of more or less explicit theories of agents and their behavior. These theories could be evaluated using laboratory-based design for experimental subjects in specified social arrangements, parallel to existing methods in experimental economics. For example, Durkheim, Goffman, Coleman, and Hedström all provide different accounts of the actors who constitute social phenomena. It is feasible to design experiments along the lines of experimental economics to evaluate the behavioral hypotheses advanced by various sociologists.

Second, sociology is often concerned with the effects of social relationships on social behavior—for example, friendships, authority relations, or social networks. It would appear that these effects can be probed through direct experimentation, where the researcher creates artificial social relationships and observes behavior. Matthew Salganik et al’s internet-based experiments (20062009) on “culture markets” fall in this category (Hedström 2006). Hedström describes the research by Salganik, Dodds, and Watts (2006) in these terms:

Salganik et al. (2) circumvent many of these problems [of survey-based methodology] by using experimental rather than observational data. They created a Web-based world where more than 14,000 individuals listened to previously unknown songs, rated them, and freely downloaded them if they so desired. Subjects were randomly assigned to different groups. Individuals in only some groups were informed about how many times others in their group had downloaded each song. The experiment assessed whether this social influence had any effects on the songs the individuals seemed to prefer. 

As expected, the authors found that individuals’ music preferences were altered when they were exposed to information about the preferences of others. Furthermore, and more importantly, they found that the extent of social influence had important consequences for the collective outcomes that emerged. The greater the social influence, the more unequal and unpredictable the collective outcomes became. Popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs became less popular when individuals influenced one another, and it became more difficult to predict which songs were to emerge as the most popular ones the more the individuals influenced one another. (787)

Third, some sociologists are especially interested in the effects of micro-context on individual actors and their behavior. Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel offer detailed interpretations of the causal dynamics of social interactions at the micro level, and their work appears to be amenable to experimental treatment. Garfinkel (Studies in Ethnomethodology), in particular, made use of research methods that are especially suggestive of controlled experimental designs.

Fourth, sociologists are interested in macro-causes of individual social action. For example, sociologists would like to understand the effects of ideologies and normative systems on individual actors, and others would like to understand the effects of differences in large social structures on individual social actors. Weber hypothesized that the Protestant ethic caused a certain kind of behavior. Theoretically it should be possible to establish hypotheses about the kind of influence a broad cultural factor is thought to exercise over individual actors, and then design experiments to evaluate those hypotheses. Given the scope and pervasiveness of these kinds of macro-social factors, it is difficult to see how their effects could be assessed within a laboratory context. However, there are a range of other experimental designs that could be used, including quasi-experiments (link) and field experiments and natural experiments (link),  in which the investigator designs appropriate comparative groups of individuals in observably different ideological, normative, or social-structural arrangements and observes the differences that can be discerned at the level of social behavior. Does one set of normative arrangements result in greater altruism? Does a culture of nationalism promote citizens’ propensity for aggression against outsiders? Does greater ethnic homogeneity result in higher willingness to comply with taxation, conscription, and other collective duties?

Finally, sociologists are often interested in macro- to macro-causation. For example, consider the claims that “defeat in war leads to weak state capacity in the subsequent peace” or “economic depression leads to xenophobia”. Of course it is not possible to design an experiment in which “defeat in war” is a treatment; but it is possible to develop quasi-experiments or natural experiments that are designed to evaluate this hypothesis. (This is essentially the logic of Theda Skocpol’s (1979) analysis of the causes of social revolution in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China.) Or consider a research question in contentious politics, does widespread crop failure give rise to rebellions? Here again, the direct logic of experimentation is generally not available; but the methods articulated in the fields of quasi-experimentation, natural experiments, and field experiments offer an avenue for research designs that have a great deal in common with experimentation. A researcher could compile a dataset for historical China that records weather, crop failure, crop prices, and incidents of rebellion and protest. This dataset could support a “natural experiment” in which each year is assigned to either “control group” or “intervention group”; the control group consists of years in which crop harvests were normal, while the intervention group would consist of years in which crop harvests are below normal (or below subsistence). The experiment is then a simple one: what is the average incidence of rebellious incident in control years and intervention years?

So it is clear that causal reasoning that is very similar to the logic of experimentation is common throughout many areas of sociology. That said, the zone of sociological theorizing that is amenable to laboratory experimentation under random selection and a controlled environment is largely in the area of theories of social action and behavior: the reasons actor behave as they do, hypotheses about how their choices would differ under varying circumstances, and (with some ingenuity) how changing background social conditions might alter the behavior of actors. Here there are very direct parallels between sociological investigation and the research done by experimental and behavioral economists like Richard Thaler (Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics). And in this way, sociological experiments have much in common with experimental research in social psychology and other areas of the behavioral sciences.

Youth studies

One of the smaller sub-fields within sociology is “youth studies.” This strikes me as an intriguing area of research, and it seems as though the possible questions for inquiry here have only begun to be tapped. Youth issues have come up in earlier posts, including disaffected youth (link), engaged youth (link), and the problem of knowing how young people think (link).

To begin, why is the category of “youth” an interesting one? Youths are important because they eventually become adults and full participants in all aspects of social life. We would like to understand better what the forces are that influence the psychological and cultural development of young people. It also seems clear that young people of numerous countries embody a shifting set of styles, tastes, vocabularies, and values that are distinct from those of their elders. We would like to understand the pathways of influence through which these styles and values are proliferated. But the youth population is important in its own right. The social movements of Arab Spring were propelled by significant youth movements and activists. The civil rights movement and the anti-war movement on the United States each had major or even preponderant participation by mobilized youth. So the generation of people in their teens and twenties can have major political significance.

Who are the “youth” whom we want to better understand? Is youth a historically constructed category? “Youth” refers to people who are young adults, perhaps from the ages of 15 to 25. These people occupy an interesting position in the life cycle; they are not children, and they are not fully developed adults. Their personalities and characters are still malleable; they can further develop in one direction or another. One teenager latches on to his street pals and slides in the direction of petty crime; another gets very involved in her mosque and pursues higher education. Why are there such large differences within a given cohort? Some researchers use the concept of adolescence as a way of characterizing youth culture. “Youth” is the period of development of young people that falls between adolescence and adulthood. So the development experience is important to understand, and the characteristics of behavior that young people display are crucial.

What is “youth culture”? Marlis Buchmann is one of the contributors to current studies in this area, and his The Script of Life in Modern Society: Entry into Adulthood in a Changing World represents his thinking in an orderly way. He attempts to summarize the main theoretical ideas of the field in his survey article in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (link). Here is how Buchmann defines youth culture:

Youth culture refers to the cultural practice of members of this age group by which they express their identities and demonstrate their sense of belonging to a particular group of young people. The formation of youth culture thus implies boundary drawing. (16660)

Here Buchmann focuses on the forces that create one or more forms of youth culture and style, and he gives most weight to the approach taken by researchers at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, where youth culture is channelized by the class position of the young people who live it.

For the CCCS scholars, youth appeared to offer a special vantage point from which to consider the more general dislocation and fragmentation of the British working class as the structure of Britain’s system of production, labor force, income distribution, and lifestyles was transformed over the course of the post-World War II period. (16658)

This approach doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what one might expect to be the most basic question: what are the pathways through which individual adolescents are formed and developed into one form of youth culture or another? What are the microfoundations of youth culture?

With regard to youth especially, cultural practices such as music, dancing, movies, visual arts (e.g., comics), particular sports (e.g., skateboarding), and fashion (e.g., clothing and hairstyles) are preferred means of expressing a distinct way of life that is recognized by others as a sign and signal of a particular identity and group membership. (16663)

According to the particular needs of social representation, young people may assemble and reassemble stylistic elements of various origins in ever new ways to form distinct styles of juvenile cultural practice. (16663)

Buchmann isn’t very explicit when it comes to characterizing what a youth culture consists of. Is it a set of values — anti-establishment, anarchist, anti-war, suspicious of adults? Is it an ensemble of tastes and styles — punk rockers, skateboards, sideways caps? Is it a complex of motivations and behavioral traits?

One point that Buchmann emphasizes and that resonates with me is the idea that there is a proliferation of youth cultures, not a single or small number of class-defined cultures. There is a substantial element of path dependency in the evolution of a culture within a population, and youth cultures in a place and time evolve dynamically.

Buchmann also highlights the importance of generation or cohort in the formation of youth culture. The experiences of a particular generation of young people have a profound influence on the directions and characteristics of the cultures they create.

It is interesting to learn that James Coleman was one of the contributors to one strand of youth studies. His 1961 The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and its Impact on Education is an interesting treatment of the topics of development and culture. He takes age segregation created by compulsory schooling as a key determinant of the emergence of a separate youth culture in the modern world. 

I find this topic intriguing for two reasons. First, it sheds some light on the dynamic processes through which individuals and cohorts shape their identities. And second, it promises to shed light on important social topics, from disaffection to mobilization.

The street and the ring

Loïc Wacquant offers a fascinating piece of urban ethnography in Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. It is his account of his three-year experience while a sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago of participating in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club, a boxing club for young men who are serious about the sport of boxing on the South Side of Chicago. Wacquant takes the “participant-observer” method seriously — he trains for a Chicago Golden Gloves match, while developing intense relationships with the young black men who do their training at the club and the older experts like DeeDee who coach them.

One thing that is interesting about the book is that it brings together two fairly separate subjects of sociological interest — the social lives of underclass black men, and the “sociology of the body” that focuses on the ways in which skill, dexterity, and persistence interweave with the sport of boxing.  There is an alliance  in both topics with the thinking of Bourdieu.

Here is something of the project of understanding marginalized black Chicago through participation:

Could I grasp and explain social relations in the black ghetto based on my embeddedness in that particular location? My long-term immersion in that little boxing gym and my intensive participation in the exchanges it supported day-to-day have allowed me — in my eyes at least, but the reader can judge for herself on the evidence — to reconstruct root and branch my understanding of what a ghetto is in general, and my analysis of the structure and functioning of Chicago’s black ghetto in post-Fordist and post-Keynesian America at the end of the twentieth century in particular, as well as to better discern what distinguishes this terra non grata from the neighborhoods of relegation of other advanced societies. (x-xi)

Here is how Wacquant thinks about the task of making sociological sense of the sport:

[A sociology of boxing] must instead grasp boxing through its least known and least spectacular side: the drab and obsessive routine of the gym workout, of the endless and thankless preparation, inseparably physical and moral, that preludes the all-too-brief appearances in the limelight, the minute and mundane rites of daily life in the gym that produce and reproduce the belief feeding this very peculiar corporeal, material, and symbolic economy that is the pugilistic world. (6)

And here is a bit of the sociology of the body that Wacquant offers — the phenomenology of being a boxer in training.

To work on the bag is to craft a product, as you would on a lathe, with the crude tools that are gloved as weapon, shield, and target. Finding your distance, breathing, feinting (with your eyes, your shoulders, your hands, your feet), sliding one step to the side to let the bag swing by, catching it again on the fly with a left hook right to the midsection. Not too high and not too wide, so the move can’t be seen coming. Double it up, to the head, with a short, sharp movement. Follow up with a straight right, taking care to turn the wrist over like a screwdriver in order to align your knuckles horizontally at the precise moment of impact. (237-238)

Wacquant finds that immersion in the fight club allowed entry into the social world of marginalized Chicago that is otherwise highly racialized: white observers do not cross easily into the world of marginalized black men.

Being the only white member in the club … could have constituted a serious obstacle to my integration and thus amputated my capacity to penetrate the social world of the boxer, if not for the conjugated action of three compensating factors. First of all, the egalitarian ethos and pronounced color-blindness of pugilistic culture are such that everyone is fully accepted into it so long as he submits to the common discipline and “pays his dues” in the ring. Next, my French nationality granted me a sort of statutory exteriority with respect to the structures of relations of exploitation, contempt, misunderstanding, and mutual mistrust that oppose blacks and whites in America…. Finally, my total “surrender” to the exigencies of the field, and especially the fact that I regularly put the gloves on with them, earned me the esteem of my club-mates, as attested by the term of address “brother Louis” and the collection of affectionate nicknames they bestowed upo me over the months: “Busy Louis,” my ring moniker, but also “Bad Dude,” “The French Bomber,” “The French Hammer” …, and “The Black Frenchman.” (10-11)

The gym is a haven for the young black men who work out there — a place where the dangers and disorder of the surrounding neighborhood are kept at bay.

In this cutthroat neighborhood, where handguns and other weapons are commonplace and “everyone” — according to DeeDee, the club’s head trainer — is walking around with a can of Mace in their pocket for self-defense, purse-snatchings, muggings, battery, homicides, and lesser crimes of all kinds are part of the everyday routine and create a climate of pervasive fear, if not terror, that undermines interpersonal relationships and distorts all the activities of daily life. (22)

Here is a bit of ethnographic description that captures one incident on one day in September, 1990:

Today Tony called the gym from the hospital. Two members of a rival gang shot him on the street not far from here, on the other side of Cottage Grove. Luckily he saw them coming and took off running, but a bullet pierced his calf. He hobbled behind an abandoned building, pulled out his own gun from his gym bag, and opened fire on his two attackers, forcing them to retreat. He says he’d better get out of the hospital real quick because they’re probably out looking for him now. I ask DeeDee if they shot him in the leg as a warning. “Shiit, Louie.! They don’ shoot to injure no leg, they shoot to kill you. If Tony don’ have his gun with him and pull it, they’dave track him down an’ kill him, yeah: he be dead now.” (25)

This could be a scene in The Wire — for example, an ambush planned by two of Avon’s gang members but foiled by Omar:

Two things seem particularly noteworthy in reading Body and Soul. First, the experiences of the three years that Wacquant spent in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club clearly helped to develop his own knowledge of the social reality of marginalized Chicago. There is a world of difference between reading theoretical and empirical studies of urban life, and finding ways of seriously immersing oneself in an urban environment. Wacquant is a better urban sociologist and theorist for the experiences he describes here.

Second, it seems clear that some specific insights into daily life in marginalized black neighborhoods in Chicago emerge from this experience. The prevalence of violence on the street, the strategies people arrive at to avoid being victims of violence, the social distance that exists between 63rd Street and Michigan Avenue — these are all valuable insights that contribute to a better sociological understanding of the city.

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.


Raymond Aron as historian of sociology



How can we best tell the story of the development of sociology as an empirical social science? Raymond Aron undertook to do so in Main Currents in Sociological Thought (2 volumes) by reviewing the main sociological ideas of the greats: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Pareto, and Weber. The book was first published in France in 1965 as Les étapes de la pensée sociologique, and in its English translation in the United States in the same year. Much has changed in sociology in the intervening half century; so how does Aron’s work hold up? Is this still a valuable approach? And can we learn something important about the thinking of these particular sociologists, or about sociology more generally, by re-reading Aron? 

Here is one aspect of his approach that is distinctly dated: Aron attempts to place post-war sociology within a space defined by Soviet sociology and academic American sociology.

Marxist sociology is essentially an inclusive interpretation of modern societies and of the evolution of social types. The primary object of sociological investigation, according to our colleagues in Moscow, is the discovery of the fundamental laws of historical evolution….  A sociology of the Marxist kind is synthetic, in the sense that Auguste Comte assigned to this term: it comprehends the whole of each society; unlike the specific social sciences, it is distinguished by its all-encompassing design. It seems to grasp society in its totality, rather than any particular aspect of society. (2-3) 

American sociology reveals, in general, exactly the opposite characteristics. American sociologists, in my own experience, never talk about laws of history, first of all because they are not acquainted with them, and next because they do not believe in their existence…. American sociology is fundamentally analytical and empirical; it proposes to examine the way of life of individuals in the societies with which we are familiar. Its energetic research is aimed at determining the thoughts and reactions of students in a classroom, professors in or outside their universities, workers in a factory, voters on election day, and so forth. American sociology prefers to explain institutions and structures in terms of the behavior of individuals and of the goals, mental states, and motives which determine the behavior of members of the various social groups. (5) 

These two schools … do not include the whole of what is practiced all over the world under the name of sociology. But these two schools, which are the most typical ones, form the opposite poles between which fluctuates what is called sociology today. (6)

This is obviously simplistic; it is a Cold War interpretation of sociology that doesn’t hold up well for the subsequent several decades of research and theory development in the disciplines of sociology. But what about the substantive accounts he offers of these seven theorists? Here are a few snippets:


Montesquieu was much more of a sociologist than Auguste Comte. The philosophical interpretation of sociology present in The Spirit of the Laws is much more “modern” than the same interpretation in the writings of Auguste Comte…. I do not consider Montesquieu a precursor of sociology, but rather one of its great theorists. (13) 

What is [Montesquieu’s] aim? Montesquieu made no secret of it. His purpose was to make history intelligible. He sought to understand historical truth. But historical truth appeared to him in the form of an almost limitless diversity of morals, customs, ideas, laws, and institutions. His inquiry’s point of departure was precisely this seemingly incoherent diversity. The goal of the inquiry should have been the replacement of this incoherent diversity by a conceptual order. (14)


Marx’s thought is an analysis and an interpretation of capitalistic society in terms of its current functioning, its present structure, and its necessary evolution. (149) 

What is the basis of this antagonism characteristic of capitalist society? It is the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. The bourgeoisie is constantly creating more powerful means of production. But the relations of production — that is, apparently, both the relations of ownership and the distribution of income — are not transformed at the same rate. The capitalist system is able to produce more and more, but in spite of this increase in wealth, poverty remains the lot of the majority. (151) 

The aim of his science is to provide a strict demonstration of the antagonistic character of capitalist society, the inevitable self-destruction of an antagonistic society, and the revolutionary explosion that will put an end to the antagonistic character of modern society. (153) 

In my opinion, the center and the originality of Marxist thought lies precisely in this avowal of a necessity which is, in a sense, human but at the same time transcends all individuals. Each man, acting rationally in his own interest, contributes to the destruction of the interest common to all. (173)


Tocqueville is a comparative sociologist par excellence; he tries to determine significance by comparing types of societies belonging to the same species. Now, since I personally consider the essential task of sociology to be precisely this comparison of types within the same species, I feel it is worthwhile to set forth briefly the leading ideas of a man who in Anglo-Saxon countries is regarded as one of the greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century, … and yet who, in France, has always been neglected by sociologists. (238)

Each volume closes with a sort of “conclusion” — the first volume in the form of a discussion of how Marx and Tocqueville understood the Revolutions of 1848, and the second in the form of a substantive comparison of Durkheim, Pareto, and Weber.

So how does Aron’s history of sociological thought measure up? His chapter on Marx is a very good exposition of Marx’s key ideas — historical materialism, exploitation, alienation, and the relationships that exist between Marx’s thought and his predecessors.  There is also a serious effort to see how these ideas relate to the current (post-war) realities of capitalism in Europe and North America. For example, he explores how the workings of the modern corporation relate to the theories of private property that Marx presupposes (200 ff.). This ninety-page chapter serves as a very good introduction to Marx’s thinking as a social scientist.

Likewise, Aron’s discussions of the other figures he treats are stimulating and insightful and give an accurate presentation of the sociologist’s thought. His discussions of Durkheim and Weber are particularly good. This kind of discursive summary and discussion of the theories is valuable for the reader who is just beginning his or her study of the great figures of sociological theory.

What the work does not provide is a view of the sociology of knowledge that might be pertinent to these theories — what problematics the thinkers were driven by, what assumptions they made about the empirical investigation of a contingent social reality, and how they fit into their contemporary research communities. The theories are treated as finished systems rather than bodies of thought that developed out of consideration of particular problems of social understanding. Partly this may reflect the fact that these “founders” were not actually “professional” social scientists and were often driven by issues deriving from large philosophical theories as much as they were guided by specific empirical problems.

The question of how to define “a science of society” is a deeply important one, and it would be very interesting to try to interpolate answers to this question into Aron’s narrative. In this respect Steven Lukes’s intellectual biography of Durkheim, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study, provides a much more probing examination of this issue in Durkheim’s thought and context.

(Here is an earlier post on the discipline of the history of sociology, here is a post on Durkheim’s status as a “professional” sociologist, and here is a post on the development of sociology in France after World War II. Here is a short biographical sketch of Aron’s professional life provided by the European Graduate School; link.)

Marketing Wittgenstein

Who made Wittgenstein a great philosopher?  Why is the eccentric Austrian now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers? What conjunction of events in his life history and the world of philosophy in the early twentieth century led to this accumulating recognition and respect?

We might engage in a bit of Panglossian intellectual history (“everything works out for the best!”) and say something like this: The young man Wittgenstein was in fact exceptionally talented and original, and eventually talent rises to the attention of the elite in a discipline or field of knowledge. But this is implausible in even more ordinary circumstances. And the circumstances in which Wittgenstein achieved eminence were anything but ordinary. His formal training was in engineering, not philosophy; his national origin was Austria, not Britain; his early years were marked by the chaos of the Great War; his personality was prickly and difficult; and his writings were as easily characterized as “peculiar” as “brilliant”.

The idea of a “field” introduced by Bourdieu in The Field of Cultural Production is particularly helpful in addressing this topic. (Here is a post that discusses the idea of a field; link.) The field of philosophy at a given time is an assemblage of institutions, personages, universities, journals, and funding agencies.  The question of whether an aspiring young philosopher rises or languishes is a social and institutional one, depending on the nature of his/her graduate program, the eminence of the mentors, the reception of early publications and conference presentations, and the like.  Indicators and causes of rising status depend on answers to questions like these: Are the publications included in the elite journals? Are the right people praising the work?  Is the candidate pursuing the right kinds of topics given the tastes of the current generation of “cool finders” in the profession? This approach postulates that status in a given profession depends crucially on situational and institutional facts — not simply “talent” and “brilliance”. And in many instances, the reality of these parameters reflexively influence the thinker himself: the young philosopher adapts, consciously or unconsciously, to the signposts of status.

Neil Gross’s biography of Richard Rorty (Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher) provides a great example of careful analysis of a philosopher’s career in these terms (link). Gross provides a convincing account of how the influence of the field’s definition of the “important” problems affected Rorty’s development, and how the particular circumstances of the Princeton department affected his later development in an anti-analytic direction.  Camic, Gross, and Lamont provide similar examples in Social Knowledge in the Making, including especially Neil Gross and Crystal Fleming’s study of the evolution of a conference paper.

So what was the “field” into which Wittgenstein injected himself in his visits to Frege and Russell?  Here is a point that seems likely to me from the perspective of 2012: the “field” of analytic philosophy in 1905 was substantially less determinate than it was from 1950 to 1980.  This fact has two contradictory implications: first, that this indeterminacy made it more possible for an “oddball” philosopher to make it to the top; and second, that it made it more unlikely that talent would be consistently identified and rewarded.  The relative looseness of the constraints on the field permitted “sports” to emerge, and also made it possible that highly meritorious thinkers would be overlooked.  (So the brilliant young metaphysician studying philosophy at the University of Nebraska in 1908 might never have gotten a chance to move into the top reaches of the discipline.)

What were some of the situational facts that contributed to Wittgenstein’s meteoric rise? One element seems clear: Wittgenstein’s early association with Bertrand Russell beginning in 1911, and the high level entrée this provided Wittgenstein into the elite circles of philosophy at Cambridge, was a crucial step in his rise to stardom. And Wittgenstein’s status with Russell was itself a curious conjunction: Wittgenstein’s fascination with Frege, aspects of Tractatus that appealed to Russell, and Wittgenstein’s personal intellectual style.  But because of this association, Wittgenstein wasn’t starting his rise to celebrity in the provinces, but rather at the center of British analytic philosophy.
Another element is one that was highly valued in Cambridge culture — the individual’s conversational skills. Simply being introduced into a circle of eminent thinkers doesn’t assure eminence. Instead, it is necessary to perform conversationally in ways that induce interest and respect. LW was apparently charismatic in an intense, harsh way. He was passionate about ideas and he expressed himself in ways that gave an impression of brilliant originality.  He made a powerful impression on the cool-finders.
And then there are his writings — or rather, his peculiar manuscript, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

One could easily have dismissed the manuscript as a mad expression of logicism run wild, with its numbered paragraphs, its dense prose, and its gnomic expressions. Or one could react, as Russell did, with understanding and fascination. But without the reputation created by the reception of TLP, Wittgenstein would never have gotten the chance to expose the equally perplexing and challenging thinking that was expressed in Philosophical Investigations (3rd Edition).  In fact, almost all of LW’s written work is epigrammatic and suggestive rather than argumentative and constructive. When there is insight, it comes as a bolt from the blue rather than as a developed line of thought.

So what if we test out this idea: a verbally brilliant man, a charismatic interlocutor, a person with original perspectives on philosophical topics and methods — but also a figure who benefited greatly from some excellent marketing, some influential patrons, and some situationally unusual lucky breaks. Had Russell been less patient, had publishers found TLC too weird for their liking, had Moore been less open-minded about Wittgenstein’s PhD defense — then analytical philosophy might no longer remember the name “Wittgenstein”. This interpretation of Wittgenstein’s stature suggests something more general as well: there is an enormous dollop of arbitrariness and contingency in the history of ideas and in the processes through which some thinkers emerge as “canonical”.
Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar provide an excellent introduction to Wittgenstein’s philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).


Sociologists on race

It is apparent that society in the United States is racialized in deep ways that greatly disadvantage the African-American population in the country, from health to longevity to education level to income and wealth levels. The disparities in all these areas of life are well documented (for example, here). Moreover, they seem to be more durable and intractable than those that exist for other ethnic and national minorities in the US.

It is crucial that the social and behavioral sciences do a better job of diagnosing the dynamics and the structural realities of race in the United States.  If we are to reverse these patterns of injustice, we need to understand better how they work.

One key mechanism producing these racial disparities is the continuing fact of residential segregation by race. Elizabeth Anderson, a highly accomplished philosopher at the University of Michigan makes this argument and its consequences very clearly in The Imperative of Integration.  Here is her central finding (summarizing a great volume of social science research):

Segregation of social groups is a principal cause of group inequality. It isolates disadvantaged groups from access to public and private resources, from sources of human and cultural capital, and from the social networks that govern access to jobs, business connections, and political influence. It depresses their ability to accumulate wealth and gain access to credit. It reinforces stigmatizing stereotypes about the disadvantaged and thus causes discrimination. (2)

And here is how Anderson summarizes her conclusions:

I have argued that integration is an indispensable goal in a society characterized by categorical inequality.  It is necessary to block and dismantle the mechanisms that perpetuate unjust social inequality, and to realize the promise of a democratic state that is equally responsive and accountable to citizens of all identities. (180)

Two areas of the social sciences pay particular attention to race in society. One is social psychology, where experts like Claude Steele and many others engage in theoretical and empirical work investigating how people think and act with respect to racial features of the social environment. Steele’s studies of stereotype threat are an important example here (Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do).

But it is sociologists who have given the most comprehensive studies of race in American society. And here it is crucial to observe that there are several fairly different paradigms of thought that have guided sociological thinking about race.

One tradition has tried to frame issues of race within a more general framework of ethnic and cultural groups. The Chicago School of sociology gave voice to this approach, including especially Robert Ezra Park (Race and culture). The idea here is that groups enter society, they struggle for a while, and they eventually assimilate to positions of approximate equality in a complex and open society. The paradigm draws on the experience of various immigrant groups in American history. Distinct ethnic and cultural groups are a fact of life, and the goal of policy should be to find ways of cultivating harmonious relations among them. This is the “race relations” paradigm.

Stephen Steinberg argues in Race Relations: A Critique that this tradition started us off on the wrong foot and has made it more difficult to discover the social realities of the race system in the United States:

While the term “race relations” is meant to convey value neutrality, on closer examination it is riddled with value. Indeed, its rhetorical function is to obfuscate the true nature of “race relations,” which is a system of racial domination and exploitation based on violence, resulting in the suppression and dehumanization of an entire people over centuries of American history. (kindle location 203)

Another important paradigm of race theory begins in a very different place. It emphasizes the inequalities of power and opportunity between majority society and the African-American population over time and it highlights the power relations through which these inequalities have been maintained from slavery through Jim Crow laws into the modern system. Robert Blauner’s Racial Oppression in America offered an important instance of this approach in 1972. This perspective emphasizes the violence and domination that has been the face of the US racial system between white and black citizens. This we can call the “racial domination” paradigm.

The first paradigm fails to pay enough attention to the coercive aspects of the race system in the United States and tends to be “accomodationist”. The second framework emphasizes the role that violence and oppression played (and play) in the subordination of African-American people in many important social structures.  Both frameworks pay attention to the role that prejudice and overt discrimination play in the racial disparities we currently observe, but the second paradigm gives greater attention to domination and a structure of systemic exclusion that is part of the history of race in the United States.  Michelle Alexander’s recent The New Jim Crow is a very good contribution to the second perspective.

An important effort to make a new beginning within sociology on understanding race in the United States has been offered by Michael Omi and Howard Winant in their presentation of racial formation theory in Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s.  Winant summarizes much of this new thinking in a review article, “Race and Race Theory,” published in Annual Review of Sociology in 2000.  Here is the text of the article that is posted on Winant’s research webpage.

History and contemporary social realities require that we come to grips with race more honestly than we have in most of our past in the United States. This in turn mandates that we honestly confront the permanent ongoing costs that racialized social structures, including segregation, have imposed on African Americans in the US. We need to have an intellectual framework and narrative that honestly faces these facts, and we need to resolve to correct these injustices within a reasonable period of time.

Race and the Chicago School

The Chicago School of sociology has often gotten a fair amount of credit for bringing the study of race into the academic discipline of sociology in the early decades of the twentieth century. Robert Ezra Park, in particular, is taken as a pioneer with his theories of a “race relations cycle”, his work with Booker T. Washington, and his sponsorship of some of the first African American PhD students in American sociology. But Stephen Steinberg gives this history a very different interpretation in Race Relations: A Critique. His book provides a basis for a different “sociology of sociology” from that offered by Andrew Abbott inDepartment and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred.

Steinberg begins his account with the presidential address of Everett Hughes in 1963 at the American Sociological Association — a momentous year in civil rights history. This was the central question posed by Hughes:

Why did social scientists — and sociologists in particular — not foresee the explosion of collective action of Negro Americans toward immediate full integration into American Society? (kl 119)

How indeed, did sociology miss these key features of American life and inequality in its formative years in the early part of the twentieth century? This is an important core question for the sociology of knowledge: how did theorizing about race enter American sociology? And what social and institutional factors influenced the shape that theorizing took?

Steinberg believes there were very powerful forces within leading American universities, including historically black universities, that shaped the discourse away from “radical” views of the facts of racial oppression in the United States. Boards of trustees were populated by members of the business elite, and significant funding flowed to universities through foundations whose officers had their own views of how the facts of race should be presented. Radical and strident views of endemic racial inequalities were unwelcome, and “unwelcome” could mean the end of an academic career.  Steinberg draws attention to the case of Edward Bemis, a young economist who was critical of the power of the private owners of utility companies. “The Chicago gas trust retaliated by denying the university cut-rate prices so long as Bemis remained on the faculty” (kl 496) — an example of the use of economic power to shape the intellectual content of the university.

Essentially, Steinberg’s argument amounts to a severe critique of the orientation towards race in the formative framing of the topic of race in Chicago sociology, including especially Robert Park. The core phrase was “race relations.”

While the term “race relations” is meant to convey value neutrality, on closer examination it is riddled with value. Indeed, its rhetorical function is to obfuscate the true nature of “race relations,” which is a system of racial domination and exploitation based on violence, resulting in the suppression and dehumanization of an entire people over centuries of American history. (kl 203)

To frame the topic of race around “race relations” is to de-dramatize the situation of discrimination, exploitation, violence, domination, and racism that characterize race in the United States — including Chicago in the 1910s. The frame of “race relations” suggests that the issue is fundamentally one of separate racial and ethnic communities whose relations need to be guided and managed. And this framework leads the sociologist’s eye away from the underlying facts of oppression and discrimination that set the stage for life for African Americans, from slavery through reconstruction and through Jim Crow. These conditions of inequality, discrimination, and violence were visible to the common observer; but they became invisible in sociology. Steinberg refers to this as an epistemology of ignorance (kl 518).

Much of Steinberg’s account takes the form of a sociological biography of Robert Parks, in some ways similar to Neil Gross’s treatment of Rorty (link). Steinberg wants to understand how the fiery voice that Park expressed in his pre-academic journalism in support of the Congo Reform Association was transformed into the quietistic, non-engaged sociologist of Hyde Park. And his theory is a combination of personal calculation and institutional constraint: calculation about what kinds of theoretical expressions would forward his career, and institution constraint about how a more engaged and truthful Park would have fared within the discipline of sociology (not well!). The collateral idea of “objectivity” in social science comes into the story as well. It gives an apparently scientific basis for rejecting activist or radical scholarship, on the grounds that the researcher is advocating rather than observing. 

An important formative influence on Park was his seven-year service as publicist and speech writer for Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. Steinberg believes that Washington’s ameliorativist view of the situation of African Americans was fundamental to the framing that Park would give to race at the University of Chicago.

Did Park give scholarly exposition to Washington’s accommodationist logic, whose central feature was the avoidance of conflict and acceptance of the racial status quo? Is this why sociology failed to confront, much less oppose, racial oppression? Does this bring us closer to understanding why sociology failed to anticipate the Civil Rights Revolution? (kl 355)

It is important to note that Steinberg does not maintain that more truthful perspectives were unavailable or unimagined.

Whether black scholars remained behind or in front of the veil, there emerged a black radical tradition–sometimes muffled, at other times assertive–that has challenged the main currents of thought on race and racism among mainstream sociologists. (kl 163)

There were such voices — W.E.B. Du Bois, Oliver Cox, or C.R.L. James, for example — but they did not come to set the stage for race analysis in sociology because of their activism and their association with Marxism.

Steinberg believes that Park was influential within sociology, not because of the originality of his ideas about race, but because those ideas fit with the assumptions of the powerful men and institutions who governed universities:

It is not my contention that, minus Park, the historiography of race would have been fundamentally different. After all, Park was hired precisely because he was in sync with the prevailing intellectual and ideological currents, and and without Park, some other person would have emerged to serve as the exemplar of the race relations school. A likely prospect was W. I. Thomas, who had staked out a position similar to Park’s in his paper on “Education and Cultural Traits” at the conference on the Education of Primitive Man. (kl 436)

Steinberg notes this great historical irony: Hughes had written a negative review of Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race in 1948; and the same issue of Phylon included a recollection of Du Bois by Herbert Aptheker, writing “We must agitate, complain, protest and keep protesting against the invasion of our manhood rights; we must besiege the legislature, carry our cases to the court and above all organize these million brothers of ours into one great fist which shall never cease to pound at the gates of opportunity until they fly open” (kl 168). So Hughes had in fact been exposed to the elements of sociological thinking that a more realistic approach to race in America would require; he had simply not recognized it.

(Tom Sugrue has a very good review of Steinberg and several other recent books in The Nation.)

Making Peter Berger

Peter Berger declared himself a humanistic sociologist throughout much of his career, including in his important book with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. This isn’t exactly a common identification for an American sociologist in the 1950s. So how did he get there?

This is an interesting question in its own right, since Berger has had significant influence at various points in the nearly fifty years since the publication of Social Construction. But it is also interesting in the context of the theorizing offered by Neil Gross about intellectual itineraries and the situation of the intellectual within a social and personal context.  Gross’s case study of the development of Richard Rorty’s career as a philosopher is a brilliant case study within this approach (link).  So it is interesting to consider how this perspective might play out in a treatment of Berger.

An important source for considering this question is Berger’s intellectual autobiography, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore, published at the latter end of his career in 2011. 

A major part of Berger’s intellectual development was his training in the PhD program in sociology at the New School for Social Research in the early 1950s. He describes this experience in a fair amount of detail.  The New School in the 1950s was a central locus for European sociology in the United States, and Berger absorbed much of the frameworks of thought associated with Weber, Durkheim, and phenomenology.  One important influence on him there was Alfred Schutz:

I suppose that the central concept I learned from Schutz was that of “multiple realities,” including the manner in which a sense of reality is kept going in the consciousness of individuals. (19)

One sociological constant throughout Berger’s self concept as an academic is his adherence and dedication to the ideas of Weber: “The only orthodoxy to which I continued to adhere was a Weberian understanding of the vocation of social science” (76).  Here is his thumbnail description of what Weber meant to him:

Thus I early on identified with the core elements of a Weberian approach: society as constituted by actions inspired by human meanings; sociology as the attempt to understand these meanings (Verstehen); the use of “ideal types”–theoretical constructs that only approximate social reality; the relation among meanings, motives, and actions; the institutionalization of the state, the economy, and class; and sociology as “value-free.” (23)

By this feature perhaps we can say that Berger’s thinking proceeded within one of the dominant paradigms or intellectual frameworks of European sociology; so not “counter-hegemonic”.  But it is also the case that his early influences at the New School were not “mainstream” sociology in America.  Berger describes his own allergy to quantitative sociological research (“Years later I took a summer course in statistical analysis at the University of Michigan. It was a disaster;” 26), and he didn’t fit neatly into the emerging contours of cutting-edge sociology in America in any of its versions.

Another aspect of his formation as a sociologist was his experience in the US Army as a draftee immediately following the completion of his PhD in 1954.  He asserts that the experience of living and training with men from a broad cross-section of American society gave him a sensibility to the variations of experience, values, and aspirations that exist in our society.  And the accidental experience he had of serving as a clinical social worker in the Army gave him an understanding of the power of extensive interviews in furthering sociological understanding of ordinary life.

What I had not anticipated was that my new assignment would turn out to be a unique learning experience — not about the actual business of the clinic (though that too was quite interesting), but about America. Thanks to the US Army, I received precisely the education that I had sought in studying sociology and that the New School was unable to provide. (47)

A key part of Berger’s originality in the field is the idea of a “humanistic” sociology.  What does he mean by this?  He consistently offers two ideas: debunking illusions and lies, and linking sociological research to the modes of reasoning in the humanities. Here is how he characterizes the “humanistic” version of sociology:

The term humanistic in the subtitle of Invitation to Sociology had two meanings. It suggested that the methodology of sociology should place the discipline close to the humanities — specifically literature, history, and philosophy.  Of course that is the sort of methodology I obtained at the New School. But the term also suggested that the discipline could serve a liberating purpose — to free individuals from illusions and to help make society more humane. …

Sociology derives its moral justification from its debunking of the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression.  Significantly, I singled out racial persecution, the persecution of homosexuals, and capital punishment, the ultimate cruelty.  Sociology liberates by facilitating a standing outside one’s social roles … and thereby a realization of one’s freedom. At the end of the book I use a metaphor that has become widely known: Sociology suggests that we are puppets of society, but unlike puppets we can look up and discover the strings to which we are attached, and this discovery is a first step toward freedom. (75)

Sociology is akin to comedy because it debunks the social fictions. By the same token it is potentially liberating. It shows up the “bad faith” by which individuals hide behind their roles and forces them to confront the reality of their own freedom. (72)

Berger attributes at least a part of his conviction about these two aspects of sociology to his experience of teaching as a young instructor in the segregated South:

These experiences help to explain why, a few years later, I wrote about sociology as having a “humanistic” purpose in unmasking the murderous ideologies underlying the death penalty, racism, and the persecution of homosexuals. (64)

His sociological research originated in the sociology of religion, and he continued to write on this topic throughout his life. Why so?  And how does this interest intersect with his frequent self-ascription of “theologian”?

The sociology of religion is certainly a core Weberian topic for historical sociology, so the fact that Berger identifies strongly with Weber may partially explain his choice of the topic.  But this doesn’t seem right, given Berger’s narrative in Adventures.  Berger’s interest in the topic seems more religiously inspired; he refers frequently to his own “theological” approach.  He writes repeatedly about his own movement across the landscape of Christian belief:

I was writing [my first novel] at a time when my emancipation from my youthful neo-orthodoxy had made me consider seriously whether I would now have to define myself as an agnostic if not an atheist. (86)

It was the question of theodicy that had brought me close to abandoning my Christian faith. (86)

So it seems likely that his own religious needs were an important part of his desire to write about religious experience.

Here is how he describes the intellectual framework that he and Luckmann conceived of in preparation for writing a book on the sociology of knowledge — which eventually became Social Construction:

Specifically, we came to undertake a synthesis of several strands of theory that have often been understood as contradictory: the so-called voluntaristic approach commonly attributed to Max Weber, which emphasized that society is created by the meaningful acts of individuals; the approach, strongly represented by the Durkheimian school of French sociology, that emphasized social institutions as facets that resist the acts of individuals; and, finally, the tradition of American social psychology, mostly deriving from George Herbert Mead, which studied the way in which individuals are socialized into their roles. (81)

This gives something of an idea of Berger’s core ideas as a sociological theorist and researcher — his intellectual agenda.  But how did Berger relate to the discipline, and the status structure, of American sociology itself?  Berger writes frequently inAdventures about his distance from the mainstream:

I had realized by now how marginal I was to the mainstream of American sociology, and after all, I was nursing dreams of building an empire with our new approach to sociological theory. (85)

His marginality took various forms: a PhD in a decidedly heterodox and non-elite graduate program, teaching appointments in a series of non-elite institutions, and none of the early indicators of “star” status that the discipline of sociology had to offer (elite grants and fellowships, book prizes, etc.).  He notes that a book that he is especially proud of, Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, was ignored by the professional world of sociology when it appeared in 1963; and with evident satisfaction, he notes as well that it went on to sell well over a million copies.  And he is also frank about his aspirations:

I wanted out of Hartford, not because I was unhappy there but because (perhaps misguidedly) I wanted to be in a proper Sociology Department, with graduate students in sociology.  Thus Invitation to Sociology had a subtext, a plea to fellow sociologists: Please invite me! (76)

He is equally frank in describing the striking success and influence of Social Construction: “Someone suggested that it was the most read sociology book written in the twentieth century. That is doubtful. But the book was widely noticed right after publication in America and elsewhere as foreign translations appeared” (89).  The book had wide appeal, and Berger was gratified that this was so.  But it did not result in his becoming one of the leading stars of the sociology world.

Here is how he characterizes his intellectual location, within the field of American sociology in the 1960s. in a reflection on the possible influence of Social Construction:

For just a few years after 1966 there was a narrow window of opportunity for our approach to sociology, since especially younger colleagues were disillusioned by the double dominance of so-called structural-functional theory and quantitative methodology; hence the initially favorable reception of the book. But then, almost immediately afterward, there occurred “an orgy of ideology and utopianism” with which neither Luckmann nor I could identify. (91)

(Essentially he is referring here to the sweeping appeal of the New Left and Post Modernism in the academic world and among students.  These were movements to which he was strongly opposed.)

In other words, the intellectual framework which Berger and Luckmann hoped to create in the 1960s did in fact come into coherent focus in Social Construction; but the opportunity to genuinely shift the focus of the field came and went.  He disparages two offshoots that might be thought to be intellectual descendants or cousins — ethnomethodology (Garfinkel) and constructivism (Foucault and Derrida) (93 ff.).

And he concludes that he never did become a part of the elite leadership group of American sociology:

As the years went by, I was even assigned the role of a grand (even if definitely out-of-style) old man. But I became an exile, not only from my parochial alma mater [the New School] but from the wider elite culture. Given the nature of the latter, this has not been such a bad thing. (108)

So there seem to be several important strands to this intellectual autobiography. First, Berger gives a strong impression of the importance of what Gross refers to as “self-concept” in the development of his ideas and theories in sociology.  His religious beliefs and questions, his personal rejection of racism and homophobia, and his original and guiding thought about “multiple realities” seem to have guided many of the choices that he made in his academic life.

Second, there is the strand of “academic field” and the constraints and incentives which the field creates for the young scholar — the insight that drives Bourdieu’s understanding of the development of an academic field.  These ambitions and aspirations are plainly important to Berger at various points in the narrative, and they led to some significant choices in his academic life.  But the opportunism that is associated with the Bourdieuian concept seems largely absent in the development of Berger’s academic career through middle age.  Even the “exile” that he describes, from the New School to Rutgers, stemmed from choices he made that arose from his self concept in attempting to redirect the Department of Sociology when he became chair.

And finally, Berger never did reach the pinnacle of elite status that Rorty did in philosophy or Kenneth Arrow did in economics.  In his own assessment, the intellectual tides of the field passed him and his insights by.

In other words, Berger’s intellectual trajectory seems to follow largely from his self concept, and the ideas and movements of thought that were personally important to him, and very little from his calculating assessment of how best to move upward in the status structure of the discipline.  He was fully aware of that structure; but he seems not to have deviated from the course his own values and convictions set him upon.

(Here’s a very critical and worthwhile review of Adventures in The Global Sociology Blog. The review opens with these words: “Well, it is not often that I dislike a book as much as I did Peter Berger’s Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist.”  SocProf is highly critical of the conservative trend that Berger’s thought and affinities took in the 1970s and later, and he argues that this turn leads Berger to eliminate the most crucial parts of the sociological challenge: race, class, gender, and power.  A lot of the Global Sociology review has to do with the later parts of Berger’s intellectual course, which I haven’t addressed here. I’ve been primarily interested in where Berger’s foundational ideas came from in his own early development.  But I admit that the narrative I’ve provided here doesn’t yet offer a basis for explaining Berger’s turn to the right and away from moral and political engagement with the injustices that exist around us.)

Sociology of knowledge: Camic, Gross and Lamont


The sociology of knowledge has received a new burst of energy in the past few years, with quite a bit of encouragement and innovation coming from Science, Technology and Society studies (STS).  (STS overlaps substantially with the SSK research tradition described briefly in an earlier post.)  Charles Camic and Neil Gross have made very substantial contributions in the past few years, with special focus on the knowledge activities associated with the humanities and social sciences.  (Gross’s intellectual sociology of Richard Rorty is discussed here.)

So what is going on in this field today?  Camic, Gross, and Lamont, Social Knowledge in the Making, offers a genuinely pathbreaking collection of articles on different aspects of “social knowledge practices”.  The editors’ introduction to the volume does an excellent job of laying out the issues that current sociology of knowledge needs to confront.  They illustrate very clearly the differences in perspective associated with traditional intellectual history (which they describe as “traditional approach to social knowledge”; TASK), reductionist sociology of knowledge (attempting to link social conditions to specific set of ideas), and the science studies approach, which focuses a great deal of attention on the specific knowledge practices through which a community constructs and furthers a body of knowledge.

The editors make the point that the STS framework (and the SSK approach) is largely focused on the social practices connected with the natural and biological sciences — laboratories, graduate schools, journals, conferences. And they argue that the fields of knowledge production involved in social knowledge are both important and distinctive.  (They are distinctive for at least three reasons: social knowledge is reflexive, the data must be gathered from subjective participants, and there are powerful interests in play that are pertinent to various formulations of social knowledge.)  So it is timely to pay equally close attention to the practices and institutions through which economics, philosophy, sociology, or Asian Studies frame and construct knowledge.  This volume attempts to give a number of rigorous examples in different areas of the social knowledge domains of that kind of empirical-sociological research.

Here are a few premises of the editors’ approach to the problem:

By “social knowledge” we mean, in the first instance, descriptive information and analytical statements about the actions, behaviors, subjective states, and capacities of human beings and/or about the properties and processes of the aggregate or collective units — the groups, networks, markets, organizations, and so on — where these human agents are situated. (kl 78)

They also include in their definition of social knowledge the ways of knowledge making:

… the technologies and tools of knowledge making — that is, the epistemic principles, cognitive schemata, theoretical models, conceptual artifacts, technical instruments, methodological procedures, tacit understandings, and material devices by which descriptive and normative statements about the social world are produced, assessed, represented, communicated, and preserved. (kl 78)

Key to their approach is to engage in detailed studies of the social practices associated with knowledge production.  Here is how they define a social practice:

We define “practices” as the ensembles of patterned activities — the “modes of working and doing,” in Amsterdamska’s words — by which human beings confront and structure the situated tasks with which they are engaged.  These activities may be intentional or unintentional, interpersonally cooperative or antagonistic, but they are inherently multifaceted, woven of cognitive, emotional, semiotic, appreciative, normative, and material components, which carry different valences in different contexts. (kl 122)

The goal of this research effort is to do for the social sciences and humanities what the STS/SSK researchers have done for the natural sciences.  This tradition has …

shifted scholarly attention away from science as a finished product in the temple of human knowledge and toward the study of the multiple multilayered and multisited practices involved during the long hours when future kernels of scientific knowledge are still in the making. (kl 152)

Here is one of the core observations that the editors draw from the research contributions to the volume:

One of these themes is that social knowledge practices are multiplex, composed of many different aspects, elements, and features, which may or may not work in concert. Surveying the broad terrain mapped across the different chapters, we see, for example, the transitory practices of a short-lived research consortium as well as knowledge practices that endure for generations across many disciplines and institutions… (kl 338)

At site after site, heterogeneous social knowledge practices occur in tandem, layered upon one another, looping around and through each another, interweaving and branching, sometimes pulling in the same directions, sometimes in contrary directions. (kl 353)

So how can this research goal be carried out in practice?  Here is how Andrew Abbott pursues some of these questions in his contribution to the volume in an essay that investigates in detail how historians have used libraries in their research:

I have two major aims in this chapter. The first is empirical. I want to recover the practices, communities, and institutions of library researchers and their libraries in the twentieth century. There is at present almost no synthetic writing about this topic, and I aim to fill that gap. This empirical investigation points to a second more theoretical one.  There turns out to be a longstanding debate between librarians and disciplinary scholars over the proper means to create, store, and access the many forms of knowledge found in libraries. By tracing the evolution of this debate, I create a theoretical context for current debates about library research. (kl 581)

One thing I find interesting in reading this work is the absence of the philosophy of science as one of the reflective areas of research through which the knowledge process is examined.  Thomas Kuhn is mentioned as an intellectual founder of the historical-sociological approach to the problem of scientific knowledge; but the vibrant discipline of the philosophy of science is not mentioned by any of the contributors.  This seems to be a lost opportunity, since philosophers too are trying to make sense of the processes, procedures, and norms of the sciences along the way towards an interpretation of philosophical ideas such as truth and objectivity in knowledge.  It would be highly interesting to see a careful study of the development of post-positivist philosophy of science (from Peter Achinstein, Hilary Putnam, and Bas van Fraassen to the present day, let’s say), by a sociologist who is willing to take the trouble to carefully examine the doctrines, schools, graduate programs, journals, associations, and dominant ideas that have evolved in the past half century within philosophy.

Tandem with this absence of the philosophy of science is an avoidance of epistemic concepts like “validity,” “approximate truth,” or “widening understanding of how the social world works.”  The impression given by this volume, anyway, is that the task of the sociology of knowledge is solely restricted to examination of the practices and material conditions through which systems of belief about the social world are formed, without a concomitant interest in evaluating the success of the enterprise at establishing some of the facts of how the world works.  This impression is born out in the closing paragraphs of Camic’s entry on “Knowledge, Sociology of” in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Referring essentially to the approach taken by contributors toSocial Knowledge in the Making, Camic writes:

This second approach focuses the sociology of knowledge mainly on men and women who specialize in the production of ideas and on the particular social processes by which their ideas emerge and develop—a move that, in effect, transforms the field into a sociology of ideas. This perspective has tended to reject the core assumptions of the older sociology of knowledge, building instead on schol- arship that argues that sociocultural processes are as much internal to the content of ideas as they are external (Bloor 1976, Shapin 1992), that the meanings of ideas are only understandable to an investigator after careful contextual reconstruction (Skinner 1969), and that local, micro-level settings are often the main sites for the development of ideas (Geertz 1983, Whitley 1984). Like the broad-constructionist ap- proach, this narrow-constructionist perspective pre- sently provides a foundation for several lines of empirical research (see Camic and Gross 2000). No forecast can yet be made, however, as to which approach, if either, will rescue the sociology of knowledge from its traditionally marginal position in the discipline of sociology. (8146)

This excerpt too emphasizes the internal practices of the various knowledge communities, rather than the likelihood that the product of knowledge production is valid, veridical, or rationally supportable.

As I found in the earlier post on research communities, it seems that there needs to be more communication and mutual learning between the sociology of science and the philosophy of science. Admittedly the two disciplines have different goals; but in the end, we would like to understand both aspects of the process of knowledge formation in a way that makes coherent sense: the concrete social practices and the cognitive merits of the results.  Otherwise we have no basis for diagnosing what went wrong with Soviet biology and Lysenkoism (depicted in the photo at top).
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