Can Sociology be Saved?

While the American Sociological Association continues to congratulate itself for a rising number of bachelor’s degrees in sociology, traditional sociology seems to matter less than ever before. Apart from the recent and brilliant Strangers in Their Own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, not many sociologists have a good grasp of what’s happening in society today.

The Vote for Trump

And few, other than Hochschild, seem to have any idea of how to explain what motivated union members, women, minorities and the working poor to help elect President Donald Trump. In a series of articles about the 2016 election, published by the ASA, sociologists erroneously blamed racism, hyper-masculinity, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, for the attraction to President Donald Trump.

The increases in sociology undergraduate majors has more to do with student fascination with criminology and criminal justice concentrations within the sociology major than it does with traditional sociology. Realizing that the traditional discipline no longer attracted undergraduates, many sociology departments became savvy marketers promising potential criminology students that they would be studying subjects like serial killers, gangs, school shootings, family violence and substance abuse.  For example, one Texas university sociology website posts “true-crime” photos of the Columbine school shooters, and Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous cannibalistic serial murderer, to draw students to their criminology courses.

The CSI Effect

Even the ASA attributes a kind of “CSI-effect” for the increase in criminal justice concentrations in sociology and laments that part-time adjunct faculty who work in forensics, law enforcement, corrections, and juvenile justice are more likely to teach these undergraduate “sociology” students than traditionally trained PhD-level sociologists.

In fact, the ASA was so concerned about the loss of traditional sociology that the organization commissioned a study in 2011 which acknowledged that increasing numbers of sociology departments fear losing majors as the number of criminology and criminal justice students continue to increase while those who major in sociology without this concentration have dramatically declined.

The Profession Decomposes

The splintering off from traditional sociology was predicted decades ago by the late great sociologist, Irving Louis Horowitz, in his book, The Decomposition of Sociology.  Horowitz decried the “separation of the substance” of sociology into its elements, and claimed that the breakdown has caused “the decay of sociology as a field of study.”  Pointing out that sociology had dissolved into its parts: criminology, urban studies, demography, policy analysis, social history, decision theory, and hospital and medical administration, Horowitz charged that all sociology has been left with is “pure theory: sections of itself on Marxism, feminism and Third Worldism.” For Horowitz, sociology had become “a strident interest group, a husk instead of a professional society.”

The Discontent of Politicization

The politicization of the discipline has created “a repository of discontent,” he wrote, that is no longer a science of society, but rather a gathering of individuals who have special agendas, from GLBTQ rights to radical feminism and liberation theology.  The consequence of the influx of ideologists and special interests has been the outflow of scientists of those for whom the study of society is an empirical discipline, serving at most, those policy planners interested in piecemeal reform.

Horowitz writes, “Sociology has seen the departure of urbanologists, social planners, demographers, criminologists, penologists, hospital administrators, international development specialists—in short, the entire range of scholars for whom social science is linked to public policy.” Today, in criminology, sociologists play a minor role, eclipsed by the expertise of police officers, forensics experts, legal and paralegal personnel. As Horowitz warned, “sociology is now reduced to barking from the sidelines with such shrill treatises as Against Criminology.”

There was a time when sociology was willing to provide verifiable facts on social phenomenon—even if the data did not support the claims of the advocacy community. But, because so much sociological research is now agenda-driven, many of our statistics are suspect.  Helping to maintain the false narrative that one-in-five women on college campuses are victims of sexual assault, some sociologists have been complicit in promoting a moral panic on campus.

Despite the false narrative that college campuses have become unsafe places for women, a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics has revealed that the rate of rape and other sexual assault on college campuses has actually declined from 9.2 per 1,000 college students in 1997 to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013.  Far from being a site of violence, the data indicates that female college students are safer from sexual assault while in college than at any other time in their lives.

Didn’t Fit the Narrative

Yet, much of sociology seems to have missed these data because they do not fit the narrative of a hypermasculinized culture that victimizes women. Even the highly respected sociologist Barbara Risman, a former President of Sociologists for Women and Society, has added to that false narrative on the contributors to sexual violence on college campuses. Risman claims to have begun her commitment to ending gender inequality when she experienced sexual discrimination at her own bat mitzvah in 1968—a time when only boys were allowed to read from the Torah.

In a recent article published by the American Sociological Association entitled, “How to Do Sociology in the Trump Era,” Risman suggests that sociologists need to “focus on the culture…get our ideas, research and evidence out there…bring our work beyond the New York Times.” The only problem is that people have seen some of their sociological “research and evidence” and they know that much of it is false.

Many of us have learned that some sociological research studies are “more equal than others.” Just ask sociologists, Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, and Paul Sullins of Catholic University—both of whom have used sophisticated statistical modeling and non-partisan national data sets to study the effects of same-sex parenting on children, and both have been vilified because of their politically incorrect findings.

Regnerus found that children raised in households where at least one parent had had a same-sex relationship reported higher rates of unhappiness and relationship instability. And in a study that used data from the nonpartisan National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to track children raised by same-sex couples over a period of 13 years, Sullins found that those raised in same-sex homes were at over twice the risk of depression than those raised by heterosexual parents.

Misstating Data for a Cause

The children raised in same-sex households were also more likely to experience obesity, “imbalanced closeness,” and child abuse. Worse, the difference between traditional and same-sex homes was even more marked when it came to considering suicide: 7 percent of young adults raised in traditional families reported having suicidal thoughts compared with 37 percent of same-sex homes.

Defining down the Regnerus and Sullins data, the ASA filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in 2015 in the same-sex marriage cases that were then pending before the court. In the brief, the ASA maintained that there is a “social-science consensus that children raised by same-sex parents fare just as well as children raised by different-sex parents.” Referring specifically to the data presented by Regnerus and Sullins, the ASA claimed in the brief that the negative research findings by Regnerus and Sullins has been “mischaracterized” by same-sex marriage opponents, and concluded that “we should not exclude children living with same-sex parents from the additional stability and economic security that marriage can provide.”

Randall Collins, the President of the ASA in 2010-2011, once lamented that sociology has “lost all coherence as a discipline; we are breaking up into a conglomerate of specialties, each going its own way and with none too high regard for each other.” With more than 50 different sections, the ASA itself has indeed splintered into interest and advocacy groups. Sometimes even the sections themselves have had to split over theoretical or methodological disagreements over contested terrain. There are now two separate sections devoted to sexuality: one is called the Sociology of Sexualities, and the other is the section on Sex and Gender. There is talk of a further split as the transgendered have become concerned about marginalization by the other two.

Sociology Lost its Way

Some of the sections are devoted to esoteric topics.  For example, the section on Body and Embodiment is devoted to encouraging and enhancing theory, research teaching on human and non-human bodies, morphology, human reproduction, anatomy, body fluids and other similar topics.  A prize-winning paper in that section a few years ago was titled: “Sometimes I think I might say too much: Dark Secrets and the Performance of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.”

Irving Louis Horowitz knew in 1994 that sociology had lost its way—but his book offered a way out.  He knew that sociology could offer a common language of discourse, logic and method, but he also knew that a positive outcome for sociology required what he called “a double-edged struggle: against the political barbarians at the gate and against the professional savages who have already gotten inside.”  He knew that the price of success would be high, but the cost of failure—to sociology as well as to society itself —makes the effort an absolute necessity.

Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction Books).

One thought on “Can Sociology be Saved?”

  1. “[Rape/sexual assault declined] from 9.2 per 1,000 college students in 1997 to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013. “

    Two words: Cell Phones…
    No one is mentioning this, but every college student now has a cell phone, which wasn’t the case back in 1997 — and post 2003 (?), the phone is supposed to give the 911 operator a physical location.

    “Yet, much of sociology seems to have missed these data because they do not fit the narrative of a hypermasculinized culture that victimizes women.”

    The problem is that we have a generation of police officers who have been indoctrinated in this and other ideological narratives. That’s the real cost here…

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