The Forty-Year Failure of American Sociology

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I hesitate to criticize sociology or sociologists. After all I am now at nearly a lifetime in the discipline, which I have taught for more than thirty years. But I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge that throughout that time I have been a dissident in the field, a role, protected by tenure, which has challenged a complacency that some–mistakenly–now put at the doorstep of tenure. The problem for sociology was never complacency, but rather irrelevance, a misguided regard for political conviction rarely overcome by facts.

Consider divorce in America: it has taken sociologists forty years to conclude that divorce, in a strictly statistical sense, is not good for children. Many sociologists of my generation were at the forefront of arguing for more liberal divorce laws in the 1960s, and they devoted their careers to studying carefully the consequences of the social changes wrought. The news was not surprising, really. Kids adapt, no question about that, but adaptation is not the only lesson or goal in life. Divorced families are financially poorer; the children of divorced families do more poorly in school, and they suffer more from depression; and the list of collateral damages goes on.

The liberal sentiments of the 1960s did what J.S. Mill’s critic, James Fitzjames Stephen, said Mill did in his time: “Strenuously preach and rigorously practice the doctrine that our neighbor’s private character is nothing to us, and the number of unfavorable judgments formed, and therefore the number of inconveniences inflicted by them, can be reduced as much as we please, and the province of liberty can be enlarged in a corresponding ratio. Does any reasonable man wish for this?” Sociologists, once responsible for understanding the nature of moral and social life, grew silent in their regard for moral judgment, except as political judgment. Sociology as a field and through its professional association simply became a mouthpiece for progressive politics, sounding evermore peculiar to all but the most elite Americans still enmeshed in the daily problems and struggles of moral and social existence.

The Times Takes a New Look

children-sanchez-oscar-lewis-paperback-cover-art.jpgNow comes word from the front-page of The New York Times that after all these years sociologists have rediscovered the role that culture plays in the persistence of poverty. Times reporter Patricia Cohen wants the reader to believe that “culture” got a bad name following the 1965 Moynihan Report because the “culture of poverty” unduly characterized the breakdown of the black family in terms that put the fault for their poverty on blacks themselves, as Cohen puts it, “as if blaming them for their own misfortune.” For the record, Daniel Patrick Moynihan never used the term “culture of poverty” in his Report, even as Cohen pays homage to its coinage by Oscar Lewis. In his classic study of The Children of Sanchez, first published in 1961, Lewis described the total insularity of those in a culture of poverty. The delicacy with which social scientists generally approached the idea should, in part, be attributed to the public notice it received at the time, even before the Moynihan Report. As early as 1963, in the first issue of Society, Lewis wrote, “I want to take this opportunity to clear up some possible misunderstanding concerning the idea of a ‘culture of poverty.'” Social-scientific conceptualization was in the mix of public debate about social policy, and in Lewis’s Society piece, he observed, “In the United States the culture of poverty of the Negroes has the additional disadvantage of racial discrimination.”

There are many ironies here, now that the idea of culture has allegedly been resurrected by the present generation of sociologists operating the admission gates to jobs and professional publications. First, the concept of culture is not new in any way, shape, or form in sociology. In fact, the praise for its present revitalization is one of those self-serving promotions that journalists are quick to swallow because they rarely ask the historical question about a concept’s use. The culture of poverty concept was much more complex than its public reception could possibly convey, and its general claim came to be seen as much a political conviction (of the wrong kind) as a social-scientific formulation that called for empirical investigation and confirmation.

image001.jpgWho remembers the response that Edward Banfield received for his not dissimilar but even more incisive insights about poverty in The Unheavenly City? Banfield criticized the uses of government intervention in ameliorating poverty, a critique that would later be central to such works as Charles Murray’s Losing Ground. In point of fact, Moynihan’s arguments had less to do with “culture” than with the unintended consequences of government policies about welfare. How surprising to read on the front page of The New York Times about the culture of poverty at the same moment of the publication of Condoleezza Rice’s memoir about growing up under Jim Crow. Note that in his Report, Moynihan was insistent that “There is much evidence that a considerable number of Negro families have managed to break out of the tangle of pathology and to establish themselves as stable, effective units, living according to patterns of American society in general. E. Franklin Frazier has suggested that the middle-class Negro American family is, if anything, more patriarchal and protective of its children than the general run of such families.”

Failing Grades for Glazer, Frazier and Moynihan?

The sin of Banfield and Moynihan was to criticize not only the role of government but more importantly the loss of values it destroyed. It was not about anything intrinsic to any group by virtue of its race or ethnicity. The loss of motivation to emulate middle-class values was at the heart of a debate about the validity of those values. The progressive vocabulary included routine declarations of the need for radical change, which was, looking back now, more a challenge to those values than it was an endorsement of expanded government.

OL3488887M-M.jpgA review by Hyman Rodman of a book on culture and poverty by the anthropologist Charles A. Valentine in the pages of Science in August of 1968 offered what amounts to a premonitory classification of the liberal challenge to values: “One of the central purposes of Valentine’s book is to ‘evaluate existing interpretations of poverty.’ On Valentine’s critical scorecard, E. Franklin Frazier, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel P. Moynihan get failing grades as interpreters; Kenneth Clark and Oscar Lewis get (barely) passing grades; and Herbert Gans (The Urban Villagers) and Elliot Liebow (Talley’s Corner) get the top grades.” Such critiques were so commonplace that two more decades would have to pass before the taxonomy would reverse itself, and by then fewer would question the triumph on a global scale of bourgeois values (at least most of those values). The fight against poverty that had invited attacks on values was transformed into a call for more effective government policies. Here the opportunities for progressive ideas found new ways to express discontent with the status quo, inviting more than sociologists (who by the 1980s had as a result of their ideological aloofness lost their franchise as architects of change) to empower the executive branch.

To understand why government had come to be the central focus of contention on both sides of the political spectrum (i.e., need more of it, need less of it), consider welfare reform during the Clinton administration. By the mid-1990s, the pathologies that Moynihan had so presciently described had metastasized as a lasting testament to the dubious achievement of elite critics of bourgeois culture who saw government as part of their extended entitlement rights to oversee and manage. The so-called march through the institutions linked higher education to government policy in a way that was not inconsistent with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s anxiety about the military-industrial complex. The university perceived as a great resource for opportunity after the Second World War was transformed into a laboratory of speculations about the role that government could (and should) play in reducing material inequalities throughout the nation. (Sociologists once taught courses on “social stratification” which were transformed into ideological sinkholes on “inequality”. Now those inequalities are so refined and so adamantly exposed that universities themselves, quite apart from society at large, are said to reflect and even reinforce social inequality. No privilege is without its critics.)

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) is probably best remembered as the legislation that “ended welfare as we know it.” Two principal architects of this reform, Harvard researchers, David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane who came to Washington with appointments as assistant secretaries in Health and Human Services, had high hopes that true progressive reform was within their grasp. But the realities of a democratic, in contrast to a “Great,” society intervened in such a way that the chief sentiment of all progressive intellectuals – disappointment – led them back to their much higher life of service, as Ellwood, now Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, very recently affirmed:

Kennedy School of Government is part of Harvard University, and focuses on public policy and the government. One of the special elements of our school is that every single person who comes to the Kennedy School wants to make the world a better place, and believes in something more important than themselves. They believe that they can, and they should work to advance the public interest. Second, we also believe that great leadership and making the world a better place require more than just inspiration. It also requires a serious commitment to become excellent, and a set of tools and skills that allow you to assess and understand critical questions. Third, it is important for people to be exposed to the most powerful, most interesting and innovative ideas on important public policy items. That means we give them the real expertise.

In the shadow government of intellectuals, humility and caution are not part of the cultivated virtues. The sources of disappointment are woven into the fabric of progressive expectations, suggesting that the engagement in real politics, something Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood in the fiber of his being, required not simply compromise with political realities, but engagement with politics itself rather than a retreat to elite promises of “real expertise” and the predictable political correctness that has come with such promises.

In retrospect, once the vilification of Edward Banfield and Daniel Patrick Moynihan had succeeded, the specter of political correctness would seemingly forever enforce silence among the job-holders of academe, content with going with the flow by avoiding controversy whenever possible and by not challenging the pieties of Great Society notions. Forty years along, the breast-beating of the sociologist, Douglas Massey (quoted in Cohen’s article), is what should be described as a day late and a dollar short when he concludes: “We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect.”

Massey’s statement is unbelievably ironic insofar as sociology has consistently been the dungeon of politically correct thought. The other social sciences are beset with incidents of such thought, but a younger generation of social scientists promises to break the lockstep long led unofficially by sociology’s relentless criticisms of “conservative” ideas. The sensitivity to appearing to be in “support” of, much less in the camp of, any idea or any group considered conservative is by far one of the most galvanizing reflexes of solidarity among my generation of sociologists. Their inhibitions and anxieties about being even remotely associated with “the other side” is one of the more entertaining features of academic bird-watching. It would be fascinating to learn from Massey how he thinks “we’ve finally reached the stage” he apparently now applauds. The most obvious answer remains precisely the resistance to the irrelevant imperialism that much of sociology and its elite supporters have promoted during the past forty years. Forty years in the desert.

Jonathan Imber

Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.

2 thoughts on “The Forty-Year Failure of American Sociology

  1. Not all sociologists “vilified” Moynihan (see the very popular and respected William J. Wilson)…indeed, there is a long tradition of scholarly research to understand the “culture of poverty” and why it exists….see work by David Harding, Maria Kafelas, etc….its like the author of this article stopped reading books in the mid 1970s and hasn’t payed attention to any scholarship for thirty years….
    I’m sorry but this is a silly article….I try to find some redeeming qualities and everything I read but this is really bad…I don’t know anything about Dr. Imber but I would guess he was probably a grad student in the Mid-70s and stopped paying attention the the academic literature after he graduated

  2. Not all sociologists “vilified” Moynihan (see the very popular and respected William J. Wilson)…indeed, there is a long tradition of scholarly research to understand the “culture of poverty” and why it exists….see work by David Harding, Maria Kafelas, etc….its like the author of this article stopped reading books in the mid 1970s and hasn’t payed attention to any scholarship for thirty years….
    I’m sorry but this is a silly article….I try to find some redeeming qualities and everything I read but this is really bad…I don’t know anything about Dr. Imber but I would guess he was probably a grad student in the Mid-70s and stopped paying attention the the academic literature after he graduated

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