The Decline and Fall of Sociology

As totalitarian modes of rule continue to decline throughout the world, readers of Minding the Campus will recognize the insidious strain of totalitarianism that has emerged on many college campuses—one that is characterized by the bullying, and sometimes silencing of faculty and students who deviate even slightly from the prescribed progressive campus politics.

Most recently, after decades of distinguished service, Penn Law Professor Amy Wax, was removed from teaching first-year law students because she had the temerity to co-write an op-ed that critically questioned the liberal orthodoxy that “all cultures are created equal;” and then followed the op-ed with an interview in which she suggested that affirmative action in American law schools appears to have imposed unexpected costs on their intended beneficiaries.

A Long List of Special Agendas

There is data to support Professor Wax’s assertions, and not so long ago there were sociologists who were willing to step forward to provide it. Having developed into an ideology, instead of a study of ideology, sociology has become what the late sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz described as: “a gathering of individuals who have special agendas, from gay and lesbian rights to liberation theology.” In his 1994 book, The Decomposition of Sociology, Horowitz writes: “any notion of a common democratic culture has become suspect. Ideologists masked as sociologists attack the very notion of a universal scientific base as a dangerous form of bourgeois objectivism, or worse, as an imperialist pretention. High crime rates were seen only as an expression of capitalist disintegration, and criminal behavior became a covert expression of revolutionary action.”

Related: Why Was Professor Amy Wax Punished?

The study of deviant behavior, once one of the most important sub-disciplines within sociology, became “simply a term of moral opprobrium; all social norms were really bourgeois norms; opposition to such norms represented alternative lifestyles at the least and revolutionary consciousness at the most.” Horowitz recognized more than three decades ago that such a worldview denies an external world of commonly shared experience.

In one of the first sociology texts, Emile Durkheim warned that moral unity could be assured only if all members of a society were anchored to some common assumptions about the world around them. Durkheim knew that without these assumptions, a society was bound to degenerate and decay. The function of society is to constitute a regulative force, setting limits on individual actions—recognizing that deviance is an integral part of all societies because it affirms cultural norms and values. Durkheim realized that it is impossible for any society to be free of deviance—even a “society of saints” will have its sinners—and deviance will always be present in every society at about the same rate.

‘Demands for Correct Politics’

As sociology has become balkanized along political lines, driven by an expanding number of interest groups, Horowitz predicted the discipline itself would become a “series of demands for correct politics rather than a set of studies of social culture.” He was right. There are now 52 sections of the American Sociological Association (ASA), each one devoted to a particular subfield that has almost nothing in common with other subfields. Many have become advocacy groups like the sections on “Sex and Gender,” and a separate section on “Race, Gender and Class.” The section on “Economic Sociology,” has little in common with the one on “Marxist Sociology” and shares nothing with the section on “Inequality, Poverty, and Mobility.”

Related: Identity Politics and the New ‘Me’ Generation

There is often tension within and between the groups as boundaries are tightly drawn, and new sections continue to emerge to meet new demands. In contrast, the section on the “Sociology of Sexualities” is simply stated: “to encourage and enhance and foster research, teaching and other professional activities in the sociology of sexuality.” The section on “Sex and Gender” is devoted to research on “gendered and sexual relations,” and recently awarded their “best paper” designation to “Producing Desirable Bodies: Boundary Work in a Lesbian Niche Dating Site.” Sections rarely dissolve—although sections on Catholic or Christian Sociology or Jewish issues are nowhere to be found. Last year’s prize in the Sociology of Religion section was awarded to a paper entitled: “Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet.”

Just as Horowitz predicted, the rejection of a common culture with shared values has spread far beyond sociology, throughout all of the social sciences, and has even infected the Humanities. Within the current campus climate, it’s incorrect for Professor Wax to question the contributors to the culture of poverty that have emerged to keep people poor. In response, she has been publicly pilloried for her incorrect views as the public denouncements from the Law School dean and some of her colleagues call to mind the public shaming techniques used centuries ago in Colonial America, described so well in 1966 by the sociologist Kai Erikson in Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. But, since the recipients of such public attacks are more likely to be those who have deviated from the progressive ideologies of their colleagues and campus culture, little attention is paid.

‘Making Sense of the Madness’

Irving Louis Horowitz paid attention. In fact, he often told his students—and those of us who were the grateful beneficiaries of his often harsh but always insightful editorial critiques of our work—that the real purpose of sociology was “to make some sense out of the madness.” For Horowitz, the real problem in sociology is that the discipline no longer looks at reality. Replacing the real world with a utopian future of classlessness and equality of outcome for all, sociology has abandoned scientism as an official ideology, moving away from valuing an open economic marketplace and a liberal pluralism to embrace socialism and social welfare models.

Related: The Purge of the Deviants May Go Too Far

Horowitz worried that in some ways, the campus had become fertile ground for the kinds of collectivist ideologies that gave rise to the oppressive practices of the last century. Some data—including data describing the unintended consequences of affirmative action, the culture of poverty, the outcomes for children raised by same-sex couples, or the possibility of post-abortion grief—are all off limits for serious social scientists who want to get tenure. This is not unlike the reality for sociologists living under Soviet communism where social information was kept from social scientists. Horowitz reminded us that: “Among the data that were not published in the Soviet Union were statistics on the distribution of crime, on the frequency of suicide, the level of consumption of alcohol and drugs, the condition of the environment in various cities and areas.” Today, despite being mandated by federal law, California refuses to release data on the demographics of abortion rates, claiming that compiling and disseminating abortion rates by race and ethnicity is too politically charged. Most recently, several states have announced lawsuits against the federal government for attempting to compile census data on the rates of undocumented immigration.

Castro and Franco—Two Tyrants

On March 26, 2012, the New York Times published Horowitz’s obituary with the headline: “Sociologist and Ideological Critic Dies at 82.” Horowitz would have been horrified to see himself described as an ideologue because he spent so many of the last years of his life fighting against the ideological thinking that he believed was destroying the discipline of sociology. But, many people did not understand this “man of the left” who came to the realization that those he called “left-wing fascists” and “professional savages” were subverting objective, empirical approaches to the social sciences. While some still think of him as a neo-conservative in the mold of Irving Kristol, even The New York Times had to admit that Horowitz “professed no political allegiance. In a 2007 article, he argued that Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist leader, and Francisco Franco, the conservative leader of Spain, were equivalent tyrants.”

Horowitz understood that sociology only has a future to the extent that it helps in the betterment of the human condition. He believed that if it remained unrelated to human needs, its future would not be as a science, but as “part of the world of esoterica.” His predictions were correct as much sociology has retreated into a self-contained world with little connection to reality.

Still, Horowitz offers a way out. Claiming that the root of the problem in sociology was epistemological—the abandonment of reason—Horowitz believed that sociologists became hostage to dichotomies between value judgments and the facts of reality; between morality and technical progress; between artistic imagination and sociological inquiry; and between pure and applied research. He believed it is better to view sociologists as “sensitizing agents in moral discourse,” and he understood—like the founders of the discipline—that the ability to get beyond an assumption that sociology and morality are irrelevant to one another would be a significant step forward.


  • Anne Hendershott

    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) and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). 

One thought on “The Decline and Fall of Sociology”

  1. I attended a regional public university (in some circles such a place would be called Podunk U. in a non-joking manner) and majored in sociology. About 60% of the incoming freshmen or transfer students were first time college students, most came from the region of the state where the university was located, and the student body wasn’t racially/ethnically diverse. But non of that so much didn’t matter when it came my formal education.

    The professors were rather apolitical, teaching us the fundamentals of the discipline which prepared us for graduate work, at least on the master’s level, if we chose to do so. The more political topics were approached in a thoughtful and provoking manner, but the professor never actually steered us in their own personal direction. I gathered that they knew the students weren’t going to buy into whatever Marxist, so-called progressive narrative more outspoken liberal professors would subtly, or not, infuse into their lectures and required reading given the backgrounds of most students (working class, white). I also gathered that they just wanted to teach the discipline without political hangovers, just wanting to see their students graduate within four years with a sound education.

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