Putting the "Ass" in "Astro"
So, you might be asking, what AM I going to talk about today? I'd like to think you'd have something more important on your mind, by the way, but I'm a realist. Just do better tomorrow. In any case, as there seems to be a general consensus among bloggers that there's really no need for astrosociology, I decided to talk about the other interesting element of this controversy. No, I don't mean the fact that the astrosociology website looks like it was gang-fucked by the graphics from a b-grade science fiction movie, although that certainly doesn't help. No, what I want to talk about is the why of this sordid affair. Why "Astro" sociology?
Indeed, as Jeremy Freese points out, the proposed subject matter of astrosociology seems to fit quite neatly within older, established sections of the sociological community. While work has been done in sociology that deals with the space program, it certainly hasn't necessitated the creation of an entirely new section! So what does this new astrosociology get us? What new, wonderful benefit may we reap from the crafting of astrosociology that otherwise would remain beyond our grasp? Well, if I had to guess, it would be the ability to use the word "astro" to describe what we do.
I mean, think about it, what isn't cooler with the word "astro" attached to it? Think of all the amazing things that we owe to that little five-letter prefix. There's astroturf (Which is apparently in a new generation now! Astrotastic!), the closely-related astro-substance astrolawn, the astrobar for those who want an astrosnack, the Houston Astros who can entertain you while you eat, the miraculous astroglide (which promises that "sex will never be the same." Obviously, because now it will be astrosex!) for after the game, and, of course, the Jetsons' lovable dog Astro. It seems beyond question that everything gets better when you apply the word "astro" to it! With such a proven track-record, how can we possibly criticize this new astrosociology? This can be our road to the fame and riches we all dreamt of in grad school, the key to the general acceptance of sociology, nay, ASTROSOCIOLOGY, by the mainstream!
Just think about the possibilities for future conferences on astrosociology. Instead of arriving in our current bevy of economy cars, we can all drive astrocars! For the vision impaired, myself included, there will be astroglasses, and we can all agree to exchange uncomfortable suits for the new, relaxing, astroclothes! What wouldn't be better about that, I ask you? Conferences of the future could look just like this!
So, obviously, I'm laying on the sarcasm with a backhoe here, and for good reason. Attaching the word "astro" to something is hardly new, people have been doing that since the space program became fashionable (albeit briefly) in the late twentieth century. It became such a trend, in fact, that "astro" has become its own punchline. The real danger here is not that attaching astro to the front of sociology makes us sound like a bunch of morons, although it does that too, or that there simply isn't a subject matter for this hypothetical section, even though there really isn't, but that this encourages us to think that because something is new, or different, it's better.
Academics like new things. We can't deny it, we all know it's true. How do we get published: by replicating a result some other scholar got, or by discovering something new? I think we all know the answer to that question. So, we all struggle to make our mark by adding something new to the literature (much, by the way, as we bloggers try to add something new to public discourse by babbling incessantly online). Sometimes, this may mean that we blow something out of proportion; making a case for something to be regarded as different, when really it isn't. For science, which is supposed to find the commonalities in all things and explain the most phenomena with the fewest variables, this isn't just an inconvenient problem, it is potentially a mortal danger. Before long, instead of studying inequality, we're studying Bisexual Lithuanian truck-drivers in the deep south as distinct phenomena from heterosexual mexican muslims in Oregon. I'm looking at you, PSA! Pretty soon, we as scientists won't have any better idea what's going on than non-scientists because we're treating every single case as a sub-discipline.
For better or for worse, we academics aren't the only ones who are vulnerable to this. I recently became aware of an exciting new product called "Gay Fuel," which is apparently an energy drink for homosexuals. No, seriously. Now, I may be behind on my reading, but the last time I checked, homosexuals and heterosexuals, being members of the same species and all, didn't have different nutritional requirements. In fact, so far as I can tell, we're all humans with the same human needs and claim to human dignity. So why do we need energy drinks tailored for our sexual orientations? Is there some sort of vitamin deficiency that is an inevitable part of having one particular sexual orientation? Don't get me wrong, if gay America wants its own energy drink, that's fine by me, but is there really a need for it? Have we become so obsessed with tailoring our lives to our own intensely detailed sense of identity that we need custom beverages in order to fully express ourselves? My god... what does it mean that I've just been drinking boring old softdrinks all this time?! Quick! Quick! I'm intense! I'm adventurous! Someone give me a Dark Dog!
What it all comes down to is this: if we already have something that does the job, that provides an outlet, why reinvent the wheel? Why should we fragment our discipline, or our society, even more into uncommunicative, self-absorbed cliques? My answer is: we shouldn't. Genuinely new and different perspectives are one thing, seemingly-new perspectives, on the other hand, just distract us from serious business. Again, I have nothing against studying space, or the space program, or astronauts. Hell, I've been a space nut as long as I can remember and am one of the few people who knows what Eta Carinae is, much less how to pronounce it. If there were genuinely something for a sociologist to study in space, I'd be the first to sign up for astronaut (See? Another great use of astro!) training. What I have a problem with is pretending that something old is, in fact, something new. It's like taking a dump in a porsche: sure it's sexy on the outside, but it's the same old pile of shit underneath.
There's more than enough for we scientists to discover in the world already. We don't have to resort to inventing more.
Update: Dr. Pass, father of Astrosociology, responds to this post! Come and see what he has to say!