Politics and the Professional Sociologist...
As I promised to do last week, I am going to talk today about the political aspects of public sociology. As I said then, I have come to regard public sociology, if not as a genuine benefit to the discipline, then not as a threat. In truth, particularly given the way economics has been "borrowing" from our work of late, I suspect that we will benefit substantially from the presence of sociologists who work to make our findings more widely known. Perhaps what we need really IS some sort of sociological Carl Sagan.
Yet, I remain highly suspicious of the political content that seems to infuse the public sociology movement. I know I am not the only one in this regard; while in San Francisco, Brayden expressed a certain amount of trepidation on that point. Similarly, Nick over at Public Sociology has commented on his own hesitancy to endorse the politicization of Sociology (Specifically, "...I am hesitant to endorse the ASAs politicization through membership resolutions; it is difficult for the ASA to be the forum for perpetual dissent and debate when it takes political stands. I feel it should remain a nonpolitical body, even though I more or less agree politically with the content of the resolutions passed.") even though he clearly finds some of the ideological underpinnings of such a politicization to be somewhat reasonable. It goes virtually without saying that Mathieu Deflem objects to the fusing of social science and politics. There are, of course, others who I have met who are considerably more enthusiastic about injecting political content into sociology. Given the events of the past four years, I certainly can't blame such proponents for their stance, and respect them for what they see as moral courage in taking it, yet I also cannot share it with them. This is the case for a variety of reasons.
It's worth noting, of course, if you are a proponent of politicizing the ASA that, as of yet, there does not appear to be a solid consensus on the matter. If we refer to the ASA's news brief on recent votes, two-thirds of those who voted on the Iraq membership resolution voted in favor. However, only 31% of the eligible membership voted, meaning that we only have data on about 20% of the total ASA members. Interestingly, 75% of those who responded indicated that they opposed the war. This suggests that some number of those who opposed the membership resolution also oppose the war itself. The issues are clearly more complicated than just whether or not you support the intervention in Iraq. There does appear to be genuine disagreement over the role of the ASA in politcs, and that disagreement is bound to come out more clearly as the political wing of public sociology moves forward. You all know I'm a big fan of disagreement and conflict, since I do believe it makes for superior thinking, so I'm not afraid of a little discord here. I point it out only as a cautionary note that the battle over politics in the ASAs is only beginning. It is far too premature for either side to start claiming some sort of broad-based support.
For myself, however, I very clearly belong to the anti-politicization camp, whether it's popular or not. I believe that injecting political content into our sociology is bad for the discipline. While his fiery rhetoric is certainly over-the-top (And that isn't really a criticism. Hell, I should be taking notes!), Mathieu Deflem does have a very good point that establishing a sort of Sociology "party line" on political issues can only stifle our scientific activities. As Jeremy Freese so eloquently points out, our discipline is already dominated by members with a particular political perspective. Jeremy says that, "It bothers me that 90% of sociologists hold political beliefs representative of 10% or less of the available political spectrum." The thing is, that should bother all of us. Such an intense sameness in our ideology must affect our work. Just as trying to exclude female or minority voices from science has, it has been claimed, hurt the ability of science to speak about the world, so too must the exclusion of conservative voices injure social science. The fact is there are some damned smart conservatives and, odds are, every now and then they're probably right about a few things. As it stands now, it would be difficult for these correct-conservatives to make their voices heard in a sea of liberalism, but at the same time at least we aren't making public declarations against them. Will it really benefit us if we do start making such declarations?
Taking it a step further, there is a practical matter to consider. So long as we are seen as a left-leaning but officially neutral group our funding is considerably more secure. Once we begin taking political stances, however, we become intensely political targets, and anyone who thinks the spoils system is entirely a thing of the past hasn't been paying attention. I'll be the first one to say that there is a time and a place for self-sacrifice, and that sometimes you have to support a lost cause just for your own sanity, but there's also such a thing as pointless suicide. Telling the difference between all three is often the mark of real wisdom.
There are, further, issues of arrogance involved. Do we really think, as sociologists, that we definitely know what's best for all society? Certainly the structural functionalists of old thought that, but they were disproven when the civil rights movement began struggling to prominence. This movement had to contend with a total lack of black dialogue in American civil and political life. Issues of black rights weren't even on the political agenda, and their addition was itself a difficult and painful process. Similarly, the women's movement had to do the same, even though they had been preceded by black social movements. As homosexuals have struggled for freedom, can we doubt that their struggles have been any less difficult or pointed? So why are we now so arrogant as to believe we can instruct the rest of society on how they should live? If history shows us anything, it's that we're excluding perspectives that we haven't even realized the existence of yet. It is one of the strengths of science that it can change its mind when confronted with new evidence. Such changes of mind may not be frequent, but they have happened and continue to happen. The inclusion of black, female, and homosexual voices, which are often highly critical of traditional work, in the modern academy is indicative of this strength. Yet, when one enters the realm of politics, changing one's mind suddenly transforms from an asset into a liability. Can we doubt that a politicized sociology, in the interest of pressing its agenda, will suppress those who disagree with it, potentially contributing to the oppression of other marginalized groups?
Ultimately, however, what really annoys me about the attempt to politicize the ASA doesn't have anything to do with professional issues. Like those who seek to use the ASA as a vehicle for political activity, I would like to have an impact on the world. I deplore what the U.S. government has done and would very much like to oppose it in some meaningful way. This is, however, WHY I hate the politicization of the ASA. Ask yourself this: Do you trust the scientific studies on nicotine or smoking that emerge from the R.J. Reynolds corporation? What about crash safety studies done by a car company? So why on earth would we think that the opinion of a politicized ASA would carry any weight? Refusing to take a political stand is NOT a sign of moral cowardice or conservatism, but rather it is an action designed to preserve the efficacy of our research in public debates. Perhaps people won't LIKE what we have to say, but if we take pains to preserve our objectivity, and to restrain our natural desire to take part in politics as a group, they can't attack it on charges of prejudice. Perhaps nobody is listening right now, but that is a job for the so-called public sociologists.
Whether you believe that we can ever be truly objective or not, our scientific legitimacy lends weight to our findings. Do we really want to squander that? If the time comes when we are seen as a politically-motivated body, our research will be accepted by those who agree with us, and rejected out of hand by those who don't. When that time comes we won't be helping anyone, we will merely be ranting self-indulgently to like-minded others or, as they say where I'm from, "Preaching to the converted." I don't know that I can imagine a more degrading and meaningless fate for our discipline.
That is the great irony of our present dilemma. Most of us agree with each other politically, most of us even want to see our research further our political ends, we simply differ on the proper use of the ASA. Our ends are the same, but our beliefs about means differ radically. For myself, I encourage every sociologist to individually become active in politics and make your voice heard, but I must oppose any attempt to take a stance as a discipline.
Certainly I do not object to the ASA taking a definite stand on issues of particular relevance to us as a discipline, but such issues are so clearly within our self-interest that no observer would believe our neutrality anyway. I wonder why we are being told that we must use the ASA to take a political stand, rather than use it to bring our findings to the attention of policy makers. Is it truly impossible to have an impact by presenting honest facts backed up by good data?
What good does it do to advance our findings if they come already tainted with the stench of bias?