Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Politics and the Professional Sociologist...

Wow, now THAT is a pretentious title. I feel a warm little glow inside at managing to cram so much self-importance into this blog.

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?


Blogger Erin said...

Well Drek, you've outdone yourself. This is the best (as in well-thought-out and argued) criticism of the politicization of the ASA I've seen so far. This is where the debate actually gets interesting to me. You raise some good points that definitely need to be considered as far as the ramifications of taking a political stand as a professional organization.

I'll just dig in. As you know, I think some things are worth the use of our professional legitimacy in a public discourse where it seems everyone is too afraid to speak up. I don't think we should have resolutions as to whether we should wear pink or blue. But I do think the war in Iraq was a legitimate use of our professional status given the nonreasons used for the war and the miseducation of the people (which many of us study) through various mechanisms.

I feel those who study the effects of issues such as information dissemination, imperialism, effects of violence on individuals or social institutions, even the methods for obtaining reliable information have a responsibility to say where they stand especially when the issues they study are of such relevance. Whether you study the economy or family, it was all effected by this political situation. A political climate such as what we were faced with when the ASA anti-war resolution was passed created the necessity for some kind of action. We carry more weight as a professional organization than we do as individual sociologists. It's not just about moral courage. It's about responsibility to say or do something when those in power become increasingly autocratic. It had to be checked. After the dust settles, it is likely sociologists will in fact gain credibility and legitimacy for actually taking a stand as people become more aware of the facts (not just interpretations of facts).

Now, as you say, "There are, further, issues of arrogance involved. Do we really think, as sociologists, that we definitely know what's best for all society?" NO. Of course, we are all entitled as individuals to have our own opinions as to what we think to be best for society. But an emphatic NO as to whether the title sociologist gives us the final say as to what is best for society. What I do personally think as an aspiring sociologist is that I have a vested interest in communicating my research findings to various publics. My reasons include creating more interest in the discipline, which is likely related to legitimacy, as well as giving another OPTION for ways of thinking about problems outside of the traditional individualist boot-strap kinds of "common sense" that encourages looking past societal structures and institutions that contribute so much to the inequality I study.

Thursday, August 26, 2004 10:08:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Volscho said...

Great thoughts, I disagree with none of it! I learned to look at Public Sociology differently, but I agree with Erin that once the dust settles, people will see that our dissent was well-intentioned. It would be a grave problem if we became too politicized...did you know that Geography is teeming with Marxists? That partially explains why they have few departments at major universities and when they do they do not always get much in terms of resources. Good Post! I shall print it out!

Thursday, August 26, 2004 12:29:00 PM  
Blogger Gord said...

Great post! It is often a difficult tightrope the social scientist walks, I think, because the legitimate role of the scientist is objective and apolitical, yet, an intellectual is embedded in a political system. While we may need to emulate physicists in certain ways, for instance as you say to "preserve the efficacy of our research in public debates", many times this emulation of the cold disinterested scientist can be unhealthy for sociologists, especially methodologicaly.

According to the positivists one cannot ask the most pressing question, one at the core of sociology's insecurity about its public image: how similar are social phenomena to the "physical" study of electrons or a projectil's velocity in vector space? This question involves metaphysics, which the positivists have purged from academia. We are forced to side-step this question to get to our "work", the work that is rewarded in a political system. So, I guess it's the image we need to uphold because the politics affect our research regardless for our commitment to 19th century scientific detachment. In this regard I agree with you, however, I wonder how the "truth" is affected, and what we can do to promote it in a more passionate and self-less manner.

Thursday, August 26, 2004 1:58:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Folks,

Erin: I understand your motivations, and respect them, but I think we can do more as professionals, and as a professional organization, by letting our research speak for us. You're right, we are all effected by the war, but we're all effected by pretty much everything we study. That just isn't enough of a reason for me. Again, I understand and respect your reasoning, it just isn't convincing to me.

I think, perhaps, what the political wing of public sociology might consider is forming an explicitly political organization of sociologists outside the ASA, but with ties to it. I'm thinking, loosely, of the arrangement between "Doctors Without Borders" and the AMA. Certainly DWB could be said to have a particular political content, and certainly the presence of educated medical professionals in it lends it support, but its stands do not necessarily reflect, positively or negatively, on the main professional organization for U.S. doctors, the American Medical Association. This may seem like I'm trying to kick the politicals out of the ASA, but that wouldn't be correct. Rather, I'm arguing that we should all be members of our major professional organization but have additional groups that allow sociologists (who choose to do so) to speak to politics AS sociologists. This seems to me to be a nice way to have our cake, and eat it too.

Regarding your response to my arrogance paragraph, you say, "What I do personally think as an aspiring sociologist is that I have a vested interest in communicating my research findings to various publics. My reasons include creating more interest in the discipline, which is likely related to legitimacy, as well as giving another OPTION for ways of thinking about problems outside of the traditional individualist boot-strap kinds of "common sense" that encourages looking past societal structures and institutions that contribute so much to the inequality I study." We're in total agreement, here, but that's public sociology regardless of any political content. Political content goes beyond merely presenting research and giving options to the advocacy of a specific policy. It's that final step that I am unwilling to take.

Tom: I am quite surprised to hear that Marxists dominate geography. How, I wonder, does it express itself in their work? Are there proletariat/bourgeoisie concentration relief maps? If so, do they take orders? Also: I'm surprised to hear you're going to print my post out.

Gord: I think I see it less as sidestepping and more as an appropriate set of scope conditions. To the extent that sociology is the SCIENTIFIC study of social phenomena, it must limit itself to studying things that can be dealt with within that context. This is the root of my sense that religion and science are fundamentally separate and are not inevitably opposed systems of thought. Still, there's a lot of grey area here.

To All: I am pleased that y'all like the post so much, but that you did means that I have failed in my stated intention to, "...excise any such valuable contributions before posting." So, I guess, this is bittersweet for me.

Really bloody interesting, though. Thanks for commenting!

Thursday, August 26, 2004 3:00:00 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

Came to this discussion late, but I'm impressed. Very good points all around. Just added an extension to your argument over at publicsociology.

Friday, August 27, 2004 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

I came late, so I'll stay late. I would second Gord's point about social 'science.' I think this is what I was trying to get at with my Boltanski post. If we admit sociology as the 'scientific' study of society, as you suggest in your response to Gord, then according to Boltanski we have foreclosed parts of the social world that are not reachable with that method. However, if we use non-positivist approaches to studying the social world, our findings won't exactly resemble a 'physics of society.' (And of course 'non-positivist' does not mean 'not rigorous'.) My position, I think, is that there must be room for both approaches in sociology, because that is the only hope we have for possibly having access to, much less comphrehending, social life. And the debate will certainly sharpen the wits of both camps.

Friday, August 27, 2004 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

glad you stayed nicholas. good points. positivist methods are fine for certain questions, but only certain questions. if you have questions about socio-historical processes, there is no data set available or often people to interview (unless you get some grant for a medium to get those that have passed - totally kidding).

Friday, August 27, 2004 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

How did you know about my SSRC grant application to build a time machine?!? That was supposed to be under wraps.... :)

Friday, August 27, 2004 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Well, there we go! See, I'm a bit of a positivist, and just am not interested in non-positivist questions when it comes to sociology. This is not to say that they aren't important, just that I deal with them in other realms of my life.

I will say that I think that positivist and non-positivist approaches to sociology will always be in the discipline, so they should learn to get along. Mostly.

But conflict is still a good thing.

Friday, August 27, 2004 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

i also agree that constructive, respectful conflict is a good thing drek. it helps us refine and better understand other positions and really good discussions help us better understand our own. i think this is one of those good debates.

one last thing on the framing of the whole politicization thing. and then, i'll try to stop. i am of the political sociologist (or sociology of knowledge persuasion, wherever you want to couch me) persuasion that politics is inherent in science, positivism, objectivism, and yes professionalism. as such, the the "politicization of professional sociology" as i unthinkingly titled the link on prairie sociology to this post, is redundant. it not a question of politics, its what kind of politics. just because it's implicit, or normalized, doesn't mean it isn't political already.

o.k. thanks for the opportunity to think these things out. i look forward to more constructive conflicts:) and respectful debates.

Monday, August 30, 2004 7:59:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...


Yeah, I kinda thought that was the perspective you were arguing from. The funny thing is, I actually agree with you to a certain extent. We really only start to differ as to the consequences of that inherent perspective, rather than in terms of its presence.

Hey, I wouldn't get too used to constructive debate around here. I find mindless harangues to be so much more fun.

Good chatting with you.

Monday, August 30, 2004 8:44:00 AM  

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