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Friday, October 19, 2007

Sociology is Better Now

A couple weeks ago, Fabio Rojas posted a provocative claim on, that the heavy theoretical lifting of sociology was mostly done in the 1970s. (See also here, here, a critical response from Jeremy Freese here). Though I'm sure that none of the fine folks at intended to say that they wished we could go back to those times, I'm surprised that the conversation about Big Theory in the golden age never got around to touching on an important issue: the exclusivity of academics in this, our supposed hey day.

Is it just us whiny feminists who bring up the fact that women were barely included back then, let alone people of color? Is it passé to bring up that maybe the big ideas with big explanations for big phenomena didn't always cover all of the people they claimed to?

And what about all the great work since 1980? You know, just about the entire body of scholarship in the sociology of gender, for example (yo! shout out to West and Zimmerman 1987). And, Tearoom Trade notwithstanding, we didn't have much idea about the sociology of sexualities until after 1980 (word up to Simon and Gagnon 1986!). The intersectional studies of race, class and gender dates back only to the early 1990s (Patricia Hill Collins 1992 in the house!).

All of these post-1980 ideas seem big to me, not to mention worthy of taking up in new studies today. Of course, social problems folks would argue that how ideas come to be understood as Big or Influential or even Public Sociology is a function of social processes laden with power relations. Nonetheless, each of these fields has been very public in its engagement with contemporary issues, communication with broad audiences, and even policy implications.

Somehow, though, we want public sociology to speak to people, but not about issues of gender, race, or sexuality. That just brings the reputation of the field down ("victim sociology" anyone?). We want both status and public engagement. I find this debate about the status of sociology tiring. I don't want to go back to 1970s. In 1971, the ASA was still meeting at hotels that excluded women from their bars at certain times of the day.

By not talking about academic exclusion of the past, the conversation about what has happened since the 1970s is too nostalgic. As excluded groups have made challenges and worked their way into sociology, the theories produced within the discipline have become better: more astute, more reflective of lived realities. That this has also meant less cohesion and parsimony doesn't bother me much. I would argue that the world is a complex place; how we think about it should reflect that complexity. Sociology today is nowhere near perfect, but I think it's better now than then.


Blogger brayden said...

I also would rather be a sociologist today than in the 1970s. Besides the fact that our association is now more open to diverse perspectives, I also like having good statistical software packages, word processing programs, and computers with amazing processing power that have made being productive a lot easier. I think Fabio's point though was that the big theoretical innovations occurred in the late 1970s, particularly organizational theories. Most of the theoretical perspectives we use today in organizational theory originated in 1977 or shortly thereafter. Of course, this may not be true of other sociological areas of research. You mention gender studies and the sociology of sexuality as two areas that exhibited major theoretical breakthroughs in the 1980s. They are probably not alone.

Perhaps organizational theory peaked in the 1970s, while other research areas were just taking off. And perhaps this theoretical high-point had something to do with the fact that org. theory had been going strong as its own perspective for 25 years or so, while the study of sexuality and gender were still relatively young as unique perspectives.

Friday, October 19, 2007 5:14:00 PM  

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