Sociology is a broad discipline. As the general “social science” it overlaps considerably with history, anthropology, political science, and economics, not to mention African American Studies, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, Communication Studies, et al. While some see this breadth as a positive attribute, the dangers of a fragmented discipline are hard to ignore. As Stinchcombe (2001) argues, sociologists do not agree on the appropriate subject matter nor the way to measure it. What lies in store for a discipline that shares neither an epistemology nor a substantive focus? This lack of a “core” threatens both the coherence of sociology as a self-conscious branch of scientific study and its continued existence as an administrative department which “studies everything and owns nothing.” Perhaps sociology will go the way of philosophy, who’s subject matter gave birth to the thriving subfields known today as “physics”, “law”, and “mathematics.” Successful subfields like criminology and public health have already begun to distance themselves from sociology departments. This diversity can produce subjective side-effects too. After years of deliberate study, sociologists can easily take a wrong turn at the national ASA conference and find themselves in a hallway of (ostensible) peers speaking a different scientific language. What does one studying the micro-interactions of rural LGBTQ youth (De Pedro, Lynch, and Esqueda 2018) have to say to someone studying the political diffusion of the welfare state in the post-communist Eastern Bloc (Cook 2007)?
One solution to this fragmentation is to sequester yourself deeper within the confines of your subfield, only reading your ASA section newsletters, sticking to your preferred journals, and avoiding certain conference center hallways. I argue for a different solution: reading generalist journals. This is the best way to sustain a common thread of professional discourse to unite our diasporic discipline. While there is no shortage of “frontier” knowledge filling the pages of countless journals, scientific progress in the formal sense implies some of these cutting-edge studies come to constitute our universally shared body of knowledge (Cole 2001). Not to mention the vital professional development these journals offer to scholars young and old. A newly minted PhD has only scratched the surface of a 150-year-old field, and it is the rare senior scholar who claims to have nothing to learn about research design, theoretical motivation, analytical procedures, and writing style. I think reading our generalist flagship journals offers one significant way to resist the push towards academic specialization and to sustain some semblance of a shared community among sociologists.
Max Weber on Academic Specialization
“One’s own work must inevitably remain highly imperfect. Only by strict specialization can the scientific worker become fully conscious, for once and perhaps never again in his lifetime, that he has achieved something that will endure. A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment. And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders, so to speak, and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science.”
- Max Weber, Science as a Vocation ( 1958:135)
Emile Durkheim on Shared Ideas and Shared Community
“A religious society does not exist without a collective credo and it is more or less strong and united according to whether this credo is more widely held…The greater the area of free inquiry that a religious group abandons to the judgment of individuals, the more it will be absent from their lives, and the less cohesion and vitality it will possess.”
-Emile Durkheim, Suicide ( 2006:165)
Now, this concern may simply be a naïve and youthful striving for certainty; a desire to find the immoveable foundation to anchor one’s life. Yet the existence of this desire does nothing to prove the existence of a solution. It may also be a symptom of early-career bravado; an attempt to “set the discipline straight” before one’s diploma ink has dried. Maybe there are good reasons sociology must survive without a “core” of knowledge (Collins 2001). Whether “sociology” remains a useful description of academic research remains an open and important question. I have no prima facie objection to the splintering of sociology into autonomous subfields like demography and criminology (although it’s not without a certain level of budgetary detachment that one can argue sociology could reasonably support departmental offspring).
Lastly, it is easy to argue for the benefits of a given practice, and my suggestion to read generalist journals may fall into the unwelcome company of “exercise thirty minutes a day” and “eat your vegetables.” Put bluntly: who has extra time to read generalist journals? Well, as one example, the American Journal of Sociology publishes six issues a year with about five articles per issue. This amounts to around thirty articles a year. To keep up with this output, one would only have to read one article every two weeks. The potential impossibility of this commitment should instigate a separate conversation about the culture of speed in academia (Berg and Seeber 2017).
At the end of the day, in Weber’s words, “The ultimately possible attitudes toward life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion. Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice.” (1958:152). I have presented what I see to be an important problem in sociology and proposed one solution. Questions about sociological “progress” or “core knowledge” deserve a more detailed treatment, and the felt need for community among sociologists will obviously vary. Alas, according to Weber, I can give no answers to questions of value, for I am no prophet or savior. It is up to each of us to “find and obey the demon who holds the fibers of his very life.” (1958:156)
Berg, Maggie and Barbara K. Seeber. 2017. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.
Berger, Peter L. 1967. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Open Road Media.
Bergmann, Werner. 1992. “The Problem of Time in Sociology: An Overview of the Literature on the State of Theory and Research on the `Sociology of Time’, 1900-82.” Time & Society 1(1):81–134.
Cole, Stephen. 2001. “Why Sociology Doesn’t Make Progress Like the Natural Science.” in What’s Wrong with Sociology?, edited by S. Cole. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers.
Collins, Randall. 2001. “Why the Social Science Won’t Become High-Consensus, Rapid-Discovery Science.” Pp. 61–84 in What’s Wrong with Sociology?, edited by S. Cole. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers.
Cook, Linda J. 2007. Postcommunist Welfare States: Reform Politics in Russia and Eastern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
De Pedro, Kris T., R. Jason Lynch, and Monica C. Esqueda. 2018. “Understanding Safety, Victimization and School Climate Among Rural LGBTQ Youth.” Journal of LGBT Youth 1–15.
Durkheim, Emile. 1995. Elementary Forms Of The Religious Life, Newly Translated By Karen E. Fields. 11th Printing edition. New York: Free Press.
Durkheim, Emile.  2006. Suicide: A Study In Sociology. New York: Penguin Books.
Radkau, Joachim. 2011. Max Weber: A Biography. Cambridge, U.K.; Malden, MA: Polity.
Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 2001. “Disintegrated Disciplines and the Future of Sociology.” Pp. 85–98 in What’s Wrong with Sociology?, edited by S. Cole. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers.
Weber, Max. 1958. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. edited by H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.