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ARS - The Culminating Crisis of American Sociology (House 2019)
Mar 30, 2021

House, James S. 2019. “The Culminating Crisis of American Sociology and Its Role in Social Science and Public Policy: An Autobiographical, Multimethod, Reflexive Perspective.” Annual Review of Sociology 45(1):1–26.

James House recounts his 50-year career as a sociologist, starting in the 1960s. He held prominent positions at the Survey Research Center and Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. In short, the story of sociology after the 1960s and 70s is not optimistic. Since its heyday, the discipline has lost its scientific reputation on account of internal disagreements about theory and methods and receded from policy discussions. These trends are not unrelated.

Sociology clearly spoke to many social changes in the 1960s, and saw rapid rise of enrollments, public interest, and prestige in the 1970s. There was even a proposal to form a presidential “Council of Social Advisors” with a dashboard of social indicators to match the Council of Economic Advisors (formed in 1946). This never happened but the work of Coleman and Moynihan clearly show(ed) that sociology is relevant to important policy decisions. The 1980s saw large funding cuts for science and research and “interdisciplinary research and training declined as disciplinary units circled their wagons to protect the dwindling resources they had.” (House 2019:11). Economics – the study of how individual and organizations make choices under constrained opportunities and resources – emerged as “the most scientific, objective, and nonideological of the social sciences” (House 2019:13), and gained prominent seats in public policy conversations and government departments. The 1990s saw increasing frustration within sociology (see Coser 1993, Cole 1994). Michael Burawoy led ASA through its 100-year anniversary in 2005 and proposed a framework of instrumental knowledge (professional and policy) and reflexive knowledge (critical and public) that speak to academic and extra-academic audiences (respectively). While professional sociology is the core of the discipline, he argues that an over-emphasis on the instrumental dimension is detrimental and advocates more critical / public sociology. ASA has largely followed his lead in the last fifteen years. Calhoun’s (2007) ASA centennial book is “largely an exercise in critical historical sociology” that focuses on group conflicts rather than disciplinary progress or contributions.

House sees three options for sociology going forward: 1) dissolve completely into other disciplines, 2) band together under unified vision, or 3) split into two camps that emphasize a) scientific / empirics and b) humanistic / philosophy. He sees option 2 as ideal and option 3 as more realistic. Today’s dominant paradigms for human behavior are economic, information flows, and genes / bio. Sociology studies macro structures that emerge from these micro processes and is (still) well-suited to contribute to the understanding of modern life.

I enjoyed this article for its advocacy of both science and policy: it’s because of scientific rigor that you’re invited to the policy table. It’s okay to be self critical as a discipline, but too much makes you seem disorganized and unprofessional. I think the split is already happening: Vaisey was on the Annex podcast talking about the German split, recent Sociological Theory article on “sociological reflexivity,” etc. But it sounds like the split has been happening since the 90s… I wasn’t alive to verify the history he tells, but I’ve felt the consequences of a weak core in the short time I’ve been involved. It’s easy to get on the side of “scientific rigor” and the promises of prestige that come with (cf. Jonathan Turner).

Copyright © 2021 John A. Bernau

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