The End of Sociology?
John H. Summers
About a decade ago university administrators began closing sociology
departments and reducing funding for the survivors. For a brief
time sociology seemed to face wholesale elimination. A rash of
eulogies appeared in the journals, followed by recriminations,
and before long the field degenerated into the kind of academic
narcissism that accompanies plummeting prestige. In this way,
the end-of-sociology literature supplied evidence for the main
allegation against the field, that it had retreated into parochialism.
In his very good reply to these developments,
Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation (1989), Alan
Wolfe traced the ironic emergence of a sociology without society.
Rather than endlessly elaborating theories of state and economy,
he said, professional sociologists could recover their vitality
by helping citizens understand the moral conflicts generated by
these institutions. Civil society served as the natural location
for sociological inquiry.
Intellectual in Public (University of Michigan Press, $29.95,
cloth), Wolfes new book, provides a splendid example of the
sort of civic work sociologists might pursue. The collection consists
of book review essays previously published in magazines such as
the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Chronicle
of Higher Education. Read straight through, the collection advances
First, it suggests the book review
as a vehicle for popular education. For many years newspapers and
magazines have justified themselves as such agents of public awareness.
In practice, their review sections often collapse under the weight
of political, financial, and status pressures that accompany the
publication of new books. Wolfe resists these pressures as effectively
as any critic now writing. His essay Anti-American Studies
excoriates recent developments in the academic field of American
studies, charging its leftist leaders with a hatred of their subject.
Wolfe also eviscerates conservatives in their institutional home,
the policy institute. In The Revolution That Never Was
he explains why conservatives in America have been unable
to come up with any sustained and significant ideas capable of giving
substance to their complaints against the modern world. I say ideas,
not slogans. That Wolfes book instructs so judiciously
and skillfully in the leading issues of our time, much more so than
the sociology journals, seems to me a genuine achievement. Wolfe
says he began writing reviews out of curiosity and only later came
to understand the task as a contribution to democracy. An Intellectual
in Public gives every reason to believe him.
But the collections second proposition
miscarries. The main fault of our books, according to Wolfe, lies
with their dependence on ideology. He never says what he means by
ideology. Sometimes it signifies a set of ideas wrapped
too tightly around an authors political views. Other times,
Wolfe makes ideology take the blame for sloppy research. The proposition
becomes a shibboleth. Wolfe believes that Americans hate politics,
desire consensus, and observe moderate taste and opinion. If we
have learned anything from the neoliberalism of the 1990s, it is
that such a complex of beliefs raises an ideology all its own, replete
with hidden political imperatives. In any case, the soft form of
ideology simply provides some discipline to thought. Given the omnipresence
of slogans, scandals, and images in our public life, maybe we need
more ideology, not less.
* * *
We surely need to improve our collective
imagination. This idea guides Steven P. Dandaneaus Taking
It Big: Developing Sociological Consciousness in Postmodern Times
(Pine Forge Press, $32.95, paper), another book that tries to inject
a note of vitality into academic sociology by finding a public purpose
for it. Dandaneau, professor of sociology at the University of Dayton,
has none of Wolfes suspicion of reform. Thinking sociologically,
Dandaneau says, entails a radical form of awareness, an imagination
capable of reflecting on experience by grasping connections between
self and world. This heightened awareness throws up dilemmas the
solving of which become its main task. What is the role of individual
action in environmental degradation? What is the role of environmental
degradation in the health of individuals? This book is, therefore,
ultimately about politics.
Well, yes and no. Like Peter Bergers
Invitation to Sociology, for many years the best brief introduction
to the field, Taking It Big argues that the sociological
perspective is, by definition, a critical form of consciousness.
That something lurks behind reality is axiomatic to social reflection.
Received political truths get no exemption. Dandaneau accordingly
has many sharp words for contemporary society. On the other hand,
when he discusses disabled children, Generation X, and contemporary
religionthemes on which the book pivotshe betrays no
prefabricated ideology. Judged against the crop of new
books trying to make sociology compelling to students, Taking
It Big is especially inviting, even charming. How many books
take the time to instruct in the proper pronunciation of Max Weber
In spite of the disappointment that
carries the mood of these books, Wolfe and Dandaneau conclude with
a feeling of qualified hope about the future of social study. Why?
In part, its because they are sensitive, as most of their
peers are not, to a tradition of nonspecialized sociology that has
persisted alongside the professional ethos they deplore. Unlike
the radical sociologists of the 1960s, who faced a comparable crisis,
Dandaneau and Wolfe do not call for a New Sociology.
Instead, they see the task as one of renewal.
Even this more modest aspiration meets
overwhelming obstacles. In the first place, persuading sociologists
to pay attention to alternative traditions means confronting the
methodological fetishism and scientific pretension that have dominated
the field for a half century. It implies, moreover, a challenge
to the very organization of academic life. Professional specialities
have so completely fragmented our collective cultural resources
that academic intellectuals of each new generation must struggle
against their chosen field if they hope, with Wolfe and Dandaneau,
to apply their ideas to public problems. This struggle has its own
history, but now it may present the most severe challenge.
* * *
Nonetheless, the tradition by which
public intellectuals hope to resurrect sociology asks compelling
questions. What is the American character? No professional sociologist
yet has answered this question with as much verve and ingenuity
as Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy
in America (University of Chicago Press, $35, cloth), a
study that repays rereading. Tocqueville believed the rise of equality
enacted one of the great dramas in the history of humankind. This
whole book has been written under the impulse of a kind of religious
dread inspired by contemplation of this irresistible revolution
advancing century by century over every obstacle and even now going
forward amid the ruins it has itself created.
Equality, Tocqueville said, worked
paradoxical effects on American character. For example, equality
overturned the languid psychology of fixed classes common to aristocracies,
and sent a superabundance of energy coursing through democratic
social life. Lacking a stable foundation for their opinions, Americans
gained a keen feeling for the power of individual reason to win
the world. This confidence in turn generated an astonishing level
of experimentation and innovation.
At the same time, Tocqueville continued,
equality granted that virtue was equally distributed throughout
society. And this predisposed each individual to surrender moral
and intellectual authority to the majority. Thus, public opinion,
rooted in the power of individual reason, continually poisoned its
source. Tocqueville concluded that public opinion imposed itself
on mens very souls. The American character was
simultaneously the most innovative and the most conservative in
Tocqueville sounded a call
for a new class of intellectuals to educate the populace in such
ironies. He could not have anticipated that irony would accompany
even this cry. As the social studies developed in the United States
on the model of natural science, they proved less and less able
to recognize the sort of broad inquiry Tocqueville practiced. Had
Democracy in America appeared in the 1950s it might have
been dismissed by sociologists as the work of a talented amateur.
This was nearly the fate of the decades most brilliant inquiry
into the national character, 1950s The
Lonely Crowd (Yale University Press, $17.95, paper), another
book that commends our attention.
David Riesman, its chief
author, did not have a doctorate in sociology. He took a law degree
at Harvard, then worked as assistant to the treasurer at the Sperry
Gyroscope Company in New York. The interviews that form the heart
of the book bucked a trend within sociology to standardize and quantify
the relationship between investigator and interviewee. Riesman instead
treated the interviews as an aspect of the art of conversation.
For these reasons sociologists treated the book coolly, at least
until a reading public made it a bestseller and put Riesman on the
cover of Time. The Lonely Crowd went on to sell more
than 1.4 million copies.
The books inquiry into the
Changing American Character, as the subtitle read, addressed
a generation demoralized by war, over-organized by bureaucracy,
and over-socialized by the routines of family and friendship. Riesman
noticed that older forms of character were rapidly disappearing
in the face of these developments. Neither the tradition-directed
nor the inner-directed type, he argued, could long withstand
the centripetal forces set in motion by the corporate economy, which
encouraged a new, other- directed type.
The inner-directed American followed
an internal gyroscope, immune to external pressure.
The tradition-directed American obeyed archaic customs and rules.
The new American, by contrast, was more malleable, more passive.
Other- direction came to signify mindless conformity, although Riesmans
insights into the connections between conduct, inner life, and social
organization bore a more complicated analysis. The distinction of
the book lay in a paradox worthy of Tocqueville. In the midst of
their abundance, middle-class Americans felt weak, isolated, as
anxious as ever.
Successors to Democracy in America
and The Lonely Crowd, books such as Christopher Laschs
Culture of Narcissism (W.W. Norton, $14.95, paper) and Robert
Bellahs 1985 Habits
of the Heart (University of California Press, $17.95, paper)
have in common with them not only the attempt to grasp the traits
of the American character. At its best this attempt can make only
partial, time-bound judgments. These books commend themselves to
us today because they solicit our attention as members of the commonwealth.
They make us part of something bigger than ourselves. What sort
of people are Americans? No question could be more romantic to a
sociology without society. In these days of worldwide
confusion and distress, however, no question could possibly be more
John H. Summers is a doctoral
candidate in American history at the University of Rochester.
He teaches social studies at Harvard.
Originally published in the December
2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review