The Last Sociologist and Other Tales

There’s an interesting debate afoot on where sociology is going as a discipline. In part, it was kicked off by an opinion piece that Harvard’s Orlando Patterson wrote for the NYT. Entitled "The Last Sociologist", he praised his mentor David Riesman and Erving Goffman, then said:

These two scholars – and others like C. Wright Mills, William F. Whyte, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Peter Berger – practiced a sociology different in both style and substance from that of today. It was driven first by the significance of the subject and second by an epistemological emphasis on understanding the nature and meaning of social behavior. This is an understanding that can only emerge from the interplay of the author’s own views with those of the people being studied.

These writers, following an earlier tradition, pursued big issues like the cultural contradictions of capitalism, the role of religion in economic life, the problems of America’s melting-pot ideology, the nature of civil society and the virtues and dangers of patriotism. But they also painted on small canvases, offering us insights into American rituals of interaction in public and private places. They wrote about the ways we avoid each other, the ravages of stigma, the search for honor behind the behavior of young men in gangs on street corners. Their ideas became pervasive, entering the language with terms like "inner-directed," "power elite" and "masking techniques."

In an upbeat response, Berkeley’s Michael Burawoy was one of those who wrote that public sociology was alive and well in the US. Now the ANU’s John Braithwaite has hopped into the fold, arguing that sociology is particularly well-suited to interdisciplinary work (Download braithwaite_on_sociology.pdf).

Of course, what’s going on in economics shouldn’t be irrelevant. Stanford economist Ed Lazear, in a famous piece called "Economic Imperialism", argues that economic tools are very well-suited to answer plenty of sociological questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the piece was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which I’ve heard sociologists joke is the one of the best sociology journals in the world. As economists turn their tools to sociological questions, this will hopefully cause some sociologists to sharpen their empirical tools, and others to move to more qualitative work, where their comparative advantage is greatest.

In the case of Australia, I’m inclined to agree with Orlando Patterson. It worries me that much sociology isn’t either (a) empirically rigorous, or (b) engaging with larger public questions. There are certainly exceptions to this (Dennis Altman, John Braithwaite, Eva Cox and Bob Connell are a few sociologists who’ve been publicly active on big questions), but I wish there were more like them.

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1 Response to The Last Sociologist and Other Tales

  1. mike says:

    Wow. It is not often that I can read this much and still feel ignorant of the issues being debated. It seems to me that sociology is being factionalised.

    I would take some umbrage at economics being called a soft science but would embrace the thoughts that it is socially conscious. Arguments not supported by fact tend to be a little ethereal but this should not diminish there validity.

    Perhaps Economics is the science of sociology and sociology in and of its self are the philosophers of sociology.

    How would each…the economist and the sociologist respond to the question : What would happen if we discovered Superior intelligent life on another planet ?

    Could this be modelled in an economic sense…would our behaviour be embracing or would it be fearful?

    It is the responsibility of economists to document behaviour and of sociologists to try to rationalise it. Why do people save (MPS) expectations (fears) shout the economist. Why are people scared asks the sociologist. It is a macro micro view.

    This was an interesting if slightly mind numbing exercise for the day.

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