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Challenging Conventionality

The Politics of Social Science

by MATT VIDAL

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof lamented the lack of influence of professors in “today’s great debates.” Many academics took to the blogosphere retorting that, yes, in fact, public intellectualism is alive and thriving in the academy. My colleague Chris Prener posted a more sympathetic response on the Work in Progress blog, arguing that having a twitter account and a blog does not make an academic a public intellectual. It is the content of the message, not the medium, which matters.

Both Chris and I agree with Kristof that there are not enough public intellectuals because of structural and cultural barriers within the academy, including a tenure process that rewards only academic output and places severe time constraints on the ability of academics to engage wider audiences.

Unfortunately, Kristof completely loses the plot when he suggests that economics is more engaged in “real-world debates” than sociology because the former has more Republican members (plus more “empiricism and rigor”).

To begin, Kristof states that “Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.”

The implication here is that a discipline can somehow collectively influence the political diversity of its members, perhaps by teaching a wider range of viewpoints to students. But academics are drawn to particular disciplines because they think a given discipline asks the right questions, offers the best theories, and produces the most relevant and valid findings.

My guess is that in most cases sociologists have chosen to become sociologists because they think that sociological theories offer better explanations of the world than economic theories do. In any case, sociologists do offer alternative theories to phenomena central to economics: prices (Beunza, Hardie, MacKenzie), market dynamics (Krippner), work organization (Vallas, Beck), labor markets (Bernhardt & Scott), financial markets (Carruthers & Kim), financial crisis (Lounsbury & Hirsch), inequality (Western & Rosenfeld), macroeconomic growth (Vidal) and so on.

To the extent that sociologists are sociologists because they think sociology provides better explanations than economics, to suggest they should try to broaden political diversity is to miss the mark. The primary goal of an academic discipline is to get the story correct. If the theories required to get the story right have a political slant – which I think they do – then so be it.

Sociologists tend to be leftists, I submit, because the sociological theories they believe in emphasize the socially constructed nature of categories like race and nationality, the social and political nature of economies, and the structural power dynamics that reproduce inequalities within and across organizations, labor markets, national economies and the global economy. As sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein argued decades ago, the choice of a theoretical framework is an inherently political choice.

A close second place to the primary goal of getting the story correct is to communicate the story effectively to the general public. Social scientists need to be driven first by the search for truth, but we should also strive to translate our findings from jargon-laden theory and sophisticated methods written for other scientists – which are necessary for scientific development – into more accessible versions written for the literate public.

While sociologists should not be concerned with political diversity, the academy does need structural and cultural change to increase publicly-oriented output. Unfortunately, I doubt this will have much effect on increasing the influence of sociology in public policy, because the theories of sociology and economics – not simply political orientations within the disciplines – have a different relation to the status quo, something that Kristof misses entirely. Thus, he argues:

“In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in column, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.”

It’s going to take a bit of time to parse all of the things that are wrong with Kristof’s statement.

First and most obviously, this directly contradicts his argument about the political diversity of disciplines: Economics is dominated by the right, a political mirror image of sociology, yet this lack of political diversity has not marginalized economics.

Second, it is quite simply absurd to suggest that having more Republicans makes a discipline more likely to engage in real-world debates. A similar argument could be made that sociology has more social activists, who are by their nature interested in social policy.

Third, sociology, along with political science, is an empirical field whose academic journals and books are filled with studies using the exact same methods as economics. Although sociology tends to use more qualitative methods than economics, there are entire sub-disciplines – such as stratification – grounded in state-of-the-art quantitative methods like hierarchical linear modeling, structural equation modeling, and so on. But to stop here would be to take Kristof’s bait, namely, that quantitative methods are more rigorous than qualitative methods. This position, however, is nothing more than the fetishization of numbers. The use of hard stats is no guarantee of rigor, and qualitative data can be systematically analyzed with the same level of diligence and sophistication as quantitative.

But this is all a distraction from recognizing the elephant in the room: Economics produces theories that justify the status quo and serve the interests of powerful at the expense of the interests of the powerless. Problems such as poverty, low-wage work, discrimination, and inequality are necessary explained in terms of individual deficiencies (lack of human capital, effort and motivation) or impersonal technology.

Sociology, in contrast, produces theories that emphasize structural problems associated with capitalist economies and power relations within them, including class, race and gender dynamics. Sociological theories reveal underlying power dynamics that are often hidden by economic theories, highlighting forms of injustice that are produced by existing institutions and hence not easily remedied within them.

Sociology produces hundreds of articles and books each year on the most pressing issues facing society – just as economics does. The difference is that sociological explanations challenge received wisdom and existing institutions, whereas economic explanations tend to reinforce them. This, more than the lack of public engagement, explains why papers such as the New York Times consistently ignore sociologists in favor of economists in their reporting.

Matt Vidal is Senior Lecturer in Work and Organizations at King’s College London. He is editor-in-chief of the Work in Progress blog of the American Sociological Association, where this article first ran. You can followMatt on Twitter @ChukkerV.