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April 21, 2005

Donald Pittenger on Sociology 2

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Forgive me for keeping everyone in suspense about the continuation of Donald Pittenger's memories and reflections about sociology. I was enjoying a computer-free couple of days out of town. But I'm back in the Movable Type cockpit, refreshed and eager.

Today, Donald concludes his memoir about studying sociology in the '60s, and takes a look at what has become of what was once his field.


Sociology (cont.)
By Donald Pittenger

When I arrived at Dear Old Penn I had the chance to go into the new Ph.D. program in demography. A demography faculty member sat me by his desk and posed it this way: If you are interested in becoming a government statistician then get the demography Ph.D., but if you want an academic job then sociology is the better choice. I figured that teaching would be more fun than working for some government, so I opted to stay in the sociology program. The irony is that I never taught full-time and instead became a government statistician.

Demography was my area of concentration, so I took a lot of demography courses. My first year there, almost all the students were foreigners. They formed a tight little group that I made no effort to join. For one thing, I had (and still have) serious problems understanding people with thick accents. (This goes for native English-speakers too. Yorkshire and certain Midlands accents can be very difficult for me to crack. There were several times in England when my then-wife had to interpret for me when I was attempting something as simple as ordering coffee and pastries for breakfast. Domestically, I have the most trouble with Arkansas accents.) My experience with thick accents is that whereas I can pick out most verbs and adjectives, nouns usually drop to the floor. All-in-all, conversing with most foreign students was a tedious task, and I finally simply kept pretty much to myself during seminar coffee breaks.

We had one Israeli student (Moshe Sicron, who later headed Israel's census operations) and an Egyptian. In the fall of 1967, a few months after the Six Day War, they warily eyed each other during seminar sessions and almost never directly spoke to one another. Then there was an Iranian woman who dressed in drab-gray native attire. I bumped into her about 20 years later at a demography convention where she was dressed in western clothing and was trying to keep tabs on a couple of teen-aged daughters who seemed utterly American. By the way (sexism alert!!), it turns out that this Iranian woman had a pretty nifty figure: I never wudda guessed.

My second year at Dear Old Penn the guard changed in the demography group -- a number of American students joined the program, some of them very attractive and interesting women from Seven Sisters colleges. Oh, did I mention that one reason I had for going to grad school after the army was to meet women?

Besides demography, the other strong group associated with sociology at Dear Old Penn in the late '60s was Criminology (today a separate department). Most of my best friends were crim students, and they were perfectly happy to talk about cars and women and sports -- normal stuff. They also talked about criminology amongst themselves and I had little choice but to listen in.

I should mention that the academic discipline of criminology has nothing to do with crime-solving. It is mainly a study of social deviance in the broad sense and criminal deviance as a sub-set of the former. Much of the research has to do with social correlates and causes of deviant behavior. I am not very interested in most forms of deviant behavior and I almost never follow criminal cases in the news media. For these reasons, I never took any sociology classes dealing with deviance or crime.

Back then, the Grand Old Man in crim at Dear Old Penn was emeritus professor Thorsten Sellin (last name pronounced sell-EEN) who was an important figure in creating the scientific study of crime and the systematic collection of crime statistics. He also was adamantly opposed to the death penalty; if I were a total cynic, I might argue that such opposition was in his self-interest in that without the penalty, crime would continue on its merry way.

The course that held dread for all sociology grad students was the year-long class in Sociological Theory taught by University Professor (a crême de la crême job title that also paid big bucks) Philip Rieff. Rieff's class was intellectually demanding and had a large reading list. But the daunting thing was his reputation as a tough grader. To put his grading in context, understand that the standard pass-fail mark for graduate students at the time (and for all I know still is) a B; As and Bs are passing grades while even a C was considered a failing grade. Rieff was known to award Cs and even Ds. As best I recall, he only gave one student an A the year I had him.

These days Philip Rieff if he is known for anything is for the fact that he was once the late Susan Sontag's husband. Their only child, David Rieff, is a moderately well known author of books and essays; I remember seeing Philip and David around campus on weekends -- David was a pre-teen at the time. Philip Rieff, aside from the Susan Sontag angle, is known in scholarly circles as an expert on Freud and author of the book Freud: Mind of the Moralist.

Rieff would enter his theory class sometimes attired in a tweed jacket, jodhpurs and riding boots; at all times he dressed in an elegant, English fashion. He walked with a slight stoop and often taught seated on a tall stool to relieve pain from a back injury that we understood to have happened while playing college football (he was at least six feet tall, lean, and had wide shoulders, plus he sometimes quoted Vince Lombardi). He had a low-pitched voice and enunciated slowly and precisely, which added to our dread of our fates being placed in his hands. He seemed menacing, but in a refined way, of course.

One thing that threw us off stride was that Rieff disparaged sociology for its "mere empiricism" and that his initial lectures were about some dialogs of Plato. The first of these factors contradicted our notion that sociology was supposed to be scientific, the second was a shock because most sociology courses never deal with anything written much before the year 1900. The Plato business probably would not have been a problem to a student who had had a strong, classical liberal arts undergraduate education, but even in 1966 this was a rarity for sociology grad students.

Later on in the year he even mentioned Joseph de Maistre, of whom I and most of the rest of us had never heard, let alone read.

French hardliner De Maistre

By the way, Maistre was a Savoyard who served as the Kingdom of Sardinia's ambassador to St. Petersburg 1803-17, was a rabid royalist opponent of the French Revolution and also was an arch-reactionary Roman Catholic. He is interesting to read. For example, a French version of his Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg can be downloaded here. I have a copy, in English, of "Considerations on France" (Cambridge University Press, 1994, and I see it in bookstores from time to time. At the moment, it can be bought here.)

We were so intimidated by Rieff that we never got the message that he was probably a conservative. His line was so laden with history and intellectualism that it didn't occur to us that he didn't buy into the mainstream liberalism of the times, the invisible sea we grad students swam in. I only figured out that he was a conservative maybe 20 years later, a point confirmed in the February 1991 issue of Commentary. When I took his course, I was struggling to get out of it alive (I got a B, by the way), and I didn't have the background to figure out where he was coming from. The subsequent 20 years of reading and thinking finally got me to the point where I understood him.

If Rieff was a hidden conservative, a man named Albert Hobbs was the visible conservative in the sociology department. He was one of those poor souls who was a permanent Associate Professor; he had tenure, but was never going to be allowed to become a full Professor, probably owing to his conservatism. Hobbs always dressed neatly in a suit and tie and his undergraduate classes seemed to attract students. We graduate students avoided him totally.

Even though the Vietnam War was in full swing during my years at Dear Old Penn (1966-69) it never became a large issue in the sense of buildings being occupied as happened up the road at Columbia. Mixed in with the war was the counterculture movement, so at the time and in retrospect I find it hard to sort out which forces had what effects. My graduate student group was not especially rebellious, yet not unaffected by the zeitgeist.

The most salient event I can recall was the creation of a grad student publication that would contain research or writings of students. At a general group meeting the subject of the name for the journal arose. Some students suggested something "revolutionary." I forget what was proposed, but it might have been something like "The Penn Dissident Sociologist." Others in the group thought that a supposedly scholarly publication ought to have a more scholarly-sounding name, so suggestions were offered and one of the benign names was chosen.

One sensed that the faculty was wary of the grad students and I felt that a few of them were edging into the "student, please teach me" syndrome that was in the academic air in those days. The presumption was that students were a fresh, uncorrupted generation that implicitly understood the cultural revolution that was about to wash away all the evil of the capitalist, western world. This attitude that students should be teaching their teachers was something I could not stomach; if professors didn't have confidence in their knowledge and abilities, they had no business teaching, I believed.

The event sequence for getting a Ph.D. at Dear Old Penn was a bit different than usual. Most universities had students take a set of examinations (sometimes these could be spread over a period of years), then a dissertation had to be written and finally orally defended before a panel of professors. Instead, we took a bunch of written exams over a period of a few days and then faced a faculty panel for an oral examination 4-6 weeks later if we had passed the written part.

After that came the dissertation, which simply had to be accepted by a dissertation committee. (This system was abandoned at some point after I left; now the dissertation must be defended orally.) My grade average was better than at Washington and I managed to pass the written exams. I'll mention my oral exam only because of one of the panelists.

Philadelphia gent Baltzell

The panelist I'll mention was E. Digby Baltzell, author of "Philadelphia Gentlemen," a book I thoroughly enjoyed. I never took a class from him, but it was an honor and pleasure to have him on my examining committee. Baltzell was from a Philadelphia Main Line family and attended Dear Old Penn as an undergraduate. Given his social connections, he could write "Philadelphia Gentlemen" with an insider's perspective. I don't know his politics: they might have been trust-fund liberal, but I like to think he was simply an east coast liberal Republican of the Nelson Rockefeller school.

At this point, I lost direct contact with sociologists other than socially with my criminology pals and with my dissertation committee. I became a population forecaster for the state planning agency in Albany as I worked on my dissertation, finally earning a Ph.D. in 1973. I maintained membership in the American Sociological Association until 1980 or so, even attending an annual convention in San Francisco as late as 1978 or 1979.

But, never having been comfortable with sociology, I drifted farther and farther away from it as the discipline became increasingly left-wing while my voting pattern evolved from mostly supporting Democrats in 1970 to mostly voting for Republicans by 1980. I finally got sick of seeing sociologists scrambling to associate themselves with emerging victim-groups and their causes and I let my membership in the ASA lapse, cutting my last tie to sociology.

Where stands sociology today? I'm not the best source for answering that, having avoided the field for a quarter-century. But I'll give a quick try: informed comments to correct or amplify what I say are welcomed.

First, here is what I found on the Web site for the sociology department at Dear Old Penn. Criminology is now a separate department. Grad students apparently must concentrate in one (or possible more than one) "cluster." The six offered clusters are (1) Demography, (2) Medical Sociology, (3) Economic Sociology, (4) Culture, (5) Families, Gender and Work, and (6) Race, Ethnicity and Immigration in Urban Society.

Needless to say, this is a vastly different academic landscape than the one I encountered in 1966. When I was there, we dealt with areas such as sociological theory, research methodology and statistics, social psychology, organizations, demography and criminology.

Here are out-take blubs that appear when you scroll over some of the cluster names: "Sociology of Immigration, Race and Ethnicity in Urban Society considers the interplay of race, ethnicity and inequality in contemporary and historical cities, and how immigration influences these dynamic relationships." "Sociology of Culture examines the emergence and impact of meaning systems in ethnic communities; urban neighborhoods; religious, scientific, and political organizations; the arts; and the mass media."

To me, this does not sound very scientific or even necessarily scholarly; use of the word "inequality" connotes a state that is assumed to exist, a given, not something that itself could be subject to study (and I'm pretty sure they don't mean inequality of abilities).

Now that I'm in a quoting mood, let me cherry-pick from the department's Spring 2005 course descriptions posted on the Internet. Introduction to Sociology (for undergraduates) among other things "deconstructs our taken for granted world of social interactions and behaviors and examines what theory and research can tell about human social behavior." The word "deconstructs" is a red flag calling to mind Derrida, et. al.

The description of another undergraduate course, American Society, begins "America is a land of paradox. We have the highest rate of educational attainment in the world, yet we are also far more religious than any European nation." The clear implication here (note the word "yet") is that education and religion should be incompatible.

Another undergraduate offering is Sociology of Gender; the description ends with "But there are not only differences between societies but also within societies -- race and class interact with gender resulting in different norms." Here the word to ponder is "class" which is assumed to be a given. Okay, the subject country for the course happens to be Germany which might have more of an inherited social position situation than in America. Nevertheless, I contend that "class" is a debatable concept when applied to modern societies, especially what are called "post-industrial" societies; such use of "class" is Marxism-on-autopilot in my opinion.

At the graduate level, the main item that caught my attention was a distinction between "classical" and "contemporary" sociological theories. I assume "classical" refers to the theories I was exposed to in grad school and "contemporary" includes deconstructionism, post-Marxism and the other leftist stuff rattling around English departments, perhaps along with more scientifically-oriented theories based on micro-economic exchange applied in a broader social context.

My impression is that sociology at Dear Old Penn has changed dramatically from what it was in my day. Much of it seems to have become politicized to the point of worthlessness. Even good old demography, a numbers-oriented field, seems to be tugged more into the policy-making/evaluation orbit with perhaps as much emphasis being placed on social/economic "causal" factors in demographic behavior as on quantitatively describing the behavior itself.

So much for Dear Old Penn. What about the University of Washington where I got my MA degree? Washington always had a more-highly regarded sociology program than did Dear Old Penn (aside from the fields of criminology and demography, where Dear Old Penn was probably better). Again, I went to the departmental Web site.

Washington expects Ph.D. students to take exams in two areas, a major and a minor. Current areas are Demography and Ecology (the latter means spatial distribution of population and its attributes), Deviance and Social Control, Family and Kinship, Gender, Institutional Analysis, Social Psychology, Stratification, Race and Ethnic Relations, and Theory. A student has the option of petitioning to be examined in a custom-specified field. Aside from "Gender," all the area titles just listed would have been familiar to any sociology grad student of my generation.

The Web site lists courses by title, but no descriptions are given as was the case with Dear Old Penn. Scanning the courses offered at all levels for the 2004-5 academic year reveals little in the way of overt politicizing. Most course titles seem bland: Introduction to the Sociology of Deviance, The Family, Race Relations, Fertility and Mortality, and so on.

A few that jump out a little include (1) Sects and Violence: Cults, Religions, Innovation, and Social Conflict, (2) National Social Movements: Current Trends and Explanations, (3) War, (4) Murder, and (5) Ethnicity, Business, Unions, and Society. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these innocuous titles provide cover for red-hot deconstructionist propaganda: the instructor will do what he will. Nevertheless, superficially at least, the 2004-5 Washington curriculum seems largely the same as what I faced in 1964-5, 40 years ago.

A Blowhards reader who is intimately familiar with the current state of sociology contacted me and offered the observation that the more prestigious departments (such as Washington) tended to remain more traditional and rigorous than lesser departments (such as "Siwash State College"). Dear Old Penn ranks far closer to Washington than to Siwash, yet it has clearly been politicized.

Something that emerged recently is "Public Sociology," which appears in many places if you mouse around the American Sociological Association web site. I had some thoughts as to what Public Sociology might be, but couldn't locate a good explanation. My helpful informant directed me to an article titled "Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities" in the journal Social Forces (June 2004, Vol. 84, No. 4, pp. 1603-18) by Michael Burawoy of University of California (Berkeley). (A PDF of this article is here.) The piece is bland, setting out an innocent-seeming justification for the existence of Public Sociology.

Burawoy begins by contrasting a failed 1968 attempt to have the ASA condemn the Vietnam War with a successful 2003 Iraq War condemnation resolution:

Today's post-Vietnam generations are more accustomed to criticizing the U.S. government and in particular its foreign policy. They are also less concerned about the purity of sociology as a science and more likely to assume our accumulated knowledge should be put to public use, whether in the form of member resolutions or policy interventions.

I'm not sure what he means by "our accumulated knowledge." I think most sociological "knowledge" is pretty shaky, often being based on dicey research and/or politically biased theory. Such "knowledge" was used in the '60s to buttress arguments for bussing pupils to compel desired race shares in public schools -- and James Coleman, whose "knowledge" it was, famously later recanted, admitting he was mistaken.

He continues that the various movements of the 60s

... captured the imagination of a new generation of sociologists who saw conventional sociology as lagging behind the most progressive movements; whereas today the world is lagging behind sociology, unapologetic about its drift into political and economic fundamentalism. Sociologists shift their critical eye ever more away from sociology to world it describes, a shift reflected in the insurgent interest in public sociology.... [T]he world we inhabit is increasingly in conflict with the ethos and principles that animate sociologists -- an ethos opposed to inequality, to the erosion of civil liberties, to the destruction of public life, and to discrimination and exclusion. [The quotation above and this one are from page 1604.]

Burawoy concludes his paper (page 1616) with the paragraph:

The burgeoning interest in public sociology and the unanticipated vote against the war in Iraq suggest to me that the stakes are indeed becoming clearer. In a world tending toward market tyranny and state unilateralism, civil society is at once threatened with extinction and at the same time a major possible hold-out against deepening inequalities and multiplying threats to all manner of human rights. The interest of sociology in the very existence, let alone expansion, of civil society (even with all its warts) becomes the interest of humanity -- locally, nationally and globally. If we transcend our parochialism and recognize our distinctive relation to diverse publics within and across borders, sociologists could yet create the fulcrum around which a critical social science might evolve, one responsive to public issues while at the same time committed to professional excellence.

I interpret all this to confirm that, to a significant degree, sociology is no longer an academic discipline and has become an arm of leftist politics. Public Sociology seems to be nothing more than an agitation movement based the urge to implement a political agenda. A few weasel-phrases in the final quotation aside ("all its warts," "professional excellence"), Burawoy asserts that sociology, as a discipline -- not just Public Sociology -- must take sides politically. Apparently it isn't enough for individual sociologists as concerned citizens to join political movements in their off-hours. The full force and prestige of the discipline should be thrown into the fray. And, I might add, regardless of consequences to the discipline as a whole.

As I mentioned earlier, I've never been impressed with sociology. And if it self-destructed, that would be fine by me. Talented academic sociologists with good research skills might find their way into anthropology, geography, psychology and history departments and even into business schools. The rest could either wave protest signs or else earn an honest living that their advanced training suited them for -- probably driving taxis, a field where quality personnel are desperately needed.


While doing some surfing that Donald's memoir prompted, I ran across an amazing resource many readers may enjoy: an online encyclopedia of American lit and culture from the 1950s, put together by the University of Pennsylvania's writing department.

Please feel free to join in the conversation. Donald's musings have got me thinking, for instance, about the field I majored in, English Lit. As far as I can tell, EngLit has been as overrun by Primarily Political People as Sociology has been. The consequences have been so bad that -- as far as I'm concerned -- the field should be publically declared a fraud. The good and valiant efforts of many individual profs duly allowed for, recognized, and celebrated, of course.

How has your own field -- or the one you studied in school -- held up? And what is it about PPPs (Primarily Political People) anyway? What have they got against the rest of us?

Thanks once again to Donald Pittenger.



posted by Michael at April 21, 2005


As a science historian, trained to be skeptical about any theorizing, or modelling, or any other attempt to simplify reality, I think my field has held up alright. Though there is a huge problem that some of the milestones science historians/philosophers achieved, have become totems in other fields; especially the humanities and other disciplines not restricted in their thinking by hard scientific facts.

No social sciences seem to be immune from political colouring. Just look at what the Nobel prize winners for economy really wanted, and how this was reflected by the political correct ways of thinking of the day. In a sense social sciences have become a new theology, I reckon. In no way hindered by facts, but constantly fueled by ideas on how it ought to be.

And, of course, the idée fixe reality is makeable.

Posted by: ijsbrand on April 21, 2005 12:32 PM

Disclaimer: Inane* Comments ahead!

Not too surprisingly I agree with both Donald and Michael on Sociology and Literature, respectively. I'm tempted to change life course for the sole sake of revealing just how rotten academia is. Fortunately or unfortunately, I'm not sure which, I find the goal of dedicating my entire life towards that end to be rather wasteful.

For the most part I think that I would be unsuccessful, in any case. Perhaps I could manage to reach the marginal cases, but academia is almost entirely a self-propelling engine, one that would keep chugging along as long as it hasn't exhausting either its money or its status. The people I know who are aiming their lives towards becoming professors-- my friends-- seem to be strange. Their motivations are not what I consider to be, overall, legitimate for wishing to be professors. None of them really have a desire to teach. It seems more that they are enamoured of the idea of the status they will attain by being professors-- how this will make them members of an intellectual elite and lend the cachet of their degrees to what they say.

In particular, this seems to be an expensive and incestuous way to achieve a Mrs. degree. That is to say, instead of hitching yourself to an upper class guy, you hitch yourself to an institution. With more and more students pursuing College degrees (subsidized, in more ways than one, by the state) it doesn't look like the institutions are going to go away any time soon. And even though the prestige of academia is being squandered by left-wing ideologues, it still has quite a bit (noticeably because left-wing ideologues don't squander prestige among left-wing ideologues, they accumulate it, even if the actions are on the whole a loss).

Posted by: . on April 21, 2005 01:04 PM

I couldn't be more floored that Sociology WASN'T "politicized" yet in the 60's---gosh, I would have thought it would have been a haven for radicals. At least lefties---I would have thought Johnson's Great Society would have opened the floodgates of something like "Sociology"---literally, isn't it "the study of society"? Maybe by the 70's. Although given Donald's poor permanent Assistant Professor---denied full professorship for being conservative---perhaps it was more politicized than he recalls.

I think it's silly to think that ANY area of academia ISN'T politicized at this point---although perhaps math and science have been excepted. I reiterate what Tom Wolfe said as a result of his reseach for his new book, where he hung out on college campuses for six months. "You must be radical to get and keep a job at a university, not just liberal." Honestly,if you didn't believe heavily in state control, and modern behavioral theories, why study Sociology at all? (With the exception of Demographics, which seems to me like it should be in some part of Statistics, rather than Sociology).

Having said that, though, "Introduction to Sociology" was a blow-off class in my era at my liberal arts college--it was easy padding when you had a tough schedule. But I never really knew anybody who went past "Intro"---except for one rather brainy classmate who double majored in Soc and Psych. She was also a born-again Christian, and, yes, my head is exploding now at thinking how she managed that contortion. At that time, I didn't think much about it!

Posted by: annette on April 21, 2005 03:52 PM

I posted late in the previous section:

While I believe that there remain strong strains of "advocacy" sociology, there is a major move (espcially in the stronger schools) back toward quantitative sociology, penn offers both demographics and economic sociology, which I believe and other people people have noted as being very important for influencing changes in how economics views rational or irational decision makers, behavioral and experimental economics but also influencing new variations such as the New Instiutional Economics. (very important if you want to answer the wanted ads in the Economist).

The social justice "advocacy" (read: Theory with no fact) sections of old sociology are being spun into American Studies, Cultural Studies, and the like...

I think Mr. Pittinger might like the direction of new sociology departments.

Posted by: azad on April 21, 2005 06:00 PM

Well, when a friend of mine went to Texas for his sociology PhD in ~1980, he got a very clear message that he should NOT be a radical, but a neocon instead. Times have changed, I suppose. My memory of undergrad work about 1975-80 is that there were a lot of Christian conservatives in English. The great majority of American economists that I've ever heard of, except for very rare Marxists, ranged from centrist to pretty far right. People should probably sort out whether its politics or leftist politics that they're irate about.

Posted by: John Emerson on April 21, 2005 07:41 PM

I'm a philosopher. My sense is that most philosophers are generic academic liberals, with a biggish libertarian contingent thrown in. (The claim that you have to be radical to get an academic job is silly: there are fewer marxists than there used to be, for example. What you will see, though, is people who have a strongly materalist, secular, science-influenced view of the world, even if they don't know much science. I wouldn't call such a view politically radical. I guess others would.)

As a subject we philosophers are, I think, NOT primarily political. Intellectually we are largely untouched by the various frenchified stuff that people complain about in lit depts. Most bits of philosophy have nothing to do with politics, although political philosophy is probably of most interest to outsiders.(Engineering, by the way, strikes me as an example of a field where there's a conservative faculty, but again not much politics in the classroom.)

There is an interesting topic that your question raises, though: a lot of people who complain about the liberal domination in the academy go on to insist that this means that there's no intellectual diversity. But of course people can disagree over things other than politics and usually these other disagreements are the ones that matter within a subject(unless you're primarily political, as the critics probably are). And this sort of intellectual diversity is alive and well in every subject except maybe some parts of the humanities and some qualitative areas in the social sciences.

What would you prefer, dear Blowhards - an architecture dept (for instance) that was politically unanimous but disagreed about architecture, or a politically diverse faculty in perfect agreement about architecture?

Posted by: Dominic Murphy on April 21, 2005 07:57 PM

"What would you prefer, dear Blowhards - an architecture dept (for instance) that was politically unanimous but disagreed about architecture, or a politically diverse faculty in perfect agreement about architecture?"

Interesting question, Dominic, and I'm sure that most would prefer the former. However, as you somewhat imply, there is a serious question as to whether those are our options - especially in fields that I am familiar with in the humanities. But I wonder how much the two - unanimity in politics and the field of study - can be separated.
Where I go to school, there are alot of College Republicans bitching about the lack of Republican professors. I, for one, could care less how they vote so long as they quit pretending that Judith Butler is important. But they don't. And it is impossible to deny that there is a very heavy correlation - at least in this field - between intellectual and political hegemony.

Posted by: Sweeney on April 21, 2005 09:38 PM

Well, Sweeney, I don't know what you mean by "this field". If you mean the humanities, then I remind you that that's several fields. The extent to which they have been infiltrated by Judith Butler and the rest of that mob varies greatly, I think, from almost not all to almost totally. I've been going to philosophy talks for years, and I've never heard anyone even refer to Judith Butler. I do agree that some subjects, and some famous exponents of other subjects, see themselves as intrinsically political. And in some cases they're right, in the sense that their subject wouldn't have existed without some political agenda that arose first in the wider culture. I do think, however, that those subjects are more marginal than they are made out to be: most students at most universities don't study them. (But students who are political often do, or want to, study the humanities. Some, like your young Republicans, are undoubtedly put off by the crude leftism.)

And you're right that my question asks about extremes that we're never likely to see. But the insistence that the political (rather than intellectual) allegiances of academics is of overriding importance is an instance of the very Primarily Political outlook that the Blowhards like to bemoan. It often involves an assumption by strongly political people that academics are themselves strongly political, and hence poisoning the minds of the young with their evil groupthink. But, although everyone has their favorite anecdotes about the exceptions - and the exceptions disproportionately get to play public intellectual - we profs usually aren't terribly political.

(Except about academic politics, of course.)

Posted by: Dominic Murphy on April 21, 2005 11:48 PM

I don't really agree that wanting more of a spectrum of political ideas on campuses is really an instance of the Primarily Political mindset that I like to think "we" are objecting to.
I'd love to see some more perspectives in the humanities, mostly because I don't see the usefulness of mindless blathering about the transgressive power of the ungendered hermaphrodite in X,Y,Z. I'll make fun of it, sure. Do I want to pay that person's salary? No way. But I'm not under the illusion that people who go for that are really being indoctrinated in any way.
My big problem is when the veneer of science is used to validate this or that. Former Psychology students have told me that Claude and Steele's findings show that sex and racial differentials on standardized tests are illusiory, but the findings show no such things. It's possible that it's entirely coincidental that students are exposed primarily to things which seem to confirm certain left-leaning ideas or policies, but I find it unlikely. And with regards to that, there doesn't even need to be intentionality for harm to be done (Oftentimes, there is probably none).

Posted by: . on April 22, 2005 02:04 AM

I'm going to be out of town this weekend, so below are replies to comments appearing through mid-afternoon 22 April (Pacific). I'll post further replies early next week if comment volume merits it.

Ijsbrand -- In my day, social sciences were hard-science wannabe's, as I tried to illustrate in Part 1. Perhaps after I wrote off sociology, the notion might have sunk in that humans are volitional whereas molecules aren't, thus greatly reducing the likelihood of predictive reliability for assertions about behavior (and no, an analogy with Brownian motion doesn't hold up either). Maybe such a (possible) retreat from the hard-science model made it easier for individual sociologists to justify their personal predilections to politicize -- if we can't become a real science, then why bother.

Actually, there remains the middle ground of doing research bound by good statistical practice (in terms of avoiding or controlling for error or bias), and non-ideological social science can be "scientific" at the procedural level if not at the level of theory.

"." (first comment) -- You are right that academia is self-perpetuating to a considerable degree. But it has changed in the past and is likely to change in the future, though probably slowly. One mechanism for change is declining enrollment in a department's undergraduate courses; if the ratio of students to instructors drops too low, then the college administration will be tempted to either eliminate the department or consolidate it with another one (for example, sociology and anthropology). Such departmental death can be dodged or postponed if the department has outside souces of income such as research grants to faculty. Another potential source of change is elimination of tenure. This isn't likely, but if a lot more Ward Churchill-like controversies crop up within a brief time-frame, such a crisis would have the potential for modifying tenure rules. I have read that university faculties (and student bodies) were pretty conservative in many parts of Europe up through at least the 1920s: this is clearly not so today. So if there was once a change from right to left, a reversal cannot be ruled out. For now, I'll leave it for others to sketch possible mechanisms for such a transformation.

Annette -- As best I remember, the transition began about the time I entered grad school (fall, 1964) which was when the Free Speach Movement began at Berkeley and was complete in most respects by the late 70s. This coincides with the American involvement of Vietnam and with the politico-cultural "Sixties" of 1964-75. The main pre-1964 rebel in sociology was C. Wright Mills, and there were few others. As I mentioned in the first essay, many leftists were being cautious due to the McCarthy scare. When I left the classroom (May, 1969) sociology was less than five years into its transition, so there co-existed both radical (left-politicized) and conservative (in the sense of thinking of sociology as a science) elements, the latter still setting the tone. Also, note that I have no proof that Hobbs didn't get promoted because of his politics; my evidence is curcumstantial.

Azad -- As I concluded the essay, I don't much care what happens to sociology one way or another. Still, if it moved away from politics and toward serious scholarship then that would be a better use of resources now currently being wasted, in my opinion. I'm told that some sociologists are studying human behavior in terms of micro-economic exchange (this notion was rolling by the late 60s when I noticed Harvard Fellow George Homans talking it up in papers and presentations at conventions). I'm also aware that some economists have been looking into irrational (in the economics sense) economic decision-making. Might it not be a bad thing if these groups got together and formed their own discipline or if econ departments brought in some of those sociologists dealing with exchange?

John -- Maybe Texas was one of the exceptions that proves the rule, as the saying goes. And ditto those conservative Christians; they wanted to go to college and perhaps couldn't afford to go to Bob Jone U. Well, actually, it's the students who often (literally, along with their parents) have to pay the price. I'll save for later an anecdote about a freshman English course my son took at Washington.

Dominic -- Must be that philosophy got lucky (so far). I'm not especially in touch with the state of academic philosophy other to have seen complaints from time to time that it was on the road to becoming a branch of mathematics, dealing with the mechanics of thought rather than the content of ideas (this is greatly simplifying matters, I know). Still, I'm a bit surprised that the field hasn't taken some hits from deconstructionists, given that a key consideration is the nature of truth.

I suspect that university faculties in sociology and philosophy differ in style because their subject matter differs. If there is a core to sociology, it has to do with social organization, and human organizations have a political (small-p) component as well as (often) a Political (large-P) environment. As you imply, it is probably still true that soc profs can discuss methodology issues without getting involved with political questions. But wide swaths of areas of sociological interest deal with matters of age, race, sex, gender (in my book, "gender" isn't necessarily sex) and other matters where it can be dangerous from a career standpoint to deviate from politically correct orthodoxies. This isn't sociology, but note the recent uproar over what Harvard President Summers had to say about women and scientific fields; a non-tenured sociology prof would have to be very brave or hold a very fat trust fund before mentioning to his colleagues that he agreed with Summers' original statement.

But the real problem is not so much faculty-level or postgraduate-level sociology. It is in the area of undergraduate instruction. At the lower-division level most students are ignorant and seem to be getting a one-sided view of the world from their sociology instructors. By one-sided, I mean that potentially-debatable assertions are treated as givens that are not subject to contradiction. Granted, this isn't true of every classroom, but there seems to be more of it than there ought to be.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 22, 2005 07:52 PM

Correction of my own writing: the "conservative Christian" teachers I had were conservatives and Christians, but not the conservative Christians of today. They were rather urbane, sophisticated, politically conservative, "Christian humanist gentlemen" of the TS Eliot type.

Posted by: John Emerson on April 22, 2005 08:49 PM

An example of how far the mighty (in sociology) have fallen?:

I participated in the "Listening to the City" event that was billed as a "21st Century town hall meeting" on the redevelopment of the WTC site. In my opinion, however, "Listening to the City" was really more an example of "21st Century, high tech mob rule" -- or a possible demonstration project for would-be banana republic dictators on how to subtlely manage your country's political convention/election and still breeze by the human rights watchdog groups.

It was just amazing at how biased and manipulated the event was (with plenty of leading and loaded questions, etc.)! For example, there was one question on West St. where the organizers apparently wanted the participants to vote in favor of a West St. tunnel (recently defeated -- yeah!), and if you look at the question closely (or not even that closely) you see quite plainly that the organizers didn't even give respondents an opportunity to say "no"!

In the subsequent days, weeks and years, I've been even more appalled that apparently none of the hundreds of reporters/media people present, persumably many with very high priced higher educations, ever picked up on how grossly unscientific the event really was. Instead, you see a stream of editorials, books, etc. solemly intoning how wonderful -- and important -- an event it was.

A few months (?) after the event, I was asked to participate as a research subject in a project that was being done by a Columbia University professor to assess "Listening to the City" and its impact on participants. (I don't know if she was technically a professor, but she was on the faculty and did have a Ph.D.) When I participated (two interviews, maybe a year, or half-year, apart) I was just astounded at how poorly done (childish really) this study was -- in fact, repeating some of the very same mistakes that had been committed by the organizers of "Listening to the City"! Again, for instance, there were questions that didn't allow respondents to submit the equivalent of a "no" answer. One question was somewhat along the lines of "How positive an experience was this event for you?"; and the possible answers were something like: "very positive," "somewhat positive," "Just OK." (!!!!!)

And, in terms of how far the mighty have fallen, I believe this Columbia University "professor" was associated with the Columbia University social science research institute (the exact name escapes me) that was at one time quite famous (especially in the 1940s and 1950s?) and was regarded, I believe, as one of the top two in the field.

Eventually, by the way, I hope to put together an article (maybe for something like "The City Journal"?) detailing -- for history's sake -- the horrors of the oft-praised "Listening to the City" event. (Paul Goldberger, for instance, praises it highly in his book on "Ground Zero.")The article would also focus on the alarming -- and seemingly unrecognized -- pitfalls of the "charette movement" (possible title: "Charettes: Public Hearings or Infomercials?") of which the "Listening to the City" event seems to be an outgrowth. (I think Charettes are, unfortunately, an important part of New [Sub]Urbanism. And it's apparent popularity among architects, both traditionalists and orthodox modernists, reminds me why I increasingly believe that architects should stick to architecture -- or at least be a lot more careful when they venture into the social sciences (i.e., urban "planning," sociology and political science.)

One reason, for my procrastination is that I think such an article really should be written by someone with a strong opinion research background -- which I don't have. (Yet another reason I wish I had paid more attention to the mainstream sociologists when I was in graduate school!)

- - - - - -

Why has sociology apparently been taken over by leftists (more so, seemingly, than other fields)? One thought, admittedly somewhat facile, was prompted by videlicet's post in the comments to Part I, which was something like: Sociology isn't an "indefinite thing." It's quite definite, and it's never gone away -- only now it's just known as marketing and advertising (applied sociology?)!"

So, perhaps those who are interested in sociology, and are turned off by the leftist orientation of most departments of sociology, gravitate instead (self-select) to the more commercial applications of sociology, where they can do the kind of work that intellectually interests them with less hassle -- and get paid (presumably) good money to boot!?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 24, 2005 11:11 PM

Donald - you're correct that deconstruction has taken on the notion of truth (or, more accurately I suspect, the idea that there is one privileged way to talk about reality.) So why didn't philosophy pay much attention? Well, I'm not an expert, but here's one thing that people think: anything of value in their ideas had already been wrung out earlier by debates on truth within mainstream philosophy. So when the deconstruction wave hit most philosophers thought it was divided into two types of theory: old news or garbage. Plus, to talk about some issues in the theory of truth it really helps to have modern logic, which we do and they don't.

Posted by: dominic murphy on April 25, 2005 03:00 PM

Sociology as a discipline has a great intellectual toward what one might call "Burkean" conservatism -- the ways that traditions and customs maintain social order and civil society. Really a number of the great early sociologists had a bent toward this perspective too -- Durkheim comes to mind, Weber certainly understood the perspective and was no political radical. More modern American sociologists like e.g. Janowitz (on social control) had a conservative emphasis on the maintenance of a secure/stable social order as well. But the origins of sociology in studying the great social upheavels during the transition to capitalism have properly made sociologists skeptical of the extent to which "organic" traditions can really be recaptured at all.

The politicization and then marginalization of sociology in the post-1960s is sad precisely because it *is* an important discipline, regardless of one's political perspective. (In fact I always think that conservatives who dump on sociology as necessarily radical are just revealing a certain shallowness). Economics has very little place for non-market mechanisms of maintaining social solidarity. But traditional conservatives have always understood how important those mechanisms are.

Posted by: Marcus Stanley on April 25, 2005 06:26 PM

P.S. Pittenger is very right that some branches of sociology and economics are starting to get very close to each other. Economists are spending more time studying topics that can't be understood without thinking about social norms, and also starting to realize the ways in which even the most standard markets are themselves structured by social norms. There is some real overlap, especially in labor economics. Likewise from the direction of mathematically oriented sociologists. It is now not as uncommon as it used to be for labor economists to present seminars at soc departments and vice versa.

The biggest difference between soc and econ though remains the fact that econ likes to start from a clear base of methodological individualism, with assumptions about individual behavior clearly spelled out (however unrealistic they are!) and then aggregated up to collective processes.

Posted by: Marcus Stanley on April 25, 2005 06:32 PM

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