Monday, January 21, 2013

Sociologists Don't Know Shit

To be perfectly honest, what I ask for, very few sociologists or scholars actually do.  In all of the articles I have read, presentations I have witnessed and faculty files I have seen, only a select few actually live up to the sociological imagination.  I am stunned by what people argue are "social factors."  People situate individual attitudes in broader social norms.  There is no sense that they need to demonstrate where these norms come from.  I see this with a lot of attitudinal research for example.  Interviewees express certain gender attitudes.  These attitudes are traced back to social conventions like peer influences.  They assume that they have reached the level of the social because they trace it back to "group" influences rather than individual psychological motivations.  This is an illusory social influence because these social conventions do not arise out of thin air, but originate in broader social structures and institutions.

Many sociologists eschew the dialectic and, specifically, structural influences.  They operate entirely in the world of social construction so that nothing is truly real. Attitudes and ideas germinate out of the interaction in the social milieu.  There is no such thing as institutions because they are all social constructions that are enforced only by the shared meanings held by the people in society.  We obey the rules and laws of the government only because we socially construct its legitimacy and willingly accept its authority over us.  There is no real institution of government because people could easily socially construct a reality where government has no influence over them.  The power of government would disappear.  Given this perspective, it is impossible to comprehend an institutional level of analysis, let alone understand the true causal influences motivating people in society.

The vast majority of sociology is social-psychology, emphasis on the psychology.  People point to breaching experiments where students take food from someone's plate, use an umbrella indoors, etc.  This is really just the mechanics of socialization.  It is not motivation.  It does not point to demystifying the social world.  Yes, we have accepted social conventions in society that we rarely break, but the ones we chose to expose to students are benign and meaningless.  At one point in our history, Blacks must cross to the other side of the street if Whites were walking toward them.  In today's society, it is perfectly fine for students to challenge female, minority, and/or international faculty, but not White males.  Why does this occur?  This question does not cross the mind of most sociologists because they also hold White privilege and do not recognize this inequitable treatment.

Sometimes the people who receive this treatment do not even recognize that it is inequitable treatment.  I have discussed this with some faculty who definitely recognize that they experienced this, but others have explained it away as just the way students are.  When women and faculty of color do not recognize it, it is because they have been socialized over time that this is how things are.  I experienced similar issues in my department.  I did not recognize just how inappropriately the other faculty were treating me in meetings.  I was just used to it.  In a college meeting with people from other departments, one of our faculty called me a "bad teacher" and proceed to tell me to shut up.  A history professor came to my defense, but I did not think, at the time, that this behavior was out of line because that is how other faculty treat me.  A department head brought it to our chair's attention, but she did nothing other than to warn the faculty that they should watch there P's and Q's when others were around.  The faculty who were inappropriate did not apologize.  The chair did not approach me to apologize for the behavior of other faculty.  The dean was even at the meeting and did nothing at the time or afterwards.  No one was held accountable for their behavior.  It wasn't until others were telling me how the faculty at the meeting from other departments thought it was highly inappropriate behavior that I realized that, yes, I was singled out for disparate treatment.  When something happens with such frequency that it becomes routine, we fail to recognize it as disparate.

Sociologists are consumed with their own careers and are not really interested in the broader social questions.  It is rare to find a sociologist, or other social scientist, that is willing to concern themselves with broader issues.  It is much easier to publish if your research does not challenge convention.  It can be "liberal," but it certainly cannot be interpreted as polemical.  Sociologists, even the grad students in our department, are socialized to do research and take classes that are not challenging.  Without prompting, grad students discussed their courses at a recent meeting.  For their Soc/Psych class, one of the grad students held up the readings and pointed to how many there were, but said, "at least they won't be dry."  In other words, soc/psych literature is entertaining, not educational.  They also suggested the sociology of film class because there was no homework.  You just watch films and talk about them.  Okay, what is the point then?  What do you learn?  Why take the class?  The students are socialized to take the easy route, not to think about things sociologically, to work on entertaining projects with little theoretical or historical understanding.  They then go on to become the editors of journals, they review other people's articles, and they judge the value of certain research over others.

We socialize sociologists and other social scientists to produce useless crap.  There are the structural constraints of the journal and publishing market.  There are the race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship issues of who dominates academia and academic publications to this point in history.  There are the careerist orientations of sociologists who wish only to find the path of least resistance to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in a career with rapidly increasing workloads and time demands.  Crappy sociologists who have successfully navigated the thinning process of socialization of mediocrity socialize more crappy sociologists. 

Oh, and do not think that there was a golden era of sociology that is now being lost to recent social change.  Sociology has always been a relatively conservative project with outliers who challenge the mediocrity.  Sure, most sociologists are liberals, but that is what makes them so dangerous when it comes to trying to challenge their own colorblind bigotry and upper-middle class mentality.  They could not possibly be racist or classist when dealing with students or other faculty.  They are open-minded liberals who champion the cause of the unfortunate.  They could not possibly have ignored the fact that the cold-calculating standards that they set in their classes discriminates against those whose backgrounds do not live up to their upper-middle class expectations.  It could not possibly be that the faculty of color and working class are the ones who teach the double course loads and produce the greatest student credit hours.  Nah, that’s just playing the race card in a liberal department.  It couldn’t possibly be true!  Their lower research productivity has to be due to the fact that they are not as industrious as their middle-class betters.  Nothing racist or classist in that logic!

As my friend’s father said, “Sociologists don’t know shit.”  When he said it, I chuckled, but my friend’s mother said, “but that’s what he does for a living.”  My friend’s father retorted, “I don’t care.  Sociologists, don’t know shit.”  I laughed and agreed with him.  This was years ago, but even then I had developed a sense that sociologists tended to be clueless when it came to the actual operation of the real world.  Now there are some good ones out there, but they tend to be people whose primary identity is something other than a “sociologist,” but they happen to have received a degree in sociology so that they can pursue their interests in social justice.  Given the pathetic state of the fields, I like to say, paraphrasing Marx, “I am not a sociologist.”

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