A Religion of Activism

Sociology is terminally ill.

Berger described two symptoms of disorder: an anti-humanist fetish for quantification, which began in the mid-twentieth century, and the spread of ideology masquerading as scholarship, a consequence of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. Much of the quantification he bemoaned complemented the politicization. Today, survey data and complicated statistical methodologies are useful aspects of sociological research. But many sociologists use them to camouflage the ideo­logical thrust of their work. 

 

In 2002, in these pages, Peter Berger, the late American socio­logist, offered a succinct summary of the health and status of sociology. In Invitation to ­Sociology (1963), he had praised its promise. Two generations later, he offered a much more pessimistic picture. Now, a decade and a half after his devastating account of sociology’s self-betrayal, I must report that my discipline’s condition has worsened. Sociology is terminally ill.

Berger described two symptoms of disorder: an anti-humanist fetish for quantification, which began in the mid-twentieth century, and the spread of ideology masquerading as scholarship, a consequence of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. Much of the quantification he bemoaned complemented the politicization. Today, survey data and complicated statistical methodologies are useful aspects of sociological research. But many sociologists use them to camouflage the ideo­logical thrust of their work. Throw enough regression models at readers, especially if they lack the training or time to examine the details, and it is more likely that they will accept partisan pleading as ­objective ­science.

The social sciences have been closely linked to the left since at least the Progressive Era, but Berger was certainly correct that the tenor of the politics of sociology had changed fundamentally. In the two decades between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, which Berger refers to as a “golden age,” the field teemed with imposing thinkers. Presidents of the American Sociological Association (ASA) during those years were impressive minds—and wholly nonpartisan in their work. Berger names several: Talcott ­Parsons, formidable author of the most systematic theory of social systems in twentieth-century sociology; Robert Merton, brilliant analyst who argued that Puritanism was an important cultural contributor to the scientific ­revolution of the seventeenth century; and Paul Lazarsfeld, innovative and rigorous thinker who produced some of the earliest scientific studies of mass media effects.

Take a sample of ASA presidents from the past twenty years and you immediately recognize the decline. This later group is more “diverse,” to be sure, but their ideas are smaller. Merton explored identity as a crucial agent in the birth of the modern scientific worldview; Patricia Hill Collins, one of the inventors of intersectionality, reduces it to a game of hierarchy and victim status. Parsons produced a magisterial theoretical effort to plumb the depths of modernity; Frances Fox Piven dismisses system theoretical goals altogether, arguing for a disruptive strategy of overtaxing the welfare system to usher in universal, guaranteed income. Lazarsfeld’s research was a model of austere intellectual modesty; Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, the most recent ASA president, claims the election of the first African-American president proves that racism has become still more toxic and insidious than it was during the Jim Crow era.

Recent programs for ASA meetings show decline as well. A few sample presentations from the 2018 meeting, titled “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions,” will suffice: “American Fears: Islam’s Racialization and the Politics of Exclusion”; “Facing a New Nadir: The Emotionality of Social Justice Work in a Rebirth of White Nationalism”; “Feeling Climate Change: The U.S. Experience in Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Perspective”; “Legal Apartheid?: A Dialogue about Life under Mass Incarceration and Mass Deportation.” I assure you this dreary list could be extended.

In The Sacred Project of American Sociology, Christian Smith describes contemporary sociology as a secularized religion. It is “the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents.” We can be still more specific: This new sociological religion venerates the victim of oppression.

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