RIP Sociology, or the Most Successful Discipline of the Twentieth Century?

Last December, Julie lamented the decline of Sociology as a discipline in an essay provocatively titled “RIP Sociology.” As Julie noted in her post, it seems that the discipline no longer had the vim and verve she remembers from her undergraduate and graduate days of only 10 or 20 years ago. She laments with Les Back the dominance of “the audit culture” in sociology which avoids big questions in favor of some arbitrary metric, and in particular refuses to ask students to wrestle with big problems, or engage the broader society with a sociological imagination. At the end of her essay, Julie noted that this seems to be highlighted by a “hardening” of disciplinary boundaries, as the remaining sociologists hunker down, and resist the contamination of collaboration with people from outside the discipline.

Well, I have some good-bad news for Julie. This battle is already over, and in a strange way Sociology won big time. The fact of the matter is that Sociology is one of the big winners of the twentieth century. Today, it is unimaginable to operate a university, or any other institution, without the intellectual gifts that sociology bequeathed society. Everytime you see a pie chart, view the results of a questionnaire, or discuss the “unintended consequences” of a social policy, you are discussing sociology.

Indeed, the techniques of the “audit culture” that Julie and Les Back lament are nothing but an outgrowth of the statistical techniques Emile Durkheim (and others) wrote about in books like Suicide. The statistical techniques used to analyze social data were by and large developed by sociology, and the related social sciences. Their use today is so taken-for-granted that no government report would be written without discussions of correlations, and statistical significance.

Theoretically, sociology is doing better—terms from Marx, Weber, Merton, Bourdieu and others are taken advantage in day-to-day discourse. Bureaucracy is an epithet because Weber identified the phenomenon in the first place. Merton told us about self-fulfilling prophecies, while popularizing a term that in the sociology of science that is on Google Scholar’s landing page (“On the Shoulders of Giants”). Weber’s definition of the state (monopoly over the legitimate use of force…), and identification of the “Protestant work ethic” are at the heart of many policy discussions.

Gender and sexuality have emerged as social categories during the last fifty years largely in response to findings of sociologists. Then there are terms like social capital, and cultural capital. And Social Class. And ideology. And marketing. There is no shortage of sociological imagination in society today—in fact these terms are so common-sensically trite that it seems fair to say that the sociological imagination is the imagination of modern society. And on and on—to the point where one President Ronald Reagan was a sociology major, one of the most important senators of the 20th century, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a sociology professor, and even the daughter of one President, and sister of another, Dorothy Bush Koch. And that’s just on the right. The sociological imagination permeates the political left. Sociology: we won the twentieth century! The world is aware of sociology! Declare victory!

Just how successful is sociology? Well it is so successful that the practice of sociology is now taken for granted in departments like Communications Studies, Literary Criticism, Business, Social Work, Social History, Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, Criminal Justice, Culture Studies, Peace Studies, International Relations and so forth. Many of these programs are just versions of Sociology—and they need faculty too. But alas, you would never know that Sociology is so successful on the university campuses from which it emerged, where sociology departments scramble with everyone else to preserve themselves. They even struggle with the many daughter disciplines, often in an unseemly fashion.

And what are they teaching? Primarily applied sociology, with a little theory development thrown in. Even the computer scientists who designed social media are practicing sociologists, at least according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And on and on

Can sociologists really complain about so much success?

Next blog: The other successful disciplines of the twentieth century: Psychology and Cultural Anthropology.

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