Sociology’s Stagnation

Brian Boutwell in Quillette:

PondEmile Durkheim is the father of modern sociology; he is a titan. Over a century ago the great man issued an edict that would forever alter — or you could say, forever derail — the course of the discipline that he established. His proclamation, paraphrased loosely, was that any social occurrence was a product of other social occurrences that came before it. Society and culture were “prime movers”, an ultimate cause of things in the world that, for its own part, had no cause. Social facts orbited in their own solar system, untethered from the psychology and biology of individual humans. It’s almost as if this idea originated from a burning bush, high on some ancient mountain, as it would to this day steer the direction of much social science thought. Durkheim’s insight would be a hall pass for social scientists to spend decades ignoring certain uncomfortable realities. Let me try and give you an idea of just how fetid the waters really are.

In 1990 (over two decades ago) the sociologist Pierre van den Berghe wrote an article entitled Why Most Sociologists Don’t (and Won’t) Think Evolutionarily. I had to read this article as a graduate student in 2007. For context, that means that when my eyes first scanned the pages the essay was already 17 years old. I remember being struck by the venom that dripped off the page. The author seemed angry, he seemed frustrated. He railed against so many things, but his ire was focused particularly in the traditional sociological way of doing business:

Sociologists, on the other hand, deal mostly with abstract categories like classes and ethnic groups; engage in statistical massage of aggregated data; do secondary analysis of public opinion surveys; speculate about the impact of religious beliefs and political ideologies; project, manipulate, and interpret statistical trends; and generally pontificate about the state of society. They do not watch people being bumped over the head; they feed the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports to their computers. They do not observe women having babies; they speculate about fluctuations in birth rates provided by the Bureau of the Census. They do not attend political conventions and follow people into polling stations; they read public opinion surveys.

Mind you, I’m guilty of all of the sins described by van den Berghe. I’m a product of the system that he is eviscerating. This is not my attempt to sit in the stands and jeer the coaches’ play calling from a distance. Rather, this is an attempt to change the game plan from inside the locker room.

More here.