Parting Words

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of a note published in Pro Bono, the Newsletter of the SSSP Law & Society Division, Summer 2004. It is also available in pdf format.

Citation: Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. "Parting Words." Pro Bono, Newsletter of the SSSP Law & Society Division 10(2):3-5.

As I am about to exit as Chair of the SSSP Law & Society Division, I have very mixed feelings about the Society and our Division. I have nothing but very positive things to say about the members of our Division, many of whom have volunteered to perform service activities for the Division, presented their finest work at the annual meetings, and offered useful contributions for the newsletter. Thanks to all! It also speaks to the strength of our Division that it was so easy to find an excellent new replacement team by having Otis Grant and Kimberly Richman elected as the new Chair and Vice-Chair, respectively. Thanks are due to both for a job they will do very well.

Our Division is, I believe, also one of the very most active in the SSSP. We have a great, regularly appearing newsletter with useful and excellent contributions. We organize several interesting panels every year. This year, we even had to expand our Division’s participation at the meeting with an extra session to accommodate all submissions. We can also rely on several dedicated volunteers to do all necessary business to maintain a smooth functioning of the Division. Our Lindesmith Award winners showcase the very best talents of law and social problems scholarship. Our Division has also been very well represented at the SSSP book exhibit. And our Division reception is a feast!

Moreover, I cannot quite tell you just exactly how much we owe to Michele Koontz, the SSSP Administrative Officer. Michele has always kept us informed of all necessary announcements and is extremely attentive to help us with any of our needs. Michele is the true heart and soul of the SSSP! However, not all’s well... Briefly said, while I know that the Law & Society Division and some other divisions in the Society are doing much good work and have much good work done by their members, the SSSP at large is facing difficult times, particularly because the Society has been taking a rather dangerous course. Most critically, there has in my mind been a drift in the Society (at least among some of its more influential members and leaders) to move away from the promise of scholarship on important social problems to a thoughtless, unreflective, horribly ill-conceived, and one-sided activism. Perhaps propelled by some of its recent leaders and their misguided and outdated banter on ‘imaging’ and ‘inventing’ justice, there is now much to do in the SSSP about all kinds of political and ethical issues. Such issues, I think, are too political and ethical —too deeply human— to be given over to the presumptuous complacencies of a few outside the context of dialogue and debate related to the very best we have to offer in our scholarship. More than ironically, also, the very nature of political and ethical issues is denied when decisions are reached for the SSSP as an organization rather than debate on such issues encouraged and diversity tolerated among the Society’s members.

It is typical, for instance, that the SSSP is presented on its website as “an interdisciplinary community of scholars, practitioners, advocates, and students interested in the application of critical, scientific, and humanistic perspectives to the study of vital social problems. If you are involved in scholarship or action in pursuit of a just society nationally or internationally, you belong in the SSSP.” This presentation is misleading and not congruent with the SSSP’s own bylaws, which state that the Society exists “to promote and protect sociological research and teaching on significant problems of social life...” But when is the last time we heard even mention —let alone had any discussions— surrounding research, and teaching about social problems in the SSSP?! Instead, we have initiatives like the SSSP Resolutions and a self-anointed committee running Justice 21. For medical reasons, I had to leave last year’s discussions on the resolutions early. The themes and tone of the discussion were making me sick.

Scientific scholarship on the social ills that face our societies is presently not at the forefront of the SSSP, at least not among many of its most vocal leaders, where a one-sided utopia of justice and activism triumphs over any and all legitimate concerns that the SSSP and its members might be involved with. Most strikingly, perhaps is the SSSP Resolutions process. The SSSP resolutions initiative in my mind displays a dangerous and self-indulgent delusion that social problems can so be resolved and betrays a highly politicized and hyper-activist understanding of social problems scholarship, thereby perverting a meaningful understanding of scholarship and our commitment to pursue the truth and lay bare the untruths in matters of social problems and justice. But that is not the way many in our current SSSP leadership see it. For there they come, the justice-providing dons and donnas and those who ride their coattails with their tailor-made solutions to society’s social ills! They have all the answers! I thought we had agreed to be working on the questions first.

Perhaps, however, there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is not a freight train coming our way, at least inasmuch as members of the SSSP continue to do their valuable scholarly work in the social problems area —which I know, of course, many do— and inasmuch as we can again take control of the Society —or do our work elsewhere. In a recent issue of the SSSP newsletter, Social Problems Forum, it was stated that the SSSP membership has been in decline. I wonder to what extent this decline is the result of the direction the SSSP has recently been taking, away from scholarship and scholarship-based societal interventions to a bland and populist activism that cannot be but nil and void in its ambitions and impact.

It is perhaps a normal and healthy fact of life that every new generation kills off the previous one. At present, however, it looks like the SSSP’s previous generation does not want to go, although it’s been dead for quite a while. The choice for us now is to invade the bastion and take over, or to leave for better shores.

by Mathieu Deflem Division Chair, 2002-2004

See related papers on the sociological profession.