Sociology and Politics (Save Sociology)

This is a page on Save Sociology, an online campaign conducted by Mathieu Deflem, 2004-2006.

Sociology should not be driven by politics nor narrowly constrained to serve the needs of political ideas, whatever their ideological persuasion. The discipline of sociology can through its research findings on social issues and problems inform politics, but it cannot and need not take its place. There are multiple avenues in sociology and in politics. Yet the range of rational options widens as we move from the scientific questions of sociology to the normative questions of politics. Likewise, political issues cannot be a legitimate foundation for sociology. Sociology aspires to universal knowledge.

Sociology as an Academic Discipline 

Sociology is a science. Like any science, sociology is born out of a human awareness and concern for distinctly human experiences. What are some of the principle objections to a sociology that is subsumed under political activism? The founders of sociology devoted their time and energy to sociology, not as a political activity, but as the result of a moral engagement to society which they translated into a resolutely scholarly attitude. They continued to reason in line with Immanuel Kant’s (1784) principle of the Enlightenment as the release from self-incurred tutelage, i.e. the inability to use reason without direction from someone else, through the public use of reason. Sapere aude!

Although the founders of sociology were driven by moral concerns, their resulting attitude to adopt sociology was resolutely scientific. The various political activities that the founding sociologists were involved with were not fused into their sociology, but were instead conceived as the results of their sociological work rephrased in terms of their existence outside sociology as citizens. Emile Durkheim (1906) argued that there is a difference between analyzing and evaluating norms, and that analysis should precede evaluation. Weber advocated value-neutrality and science as a vocation. Besides the motivational basis for the foundation of sociology, the works of the classics —like that of all sociologists that followed them— had various implications for politics. The manner in which such implications can be articulated will and should vary strongly.

There is a difference between doing work which has political implications and coming out with direct political recommendations. Take the clearest case, that of Karl Marx. One of the many roles that Marx adopted was that of a revolutionary, at least theoretically. Marx probably cared more about this role than he did about his role as a philosopher or scholar. That is also one reason why Marx was not in fashion in sociology until the 1960s when sociology as politics gained in popularity. Conversely, since then, all work which is not driven by concerns surrounding inequality or injustice is condemned as conservative.

The impact of a view of sociology as being political or even having to be political can be far-reaching. There is a widespread notion that most all sociological work is political. That is not true in any unqualified way. All sociological work has political implications (at least intrinsically, because overtly very little sociology has any real implications beyond the field itself), but that does not mean that we have to try to make our scholarship even more political, such as in terms of the questions we ask.

Certain modern currents in sociology see the role of the sociologist in a different light. Perhaps this attitude goes back to C. Wright Mills, who was clear about which side he was on. Mills identified three roles sociologists can take up to link their academic work with public policy. The philosopher-king stands for the model of the scientist who takes full command of the political agenda by virtue of acquired expertise and knowledge. The royal advisor is the scientist who bureaucratically recommends the most efficient means for particular ends determined by the king. And, finally, in the role Mills advocated, the sociologist unites private troubles and public issues and is directed at kings and publics alike. Exemplary of Mills’ stance is the present vogue of much activist sociology that goes under the banner of public sociology. The problem is not that activists relies on sociology —anybody can always rely on sociology and, hopefully, many do. The problem is that some sociologists rely on their vision of political activism to set the agenda for their work and, worse yet, that of others. As sociologists, only our sociological work can be primary, not any activism we may individually and/or as members of non-sociological groups ascribe to.

Sociological Implications

Among the ironic consequences of sociological activism is that it narrows the scope of sociological discussion. Most notably, the activism of public sociologists in the American Sociological Association has narrowed debate in the ASA, although the organization is supposed to be open to all sociologists, whatever their theoretical, methodological, and substantive interests, let alone their political attitudes. Not only is taking a stand on political issues like the war in Iraq not useful (because no one pays attention), taking such stands can have a negative impact on sociology. Being ideological, activist and public sociologists and other ideologues like them are limited and intellectually narrow. Failing to break out of the mold of their normative ideas, they cannot even begin to think the unthinkable. They lack courage as much as intelligence.

The Role of the ASA

What are the goals of the American Sociological Association? They are broadly to further the interests of the discipline by increasing its visibility and prominence both among other academics and non-academics alike. This way, the ASA can enhance rather than impede the careers of its member sociologists. Whenever the ASA decides upon a course of action, it should think of whether that action well help achieve its goals. We may recognize the fact that an overwhelming majority of members of the American Sociological Association may be far to the left of center and hold matching political views. But that does not mean that the Association as an association should propagate a leftist or any other political position This is because most sociological issues are not really political by nature. Sociology has little or nothing that will help us understand the issue inasmuch as it is political. Of course, most political issues are influenced by a combination of values and facts. If sociologists actually have some facts that will throw light on the issue then of course the sociological professional association should take a stand on that aspect of the issue.

On most political issues, indeed, the determining factors are values. When it comes to values, the opinions of sociologists are worth no more than any other's. “Among the participants of society there are no experts” (Deflem 1998:117). Why would a sociologist’s opinion on the morality of abortion be any more important than the variable opinions of men and women everywhere? Why would a sociologist’s opinion on the desirability of capital punishment be more valid than that of a non-sociologist? Or opinions on affirmative action? Or on the legalization of drugs?

A distinct problem with the ASA taking political stands is that (hopefully) not all sociologists have the same opinion any given political issue. Thus, if you want to belong to a group that will represent your interests as a sociologist (e.g., increasing the amount of granting funds available for sociological research), you would not also necessarily want to belong to an organization which condemns the war in Iraq or opposes women’s right to have an abortion. This resentment might take place irrespective of whether one opposes the war in Iraq or is pro-life. Political issues are just not appropriate to take a stand on in a professional organization because it would inevitably alienate those fellow professionals whose personal position is no longer represented. This is the same problem that unions have in taking political stands. They take political stands for candidates and issues on which the membership is strongly divided. On the other hand, you don’t see professional associations like those of doctors taking stands on issues which have nothing to do with medical care; and even on issues that are related to medical care, they are careful about what kinds of stands they take. When a professional association takes a stand on issues that are irrelevant for the profession, it is a sign that there is not much of a profession they are supporting. Will the next step be for the ASA to endorse political candidates and make contributions to political campaigns?

Check the other Save Sociology pages: Sociology & Politics | ASA Resolutions | Public Sociology | Readings | Home