Saturday, September 15, 2007

Why Sociology Isn't Given the Respect It Damn Well Deserves

The path to sociology is typically long and winding. There are multiple reasons for this, including the lack of a strong disciplinary presence in high schools, the media, and popular culture. And then there's college, where sociology has a reputation of being a soft major, mainly comprised of weenies and intellectual inferiors.

One of the commenters on Jeremy's post about why sociology is commonly an easy major is particularly revealing, in that it supports my own opinion regarding why sociology isn't as respected or acknowledged as some other disciplines. Here's the quote:

I think it's that the liberal less-disciplined students often flock to that major.

If everyone is a victim, you havt to compensate in the grading. A hard sell story is worth a lot in making excuses for why you can't run with the pack and need special help.

That's why so many of those who succeed in the major are the hard sell cases -- the ones proud to call themselves "white trash" because they came up poor, or those who were immigrants or minorities, displaced rurals (hi Jeremy!), etc.

How many well educated, well bred high school students would choose to wallow in that field where it's commonplace to find victims and make excuses? That's why you see so many far left liberals in there -- they can't cut it on real jobs, and need the special understanding sociology provides in explaining why they are where they are because the system has given them no choice.

Part of Jeremy's response to this was to question whether the majority of class-jumpers, as it were, really have this "victim" mentality. I would side with Jeremy's hypothesis. Not just in sociology, but in general, I think it's much more likely that individuals who manage to escape a lower-class background have a stronger by-your-bootstraps mentality. There are two relevant reasons for this hypothesized phenomenon.

First, we mere humans have a tendency to generalize our personal situation to the greater population: "I did it, therefore anyone can do it." This is a similar process to the availability heuristic,* in which we estimate the overall frequency with which something occurs based upon the number of examples we can come up with. We are, after all, our most salient examples. Oftentimes, this heuristic works well for us. However, sometimes our sample is biased. We have a tendency toward social homophily -- and the more our world centers around others who are like us, the more biased is our sample from which we derive our beliefs about people in general.

Second, Americans value individuality and autonomy. We pride ourselves in our supposed meritocratic status system. If you are smart enough and driven enough, you can be whomever you want to be. You could be the next president! We are a by-your-bootstraps nation. And here comes this discipline, "sociology," wanting to study social behavior and human groups. A discipline which takes as one of its foundational assumptions the idea that living within a society impacts individual behavior and cognition. Perhaps even affect. Sure, the reverse is also true, but let's face it. We don't focus on that end of the spectrum as much, now do we?

Coleman made this argument. If you map the levels of analysis** by linking all the ways the social world can be analyzed, you can make a sort of container.*** The classical theorists often focused on macro-macro. Social Psychologists, like symbolic interactionists, focus on the micro-micro. Unless you're a structuralist. Most sociologists are probably doing macro-micro stuff. What you don't see is micro-macro. He referred to this as his "bathtub" model. Because a side is missing. The great tub of sociology can't hold water. Get it?

That missing side on the right is where things like human agency and individual autonomy come into play. How can the individual influence the system? The very link that the typical American values most, and believes is most representative of Reality, is MISSING.

And that's why we get people like Anon from Jeremy's post, who believe that Sociology is the scientific study of victims. Victimology, as it were.

*This is a great website, by the way. It basically is an instructional guide for how to use science's understanding of human cognition in order to bend them to your will. A must-have for any aspiring world leader. Such as myself.
**For the uninitiated, "macro" refers to the study of entire societies, institutions, or large-scale systems. It studies the "big stuff." "Micro" refers to individuals and face-to-face interactions, i.e. the "little stuff." The arrows indicate "causality." I put that in quotes because sociologists tend to be equivocal about such things as causation.
***An interesting coincidence is that this model also reflects something of an implicit hierarchy within the discipline. Look closely, and perhaps you'll see it too...


kristina b said...

Hi there. I started to comment on JF's post on this, and then ended up writing a rant, which is an appropriate comment here too.

Anonymous said...

These are good points. I encourage you to read Bourdieu's masterpiece "Home Academicus" to get a feeling for the structural homologies that occur between positions in the field of power and social class and the positions in the university. Long story short, he argues that the dominated groups of society (women, minorities, rural, working class) are more likely to end up in the dominated faculties in university (sociology among them). The analysis includes many more homologies that are more intuitively interesting than this, but I thought it nicely supported your point. The fact of the matter is, we can't get away from being social, and there is a good reason why sociology is (mis)-recognized as the biggest joke in the university, as well as the outlet for those who want merely to lead the lifestyle of the professor, without any of the Weberian vocational aspects. But, I digress. Good points and remember, for structure-agency, Bourdieu, once again, is the most interesting and integrative, to my mind, here: habitus, habitus, habitus. Cognitive Psych and Soc need more dialogue!

Anomie said...

Anon- I agree; the majority of my social psych learning took place in a psych department, not a soc department. The one sopsy class I took in a soc department was completely different than the psych version. It's amazing how different the same course can be merely because it is being taught in a different department.

And I particularly benefited from my social cognition class.

I shall have to read "Home Academicus." This is the first I have even heard of it. (But not my first hearing of Bordieu, of course ;) ).