Wither sociology? <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 22 Feb 1996 21:49:53 +0900

As we debate the relation of anthropology to sociology, I offer the
following excerpts from "Sociology on the skids: A once-great
discipline is having an identity crisis" (Utnet Reader, Nov.-Dec.
1975, No. 72, p. 28):

"Sociology has fallen into a 'dismal abyss' from which it may
never recover, announces distinguished sociologist Irving
Horowitz, editor of the journal _Society_, in his book _The
Decomposition of Sociology (Oxford University Press, 1994). The
field 'is in a tailsin and no one seems to know what to do,' agrees
anothr sociologist quoted in the ultraconservative _Washington
Times_ publication _Insight on the News_ (Feb. 14, 1994).
Statistics--the favored data of sociology--support these dire
conclusions. U.S. universities conferred 35,996 undergraduate
degrees in sociology in 1973, but by 1991 that number had dropped
to 14,393. At three U.S. schools in recent years, sociology
departments in which the professors had come to outnumber the
students have been forced to close their doors; others have had
their budgets slashed, reports Horowitz. Why has sociology,
perhaps the most useful of all the social sciences, fallen on hard
times? After all, almost every discussion of crime, gender, the
family, and social and economic power are informed to some
degree by sociological research, while topics such as the
'postindustrial society,' 'globalization,' 'the underclass,' and
'social status,' for instance, wouldn't even be possible without

"Sociology is loaded with specialized jargon, say some critics both
within and outside of the profession, while others are quick to
label easily readable sociological research as mere journalism.
Sociology is divided into too many specialized fiefdoms, goes
another argument, but others insist that generalization isn't
sufficiently scientific. But these debates may merely be symptoms
of a deeper problem still: Sociology is neither a 'pure' life science
like biology or chemistry, nor simply a research-driven social
reform movement. Comfortable in neither the natural sciences
nor the humanities, sociology has never been able to agree upon
its mission or methods. From its very inception it has been a
'impossible science' torn between the ideals of scientific
objectivity and humanistic reform-mindednes. The pressing need
on the part of funding-hungry sociology department to resolve
this tension in one direction or the other is a crippling problem."

Sound familiar? I wonder if we aren't, like that apochryphal
revolutionary party conjured up by Terry Eagleton, debating how
best to overcome an oppressive regime, having somehow failed
to notice its demise some years in the past? Or worse yet,
remnants of the failed regime, nostalgic for a Czar long dead and

Shifting gears, I hazard the hypothesis that our recent thread on
dance and drill was so successful because it allowed us to speak to
important cultural differences through widely shared--
fundamentally human-- and largely joyful experiences. Mike
Cahill is right that we ought to know more about the budgets that
shape our lives. No Foucauldian discipline is more drastic in its
effects. Why is it, nonethelss, that we shy from his invitation? Is
it, perhaps, too close to the bone? Something we'd rather not
think about? What forces are at work to create this gap, not just in
our knowledge, but also, in Raymond Williams' terms, the
structure of feeling that holds that gap open?

John McCreery
February 23, 1996