I’m taking an Introduction to Sociology class this year. I actually took this class many years ago when I was working on my first Bachelors degree, but that was back under a “quarter” system, and I didn’t want to worry about translating those credits to a semester system. Besides, it was just more convenient for a required credit for my second degree.
My current text has driven home a fundamental issue for me, my love-hate relationship with sociologists, and sociology. Don’t get me wrong. I’m doing pretty darned well in the class. I’ve aced most of the assignments and exams I’ve had so far. I just have a problem with calling some of what sociologists do “science.”
Sociology is the only branch of science I’ve encountered that claims it’s okay to let your own feelings influence the research. That’s not science. It’s activism masquerading as science. To be fair, many do social research and pay attention to the data. Most of this is done through surveys or observation. Some is done by extrapolating data from other people’s research, like census data.
Allowing themselves to become political activists, sociologists weaken their credibility. Some of them, especially conflict theorists and feminists, come off as angry, arrogant psychopaths. I suspect some of them are. Some of the conflict theorists and feminists are also socialists or communists. Conflict theorists, in particular, idolize Karl Marx and his writings, even if they aren’t communists. These facts alone destroy their credibility with almost any conservative, most moderates and a few liberals as well. They openly want to change the way societies work.
On the other hand, conservatives love functionalist sociologists. To a conservative, the functionalist perspective seems the most scientific and, I admit, it does seem that they keep the most emotional distance from the topic. At times, this seems like a façade, though. Functionalists are interested in the roles that different groups play in the larger society, how they contribute to the culture at large. That includes how the poor support the rich and vice versa. The subtext is that they are interested in keeping the status quo, even if it means some people get screwed by the system.
There’s a fourth approach, interactionists, that’s interested in the way each group relates to and influence each other. That may seem a little touchy feely, but they don’t have nearly as dramatic political agendas as the others do.
I hate all of these approaches. They each have an agenda that colors their research and destroys the notion of what I think science means, the detached search for knowledge. The data should take precedence over personal interest. To me, that makes sociology inherently flawed as a science.
In spite of my own disgust with this approach, they aren’t always wrong. Functionalists have been very good at explaining how different social elements work, and how each social class contributes to the society as a whole. Interactionists have done very well in showing how members of one group can be assimilated and/or otherwise influenced by another, and how they recruit new members. Conflict theorists have shown the inherent battle between social classes over resources, and liberties and feminists have shed light on the difficulties and unequal treatment of women and the poor. In spite of their particular, often conflicting, agendas, taken together, they paint a more comprehensive picture of how society works. When we step away from the rhetoric of extremism, the data paints an interesting picture and, depending on your politics, not a very pretty one. But that’s a matter for later posts.
Of course, you’d expect to read something like this from a moderate, wouldn’t you?