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Is Sociology Really Making a Difference?

In this essay, guest author Cleran Hollancid explores whether or not sociology is making a difference in society and suggests what the discipline could do to increase its impact on the “real world.”

Sociology today, like other social sciences remains alive, but its actual place and purpose in contemporary society lacks much admiration. As a whole, the discipline seems more concerned with studying society than doing anything to change it. I’m not sure that sociology is even visible in contemporary society, much less that it makes a difference or its presence felt. The many practitioners and writers within the ambit of sociology, as a discipline, may find great pleasure in doing what they do (e.g., research and writing, as in pure sociology). But is that all there is to it – a discipline catering to the few insiders who write and speak the language?

And that’s just the point. It does no good to the public, upon whom research is carried out in the first place, when ‘outsiders’ can’t understand or interpret research findings. The disconnect is too compelling. To merely point out that such a state of affairs is futile is itself an understatement.

What is Sociology?

Before proceeding, we need a working definition of sociology. In a broad sense, sociology is “the scientific study of social relations, groups, institutions, and society” (Smelser, 2003:6). This means that no one individual is studied apart from relation to others. It is also fair to surmise that though sociology has come a long way since the days of its early pioneers, we’re still not near the vision of early sociologists like Émile Durkheim and his hope for the ability of sociology to be able to resolve real social issues. Rather than simply studying social issues like rampant socioeconomic inequality, sociologists could be supporting or leading efforts to reduce social inequality. However, while many sociologists aspire to create social change or solve problems (as per applied sociology), and be more accommodating to the public (as in public sociology), more often than not, these goals elude them.

Importance of Sociology Making its Presence Felt

It can also be construed as gross exploitation for sociologists to continue to simply collect data from the poor and underprivileged, etc., without realizing or even purposely aiming toward real change in the lives of these ‘subjects.’ Moreover, in looking at sociology as the study of social relations and society, one observer considers that it is also important for sociology to pay attention to its public reception (Smelser, 2003). After all, sociology should not be only for sociologists, but rather a dialogue that spans an array of topics and be made relevant to the wide variety of people who make up social discourse.

For example, ‘research subjects’ can at least be briefed on the findings of research, along with other possible rewards or incentives for positive change (i.e., upon leaving the process, the ‘subjects’ in turn can start to think of or attempt to make a difference in whatever spheres of influence they inhabit). It is not profitable for sociologist to follow a fatalistic path, thinking that it’s too difficult for sociology to be made palatable to the public. It doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. In fact, a more open and comprehensible process can perhaps blossom into a win-win situation for both the researcher and the researched.

Sociologists, however (not all), tend to place heavy emphasis on methodological consensus and group solidarity in their professional ties (Smith-Lovin, 1999); i.e., many sociologists resist tapping into new ways of interacting with and investigating the social world, apart from well-established norms. In this respect, one should be mindful of what Gaines (1998:457) refers to as ‘insider trading’. Insider trading occurs when social scientists speak or publish research, using language that caters to scholarly audiences and is otherwise abstruse and very difficult for the public to understand. What’s more is that such exclusive attitude on the part of practitioners, only serves to highlight the societal inequality (e.g., status inequality & privilege issues) which they themselves so relentlessly take issue with. And that’s outright hypocrisy! Not that everyone will necessarily be in the same place and at the same level, but sociologists shouldn’t talk over the heads of those they study either. This has created an unfortunate quagmire of ‘us vs. them’.

There are also political entanglements of the discipline to consider. For example, since individual and departmental rankings are based, in part, on boundaries set by mainstream journals, there is pressure for sociologists to conform to such delineations (Calhoun and Duster, 2005). Sociologists, from that standpoint, are very careful not to upset the status quo. This evokes a type of quiescent bargain for acceptance within the institution.

How Can Sociology Make a Difference?

One sociologist finding an alternative way to engage sociology in the real world, wanted to lend her voice in some meaningful and tangible way to real social issues, fostering awareness by others in the process, rather than having her work buried in some obscure academic journal (Gaines, 1998). From that standpoint, Gaines’ way of engaging sociology was by first finding that optimal freedom to engage; so that she wrote and spoke about social and cultural issues that were important to her – that which she found as really stirring her passion in and about the real world. For her no doubt, her experience being called upon to investigate a suicide pact of four teenagers impacted her worldview and sociological methods as well, especially as she’d already consider herself a public intellectual, rather than being “institutionally embedded” (Ibid., 454). Putting it bluntly, for Gaines “Sociologists have a reputation of being distant, aloof, disengaged” (Ibid., 455). Even in the classroom, “because the courses are dull, ‘all statistics,’ dry” sociology is a turnoff to students who would otherwise embrace the major (Ibid).

As she first started investigating the suicide pact issue, based on a blend between journalism and sociology, it grabbed her by the “solar plexus” as she puts it, and made her cry (Ibid., 454). Yet her resolve was to dig in to find out more about the family backgrounds and broader sociocultural and historical contexts of these teenagers. The story bothered her as she viewed it not from a medical or psychological perspective but as a ‘social act’ – a real social problem. And although she does not show where that investigation ended, Gaines nonetheless incites passion and intuition in grappling with what really matters to real people in the real world. In sum, doing what you do from the heart is best. Though published almost twenty years ago, Gaines’ sentiments and concerns for the alarming irrelevance of sociology ring so vivid and true today.

Reinvigorating the Profession

Through it all, a more self-reflective type of sociology is desperately needed in order for the discipline to earnestly engage the larger society. To gain wider recognition by fellow practitioners, to keep in lock step with the rules of funding, or to simply follow the mainstream in order to walk the straight line of institutional expectations, many are willing to sacrifice originality, creativity, intuition and conscience. The few who dare deviate from that line are considered to be taking risks which may or may not be rewarded.

But it is well worth it to grab the reins of sociology and take the risk if by that, some greater good is realized; and that involves the public benefiting in a real tangible sense because someone cared. From that standpoint, a sociologist shouldn’t feel guilty for going the extra mile to see some burden alleviated; for instance, helping single unemployed parents get jobs to sustain themselves and their families. At the end of the day, then, sociology should be able to take an introspective look and feel good because someone walked the walk and not simply sat behind some office chair with only constant dreaming to call her own.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Based on your reading of this article, cite an example of ‘Insider Trading’ (in the academic setting), and discuss your reaction to it.
  2. If you were to make a counterpoint to the author’s argument, what would it be?
  3. Do you see sociology as a job or as a calling? Elaborate.
  4. Name one or two ways (or areas) you would like to see sociology making an impact.

References:

  • Calhoun, Craig and Troy Duster. 2005. The Visions and Divisions of Sociology. The Chronicle of Higher Education 51(49): B7.
  • Gaines, Donna. 1998. Resurrecting Sociology as a Vocation. Contemporary Sociology 27(5):454–457.
  • Smelser, Neil J. 2003. Sociology: Spanning Two Centuries. The American Sociologist 34(3): 5–19.
  • Smith-Lovin, Lynn. 1999. Core Concepts and Common Ground: The Relational Basis of our Discipline. Social Forces 78: 1–23.

Cleran Hollancid, Ph.D., M.Div., is an author, professor, researcher, thinker, and presenter. He has a multi-disciplinary background which includes anthropology, history, theology, and sociology. Recently he served on the faculty at Henry Ford College (MI), in the Religious Studies Program. Currently, he is Adjunct Professor at two institutions in Michigan: in History & Philosophy at Lawrence Technological University, and in Sociology at Baker College.