Sociology advocacy

[By Ryan Noble]

Sociology, when one first hears of it, is described as the study of human social behavior. The social science conceit, in general, is that is an uninterested party assessing reality like the physicist or chemist. For obvious reasons sociologists break character far more often than practitioners of the hard sciences. Humans are programed to judge and try and change other people’s behavior (a generally positive adaptation to be sure). This fact sets the stage for the fraternization of science and advocacy but does not explain fully the extent to which sociology, as a field of study, has attempted to hybridize the two.

The typical chemist would likely answer a question such as “Tell me about helium” with something like “It is an inert noble gas with two protons and two elections”. The typical sociologist asked a question like “Tell me about poverty” would likely answer in one of two ways which both starkly contrast to the type of answer a chemist would give. One way is to respond with something like “Poverty is a condition created by the social interaction rewarded and institutionalized by capitalism” OR something like “Poverty is a major issue sociologists attempt to understand and tackle”. The Chemist’s answer is heavy on fact and light on theory, as well as completely non-normative. If a sociologist were to answer the poverty question in a similar manner their answer would be something like “Poverty is a lack of wealth and resources relative to what is considered normal in a society.”

Theory in science is not strictly necessary to predict future events or effectively use data. For example, one can observe objects naturally and consistently applying downward (or earthward) force. We can measure and document the particularities of this phenomenon and use the data for any purpose we see fit. The theory of gravity is immaterial to us at this point. The same can be said for the earth’s orbit around the sun. The theory of gravitation is useful in that it provides a universal principle which can relate and explain seemingly unrelated phenomenon. It allows us to predict what will happen in situations we haven’t tested or explored yet. The extent to which it does this (and a few other things) reliably is the extent to which the theory is a good one. When a science becomes too dependent on theory our ability to use data effectively diminishes. Contradictory data must be discarded, ignored, or explained away because the theory must be protected. This is an inversion of the scientific method. If you are doing something and it isn’t science, then it must be something else.

The following is a description of an area of emphasis for a sociology degree at St. Cloud State University. It shows what happens when a field of study is theory heavy and has deep seeded normative assumptions.

“Courses analyze the historical role the political economy of capitalist inequality plays in shaping social relationships along lines of class, race, gender, sexuality, and environment.  It seeks to understand how anti- systemic (i.e. labor, anti- colonial, civil rights, sexual liberation, environmental, etc.) movements have strategized to challenge the specific forms of coercion that have characterized the social relations of capitalism for over 400 years.”

Besides being an entertaining word salad, the amount of unreasonable assumptions in this are astounding. These assumptions come from sociological theory that is assumed to be true. For instance, it states that certain social movements challenge capitalistic coercion. The first error is that, for the sake of theory, market interaction between firms (capitalism) is lumped in with government controlled institutions like law (not capitalism) and called… capitalism. This is obfuscating and unnecessary. What were some of the goals of the civil rights movement? Voting equality (a non-capitalist institution), Non segregated public schools (a non-capitalist institution), anti-discrimination laws (this effects capitalist enterprise but government laws are a non-capitalist institution). Some of the victories of the civil rights movement were directly interfacing with the capitalist economic system but basically all the notable ones are challenging government institutions, a positively non-capitalist system. I hope you can see how the other movements listed could be shown to be challenging the coercion of a democratic government and not capitalist economic interaction.

Another dubious aspect to this is the idea of capitalistic coercion. In what ways can a capitalistic interaction be coercive? Is being a “wage slave” coercive? Unless you can provide all the necessities of life through your own labor you will have to trade for them, steal them, or die. This is the same for humans as it is for dolphins or mosquitoes, unfortunately they haven’t discovered the division of labor yet. Is being alive by nature coercive? If so, capitalism has nothing to do with it. I cannot possibly address all the haphazard justifications for the idea of capitalist coercion, but I have little doubt at the end of each example where actual, literal coercion exists there is a governmental system of coercion, not a market one.

Finally, why assume these movements were anti-systemic? Couldn’t a structural functionalist argue that these deviant movements were allowed by the system to interact within the system as a way to correct or cement cultural norms? Debates between two sociologists with antithetical theoretical perspectives is likely to be as productive (truth producing) as two people arguing about what color an invisible horse is. Why bother? Why take up so much energy in a field of science not doing science? The truth is a slave to reason and evidence. I haven’t demonstrated explicit value-laden methodology but I hope by this point you see where this is going.

Injecting values into a field of science necessarily endangers the endeavor. To borrow a phrase form the bible, you cannot serve both God and Mammon. To advocate for something within a society is to by definition have a theory of society. At that point you cannot dispose of the theory without disposing of the reasons for your advocacy. If your goal is to do science the theory must always be dispensable to one with a better fit to the data, or for no theory at all. If at heart you are an advocate than the thoughts which I have presented should mean very little to you. If at heart you are a scientist than I ask you take what I have presented before you and choose not to endanger your truth seeking.


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