Erin Metz McDonnell
University of Notre Dame
Jonah Stuart Brundage
University of California, Berkeley
Erin Metz McDonnell: Lately, I feel every time I turn around, another academic field is reinventing our wheel—discovering sociology, but not calling it sociology. For example, the controversy in psychology over failure to replicate findings (van Bavel 2016): New analysis finds that much of the failure to replicate is because (hold onto your hat now) people in x location now are not exactly the same as people in a completely different country 20 years earlier—that not all people are fungible instances of “participant.” Personal background characteristics, context, and culture matter! As other high-profile social sciences discover sociological mechanisms—without, it seems, discovering sociology—it seems worth revisiting the question of why?
Your award-winning student paper on elite pacification and my work on "Budgetary Units" both productively dialogue with the classics and advance contemporary sociological theory. Both are also interesting lenses to interrogate whether the aspects of theory valued within the discipline may contribute to the relative marginalization of sociology in the public sphere.
The relative marginalization of sociology in mainstream media and policy circles is a topic that has received attention recently. Orlando Patterson (2014) discusses "How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant."
What struck me was Freese's reflection: "I like that sociology allows one to think about big-picture questions that don’t always have to come back to policy–indeed, I think that is one of the great privileges of being in our field." It speaks to the delights of a “life of the mind” that sometimes characterize passionate theorists. It also raises the suggestion that there may be something else contributing to sociology’s sidelined public position, that goes beyond our professional organizational network positions and whether we express policy prescriptions: the products of sociological research (articles, theories) are objects with particular qualities, and those same qualities that sociologists and theorists often love and prize may be some of the same qualities that make them intensely difficult for outsiders without a sociology Ph.D. to digest and appreciate.
Jonah Stuart Brundage: I think you raise a very interesting point, and one that, to be honest, I feel conflicted about. On the one hand, I would agree with Freese that one of the great privileges of being in sociology is precisely not feeling constrained to produce work with immediate “policy relevance,” to the extent that this allows us to pose big questions that may (I would say “ought to”) have practical implications for engaging with the world, and yet need not yield direct policy applications. Indeed, I think there is an important distinction here, which you allude to, between work that is explicitly policy-oriented and work that aims to be practically relevant in broader and perhaps less direct ways. My hunch is that it’s the latter position that characterizes much sociological theorizing, and not some aversion to public engagement in principle. So just because “theoretically-oriented” sociologists tend to eschew policy, this doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t ideally like to reach broader publics; I’m sure that many would love to. But for precisely this reason, I'm intrigued by your point that there may be something in the very products of sociological research (and perhaps especially self-described sociological theory) that makes it inaccessible to just those publics; and that, unfortunately, this may be connected to the very delights of the “life of the mind" shared by many sociologists. I'm curious to hear you elaborate a bit further as to what you were thinking here.
EM: Early in my career, I aspired to write so that it was interesting to my academic supervisor but intelligible to my mom (who never went to college). But practically speaking, that is incredibly difficult. I loved writing “Budgetary Units;” I would wake up early because ideas were in my head, and be typing before I even said “Hello” to my husband. But I cannot for the life of me explain it to my mother. Even if we eschew jargon, much of what passes as non-jargon among sociologists is still relatively unintelligible to non-sociologists. The subtleties and “nuances” (Healy forthcoming) that sociologists admire can likewise make it difficult for non-sociologists to even grasp the main point. Academics decry how our complex, nuanced work gets boiled down in the popular press, and yet it seems that if it cannot be boiled down, distilled into relatively quickly consumable essences, it is exceedingly unlikely to ever get attention. Conversely, if I translate my work into language that non-sociologists can understand and quickly grasp the significance of, one veers close to sounding like a TedTalk...and I have the sense that sounding like a TedTalk is not particularly valued within the discipline, or at least evaluated as theory within sociology. “Ten simple rules for being a budgetary unit!” “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about pacifying elites (you won’t believe #5)!”
JSB: I think you’re pointing to a built-in trade-off between being legible to external audiences and getting coded as serious—especially theoretically serious—scholarship by the disciplinary rewards system. This is to some extent in the nature of disciplinary specialization as such, since developing a technical and thus esoteric language is part of what makes a discipline a discipline. So I’m not suggesting that this dilemma is unique to sociology. But I’m especially intrigued by the role of theory in what you’ve identified.
Thinking about my paper, “The Pacification of Hunting,” it’s interesting because I actually don’t have that much trouble explaining the empirical case to non-sociologists. That’s not the hard part. What I have trouble explaining is precisely my “theoretical contribution.” But this is really problematic because if my paper has anything novel to say with respect to sociology, it hinges unavoidably on that theoretical contribution.
EM: It is interesting that lay readers are drawn to your narrative but miss your theoretical contribution. In my article, non-sociologists love the narrative about Russian gangsters smuggling goods into a gulag, but miss entirely the point about collectively organized consumption.
JSB: The empirical substance of my paper concerns the practice of hunting as performed by landed elites in early modern England. While hunting remained the preferred leisure activity of these elites for the entire period I study, elites came to hunt in new ways that radically distanced themselves from the violent aspects of the ritual—thus, a kind of “pacification” of elite lifestyles. Now, what’s interesting is that, even though all of this is totally foreign to our own lives, I find it relatively easy to describe to non-sociologists, and I think that people often find it interesting too (if in a quaint sort of way). But I have the hardest time talking about my paper’s explanation of these hunting changes, of this pacification process, without immediately boring non-sociologists. (In a nutshell, my explanation is that new structures for reproducing elite privilege opened up that had little to do with physical prowess and skills in violence.) At any rate, I think my difficulty in talking about this latter aspect of the paper has everything to do with the way my explanation is anchored in a set of “sociological theories” (of state formation, class conflict, elite conflict) that have a sort of insular, and thus alienating, quality to them.
My explanation is anchored in a set of “sociological theories” (of state formation, class conflict, elite conflict) that have a sort of insular, and thus alienating, quality to them
EM: “Budgetary Units” likely won’t make the news either, even though people like stories about Russian gangsters, and even though it contains implications for the so-called “sharing economy” that is hot now. There are a number of ways that the qualities of what gets coded as high-status sociological theory may compromise its public consumption: 1) It is not immediately obvious to a lay consumer how the subjects are relevant to their lives. 2) It is not immediately obvious to a lay consumer why this finding/argument/theory is new and interesting. 3) The style of presentation is not legible to a lay consumer.
Some might argue that practical applications are in tension with knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but this seems not to be the case in physics or engineering, for example. A number of advances in the physical sciences originated from the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which only afterwards were bent to practical application. It may be that some academic fields—whose specialized knowledges might otherwise fit some of the above conditions—contain actors with dual cultural competency. Such actors are capable of consuming the products of high-end scientific thought but also translating them for the public, e.g. the division between research and practicing psychologists. Such fields include professional rewards for those who produce practical implications from research.
JSB: Right, because it's not like the type of theorizing that goes on in some of the higher status and/or more policy influential disciplines (physics, economics) is somehow more accessible to broader publics. If anything, it’s the opposite, given how mathematized those fields are. Yet those fields also seem to offer more rewards for practically-oriented applications of theory.
EM: I wonder whether the theory in those fields is mathematized. It seems rather that the methods and argumentative foundations are, but the theory itself is brief. For example, game theory can be hard to follow, but the generalized theoretical claim may be something more simple, like “corruption is high in homogeneous or very fragmented countries” (Cerqueti, Coppier & Piga 2012).
JSB: Yes, it’s more the latter, at least for economics. Many of the most publicly influential theories to come out of economics are incredibly parsimonious. This might mean that even if such theories are developed in the most rarified of environments—knowledge for knowledge’s sake and all that—they may simply be easier to translate to a general audience. Most sociologists are understandably wary about the violence done to reality in attaining such a degree of parsimony, but the fact is that this makes it harder to translate a sociological theory without doing violence to the theory itself.
Most sociologists are understandably wary about the violence done to reality in attaining such a degree of parsimony...this makes it harder to translate a sociological theory without doing violence to the theory itself.
EM: True. As far as the public knows, economics is encapsulated in a theory1: “people will act in their material self-interest.” Lay consumers armed with this theory1 can then find it “surprising” (and therefore interesting, if not in an immediately policy-relevant way) that any women and children survive a sinking ship, because one would expect all strong men to self-interestedly toss weaklings aside in the scramble to survive (Kenney & Chace 2012). The contrast is palpable, giving non-specialists a quick hit of excitement that, for me, is innate in encountering novel theory. I’m not sure sociology has anything close to a theory1 or theory5 position that can be so quickly distilled and consumed by lay users. Which, correspondingly, makes it harder for the public to experience the thrill of theoretical novelty.
JSB: That’s a really interesting point. And given that sociology uses “theory” in such a wide variety of ways, it’s also harder to develop the kind of division between theoretical and applied work that some of these other disciplines enjoy (and which may contribute to their influence). But this is where I start to wonder whether we should be taking economics (and, by extension, physics) as our reference points in the first place. Personally, I think one of the great merits of sociology is precisely how it interweaves empirical analysis and theorizing (whatever we mean by the latter). I know that this isn’t the same thing as a parsimony-accuracy trade-off, but in practice it’s hard to move too far toward the parsimonious end of the spectrum when you’ve always got one foot in empirical work as well.
I would argue this data-driven (which need not imply “empiricist”) quality of sociology is really what makes it legitimately scientific at all. If in physics, theorizing runs way out ahead of any sort of empirical testing, it seems that this is justified scientifically by the fact that as empirical tests do become possible, theoretical physics consistently fares pretty well (as far as I understand these things). In economics, too, theory development is often well in advance of data—although I think it is safe to say that its theories have a much poorer record of empirical confirmation. I guess I worry that, by following economics, sociologists would risk putting themselves in the same position and thus sacrificing what I think is precisely our strong suit—the ability to rationally explain patterns of data post hoc. That’s why I think we are better off situating ourselves in reference to disciplines (from history to evolutionary biology) that are also more “data driven.” I wonder if the more historical sciences also offer lessons for the specific problem of reaching wider publics.
EM: Thinking on the fly, it seems if we look across disciplines at how they interface with public dialogue, we might say that there are two paths. One possibility is for a discipline to include translators with dual competence in the technical field and public sphere—either field insiders (such as the division between theoretical research psychologists and practicing psychologists) or outsiders like specialized journalists (e.g. I F***ing Love Science). Partnerships might also combine competencies in the technical field and public: a number of recent best-sellers have been produced by academic sociologists working with non-sociologists, like Aziz Ansari, the comedian, working with Eric Klinenberg on Modern Romance, or Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In working with a team of sociologists to synthesize research on workplace gender discrimination (and per “life relevance,” Sandberg consistently ends with prescriptions—“and here’s what you should do about it”—which few sociological studies do).
From 1985 to 2005, there were actually more newspaper references to academic historians than to economists.
Alternatively, the discipline might produce products that are already both legible to and “innately” interesting to the lay public. It is interesting to consider history. The relative prominence of historians in newspapers is pretty telling. They would seem to fail the "immediate policy impacts" test, except in the general precept that if you don’t know history you risk repeating it. Phil Cohen (2015) looks at newspaper references to various social science disciplines, and what really jumps out is not the prominence of economics—which we've come to expect—but the really noteworthy position of historians. From 1985 to 2005, there were actually more newspaper references to academic historians than to economists (see graph below, from Cohen 2015).
EM: Great point. My good friend is a historian of modern Africa who often laments that history has no theory; he says all they do is tell stories.
JSB: Right. The counter-argument from sociology is that historians are simply atheoretical, so while they may offer a model for public relevance (telling good stories), this is by definition a bad model for theory (let alone theory that is publicly relevant). But this also goes back to the question of what gets coded as theory. And I wonder if sociologists aren’t a little more comfortable than they realize with historians’ use of theory—and if many historians aren’t way more “theoretical” than they themselves acknowledge. To return to Abend, much of what historians do seems completely consistent with his theory2 (causal explanations) and especially theory3 (interpretation), both of which, if he’s right, sociologists actually call “theory” all the time in practice.
EM: Although, within history, interpretation and explanation tend to be about a particular case. One of the big things differentiating history from historical sociology is a greater attentiveness within sociology to whether and how elements of the narrative may (or may not) generalize to other cases or times. If you array our sister sciences on a continuum from general to particular, on one end you have historians telling deeply detailed narratives of a particular case, time, and place. On the other end, you have economists and psychologists who broadly work from an assumption of high interpersonal generalizability (with some recent trends away from that). Swaths of psychology generalize experiments on college guinea pigs to all people. Economists theorize people will do x when confronted with y incentives, using a mathematical algorithm where “preferences” stand in for the messy reality of social beings. To grossly exaggerate, history is high on particularity with few efforts to abstract or generalize; psychology and economics are high on generalizing and low on particularity.
Much of the richness of sociology—but especially sociological theory—occupies precisely that middle zone. We seek generalizability, but insist on boundary conditions that are subject(able) to empirical verification. We attend to particularities but at a mid-range level corresponding to types or categories rather than purely individual “great men” or idiosyncratic cases. Thus you have Skocpol on revolutions: neither the particularistic narrative of a single revolution, nor every individual’s generalizable response to bread shortages at any place or time.
“Budgetary Units” gains its theoretical leverage in finding similarities across seemingly disparate cases: Russian gangsters, Catholic nuns, low-income child support, and immigrant remittances. Similarly, my new work on interstitial bureaucracy in the Ghanaian state has had me theoretically synthesizing from the nineteenth-century American Coast Survey Department, early-twentieth-century Chinese Salt Inspectorate, mid-twentieth-century Kenyan Tea Development Agency, late-twentieth-century Brazilian National Development Bank, and twenty-first-century Nigerian Food and Drug Authority. For me, what is fascinating—what is the foundation of theory—is the remarkable consistency of some conditions in those cases across time, space, and state function.
One seeks to abstract and generalize in a way that confounds a purely narrative unfolding, and yet one is tied to empirical data, in all its messiness, in a way that frequently confounds streamlined simplification.
I want to end by saying what a great pleasure it was to dialogue with you today, Jonah. Anyone who hasn't already read Jonah's excellent article on elite pacification should know that they are in for an intellectual treat.
JSB: Thank you, Erin. As I’m sure many readers are already aware, your article on budgetary units is a fantastic piece and a really major intervention.
Abend, G. (2008). “The Meaning of ‘Theory’.” Sociological Theory 26(2): 173-199.
Berman, Elizabeth Popp. 2014. “It's the Economists, Stupid.” Orgtheory.net. Available at: https://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/its-the-economists-stupid/
Cerqueti, R., et al. (2012). "Corruption, Growth and Ethnic Fractionalization: A Theoretical Model." Journal of Economics 106(2): 153-181.
Cohen, Phil. 2015. “Sociology Unfound: Contextualizing the Dominance of Economist Mentions in the New York Times.” LSE The Impact Blog. Available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/02/06/sociology-unfound/
Freese, Jeremy. 2014. “Antimatter.” Scatterplot. Available at: https://scatter.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/antimatter/
Healy, Kieran. Forthcoming. “Fuck Nuance.” Sociological Theory. Available at: https://kieranhealy.org/files/papers/fuck-nuance.pdf
Kenney, Caitlin and Zoe Chace. 2012 “Why Didn’t Passengers Panic on the Titanic?” NPR Planet Money. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/04/13/150421710/why-didnt-passengers-panic-on-the-titanic
Patterson, Orlando. 2014. “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Available at: http://chronicle.com/article/How-Sociologists-Made/150249
Van Bavel, Jay. 2016. “Why Do So Many Studies Fail to Replicate?” The New York Times Sunday Review. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/opinion/sunday/why-do-so-many-studies-fail-to-replicate.html?nlid=51714370&src=recpb&_r=2