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Joel Best 2003 Sociology as Social Problem

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Killing the Messenger: The Social Problems of SociologyJOEL BEST, University of DelawareOne hundred years ago, in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt hoped to avert a coal strike by establishing an arbitration commission. The miners, of course, insisted that any commission include a representative of labor, while the mine operators sought to block any labor appointment by specifying the quali cations of the various commissioners. However, they agreed that one commissioner should be a man of prominence, eminent as a sociologist. Roosevelt broke the log-jam by appointing Edgar E. Clark, chief of the Railway Conductors Union, to ll the sociology slot, on the grounds that anyone in his position must have thought and studied deeply on social questions. The maneuver succeeded and TRs biographer, Edmund Morris (2001:166169), reports: to the end of his days, [Roosevelt] could rejoice with falsetto giggles at the eminent sociologist. This revealing tale offers several lessons for contemporary sociologists, but I want to focus on its comic aspect: for one of the greatest U.S. presidents, the term sociologist was funny, the punch line for a favorite anecdote. Is there something funny about sociology? Peter L. Berger begins his Invitation to Sociology (1963:1) with the observation that: There are very few jokes about sociologists. This perhaps misses the point. In our culture, sociology is rarely taken seriously; when sociologists are recognized, they often become gures of fun. Weve all heard the aphorism that a sociologist is someone who needs a grant to nd a house of ill repute, although were no longer sure just who said itH. L. Mencken? James T. Farrell? Dismissive comments abound. P. J. ORourke (2001) says that sociology is journalism without news. A British journalist calls it the ology everyone loves to hate (Rayment 1991). Diane Bjorklund (2001:24), after reviewing more than 80 twentieth-century novels featuring sociologists as characters, notes that: . . . in almost none of these novels is the sociologist a particularly admirable or even sympathetic character. There are virtually no positive comments made about sociologists. In our culture, the sociologist is almost never a hero, but rather a villain or a fool. Popular discourse frequently criticizes sociologists and, by extension, sociology. For sociologists of social problems, of course, the assorted jokes and put-downs can be under stood as claims, as arguments that there is something wrong with sociology that demands correction. That is, even though sociology never receives its own chapter in our thick, four color social problems textbooks, sociology iswhen people bother to pay attention to it frequently constructed as a social problem. 1 My goal in this article is to explore some ofThis article is a revised version of the authors Presidential Address delivered in August 2002 at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Diane Bjorklund, Russell R. Dynes, James A. Holstein, Kathleen S. Lowney, Lawrence T. Nichols, and Richard Wilsnack are among those who made helpful comments on earlier versions. Direct correspondence to: Joel Best, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716-2580. E-mail: [email protected] 1. My analysis falls within a constructionist subgenre that examines claims that identify problematic features of relatively mundane, everyday life. At least for some determined claimsmakers, sociology is a social problem, just as some claim meat (Maurer 1995), toys (Best 1998), and drowsiness (Kroll-Smith 2000) are public problems. For introductions to the constructionist approach, see Spector and Kitsuse (1977) or Loseke (2003). I am aware that, in writing this article, I, too, am constructing some sociological work as problematic.SOCIAL PROBLEMS, Vol. 50, No. 1, pages 113. ISSN: 0037-7791; online ISSN: 1533-8533 2003 by Society for the Study of Social Problems, Inc. All rights reserved. Send requests for permission to reprint to: Rights and Permissions, University of California Press, Journals Division, 2000 Center St., Ste. 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223.



these constructions of sociology as a social problem, to analyze this claimsmaking and try to explain why it is so common. I begin with the rhetoric of critics who are not sociologists, but then I want to turn to critiques from within, to sociologists attacks on, if not the entire discipline, at least one another.

Sociology as a Social ProblemWhen non-sociologists criticize sociology, their indictments tend to center on three themes.2 The rst of these, of course, is that sociology lacks substance. Sociology, we are told, is nothing more than common sense; it is trivial, the scienti c study of the obvious. 3 Further, it is confused and probably mistaken. One of Iris Murdochs (1983:165) characters was a sociologist; he had got into an intellectual muddle early on in life and never managed to get out. A Harvard economist observed, Economics is all about how people make choices. Sociology is all about why they dont have any choices to make (Duesenberry 1960:233), while an Indian-born economist explained his personal theory of reincarnation . . .: If you are a good economist, . . . you are reborn as a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist (Krugman 1994). Closely-related is the second complaint, that sociologists cannot communicate what they do know, that they write in impenetrable, obfuscating jargon. Howard S. Becker (1986:1) notes . . . everyone knows that sociologists write very badly, so that literary types can make jokes about bad writing just by saying sociology, the way vaudeville comedians used to get a laugh just by saying Peoria or Cucamonga. What is it about sociology, Russell Baker (1990) asks, that instantly bogs us down in fens of jargon. One popular answer is that sociologys complicated language is designed to conceal and compensate for its modest substance. The authoritative Dictionary of Modern English Usage suggests: Sociology is a new science concerning itself with . . . the ordinary affairs of ordinary people. This seems to engender in those who write about it a feeling that the lack of any abstruseness in their subject demands a compensatory abstruseness in their languagethis from the entry on Sociologese (Fowler 1965:570). 4 The third indictment, of course, is that sociology is just ideology, only thinly and disingenuously disguised as science, that it is the domain of knee-jerk liberals and irresponsible radicals who would coddle criminals while blaming society. Here critics range from those who naively con ate socialists with sociologists, to more sophisticated indictments of sociology as deeply implicated in what are seen as academias disturbing turns toward feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism, and political correctness (e.g., Goodman 2000; Petersen 1970). In short, non-sociologists suspect that there isnt much to sociology, beyond a lot of unnecessarily complicated verbiage designed to give false authority to leftist politics. While we may take pride in some of our opponentsafter all, being denounced by anti-intellectual ignoramuses may enhance our own sense of self-worthwe are hurt, disappointed, and defensive about the low regard for sociology in other circles. Joan Hubers (1995) warning that university administrators value disciplinary centrality, quality of faculty, and quality of2. I will ignore other, less common charges, such as two mentioned by Neil Smelser (1992:56), that social science research is of no use to the government, and is basically unscienti c. 3. My colleague Frank Scarpitti assures me that this quote comes from Time magazine in the 1950s, although I have been unable to track down a citation. Doubts about sociology in turn raise questions about sociologists. Thus, according to Robert D. Leighninger, Jr., the sociology section in Blackwells bookstore once featured a sign: Studies of people who dont need to be studied by people who do. For other dismissive portraits of sociologists, see Bjorklund (2001). 4. Again: . . . sociologists are clothing a paucity of thought in a smokescreen of verbiage or putting a Prussian helmet, greatcoat, and cavalry boots on a pip-squeak of an idea, the object being intimidation rather than elucidation (Middleton 1975:59).

Killing the Messenger


studentsand see sociology as falling short on all three criteriais worrisome. While proposals to eliminate sociology graduate programs or even departments havent been all that common, they have aroused considerable concern. 5 And there is the sense that relatively few sociologists become genuine public intellectuals, that we get less than our share of op-ed pieces and Booknotes interviews.6 Even the people wed like to have like us dont seem to care for us much. Sociologists are more than a little sensitive about their disciplines social standing. Our shaky reputation has an extensive history, and has led a long line of sociologists to defensiveness. I remember my professor, Arnold M. Rose, describing one of his professorsI think it was Louis Wirthdeconstructing a joke.7 The joke went like this: A physicist, a psychologist, and a sociologist are walking down an alley, and they come upon a dead mans body. The physicist stops and declares, Aha! This is a mass weighing 150 pounds, and it is not in motion. The psychologist stops and says, Noits a dead person. But the sociologist just keeps on walking because hes looking for a group. Since Peter Berger complains that there arent any jokes about sociologists, I guess we ought to be grateful for this one. But, according to Rose, Wirth used to correct this joke for his students, and explain that it was the sociologist who would know enough to check the mans pockets, to open his wallet and nd the identifying information that could locate him within the larger soci