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Is Sociology a Science or Political Ideology?

Is Sociology a Science or Political Ideology? December 22, 2018

A peer-review article recently came out looking at the ideological stances of sociologists. This article really helps to define some of the problems we have in the field with activism mattering more than science. If we want a science that is useable and able to meet the needs of our society then I think we need to take seriously the forces that inhibit our scientific endeavors. To this end, there are important lessons in this research that I want to explore.

The authors of the article sent out a survey to full-time sociology faculty in the United States. They were trying to get a sense of the moral vision these scholars possess. The survey made up the quantitative portion of their work. They also allowed the respondents to make comments in relation to the questions. That provided some qualitative evidence of their findings as well.

As I look over the quantitative portion of their work, I see the vision many sociologists have. That vision is of a politicized field. Politics is not about science as much as it is about creating the spin that allows your political allies to win and that can defeat your political foes. Some of the answers to the questions of the survey indicated this sort of attitude.

For example, about the same percentage of sociologists (42%) see calls to limit immigration as legitimate as those who disagree with that assertion (40%). If you envision any calls to limit immigration as illegitimate, then you are asking for open borders. I see no other way to interpret that result. But progressives know that calls for open borders will not play well to the general public and thus do not use that language in public debates. Yet here we are with two of five sociologists basically calling for open borders. While, I support a comprehensive border plan that is probably more moderate than what conservatives tend to want, I am not for open borders. The left’s unstated, but quite real, drive for open borders is what makes me less willing to side with them against President Trump on this issue. We see evidence of this political radicalism right here in the survey.

The survey also showed sociologists tend to reject biological notions of gender. For example, only a third believe that women in occupations is at least partly biological. Only about a quarter believe that prenatal hormones play a role in occupational choices. Okay fine, but I bet that most today endorse the trans ideology that has been the latest progressive cause. So how does a rejection of biological origins of gender make sense in a world of trans ideology? If there is a distinct innate male/female difference, then one can make an argument that people can be born with the wrong genitalia. But if men and women are not the same, then we should expect at least some differences in occupation based on those contrasts. Even a small male/female difference should, over time and with hundreds of thousands of cases, result in occupational distinctions. So which is it, sociologists? Is maleness and femaleness innate or not?

So we see in some of these questions an adherence of some scholars to a radical political ideology and that adherence does not have to follow along lines of cognitive consistency. But that is just the political game that we play in our country today. What is even more troubling is the way some of my peers are willing to cast aside science in their desire to engage in these political games. For example, 30 percent of the sample says that discussion of Muslim threats to values is Islamophobic. Should we not at least do research that looks to assess the true nature of a Muslim threat before calling any concerns about it Islamophobic? About 20 percent do not think we should discuss how the black community may be responsible for some of its problems. Does this unwillingness to discuss the black community as problematic mean that we cannot look at the community empirically, or is this a moral assertion? If we are taking legitimate research questions off the table before we even scientifically examine them, then how can we say that we are doing science?

When I did research on multiracial churches, I learned through organizational literature that anytime a group reaches 20 percent of an organization then the organization, has to change to serve that group. So while the percent of sociologists who do not want scientific treatment of the subject is a minority of the field, it is large enough to shape the field. But if that was not bad enough, I also note that 39 percent of the respondents do not believe that dispassionate attitudes are important in research. Dispassion towards the results of research is one of the foundations of using the scientific method.

The implications of these findings become all the more apparent when reading the qualitative comments. Let me first note that the comments were not collected in a systematic manner. So I think that we should look at them as examples, but not representative of the entire sociological community. My experience is that these are not rare examples, and they show that some sociologists are not really interested in doing science.

For example look at this comment in response to whether we as sociologists should look at whether actions in the black community can contribute to its own problems.

I really *really* hope you’re not seriously considering white supremacist ideas as valid ideas to explore [emphasis theirs].

So how is this science? The overuse of the accusation of white supremacy is now being used to justify not exploring a quite plausible hypothesis. That some of the problems in the black community are created by blacks and their culture is a possible hypothesis that could be tested. Not all of the problems of course but some of those problems can be exacerbated by black culture. It is at least worth testing that hypothesis.
Here is another example of a nonscientific approach with this comment on studying if there are biological differences that may lead to different occupational outcomes by gender.

It only merits attention insofar as we have data that show that gender does not universally have the same effects on occupational choices or the division of labor.

This is not a dispassionate search for truth. This is research being done to find a certain result. I have seen it before, but it is still shocking to see scholars explicitly admit that they do not care about finding the truth. They only care about finding a certain social outcome. There were similar comments about preordained results on the question of whether immigration could threaten social cohesion.

This unwillingness to do science has its consequences. In a previous blog I defended the work of Mark Regnerus. He conducted research that suggested that same sex parenting may have negative outcomes for children. One thing I think his attackers missed is just is how his work exposed the weakness of previous research. The previous work on this question was plagued with lack of statistical power, biased sampling, poor operationalization and terrible design of the research. When I decided to defend Regnerus, I learned just how bad the previous research had been. For years I had been told that science had shown that same-sex parenting had no negative consequences. Now I knew it was an awful rendition of science that told such a tale.

The result of that discovery is that I now no longer believe research emerging from the study of sexual minorities. I now assume that all of it is shaped by political desire more than a dispassionate search for truth. I know that is not fair, but I do not have the time to read it all, and I will not be fooled again. My skepticism is the cost of doing activism under the guise of science. I am bothered by the lack of commitment to scientific principles by some of my colleagues precisely because they are making it harder for the rest of us to be believed.

Now I am not alone in being disturbed by this. Note some of the comments that came from respondents who see this polarization of science.

There are a lot of results in our field that I do not believe because I don’t trust that they weren’t slanted by the strong political commitments of their authors.

and

I am still a liberal Democrat and I intensely detest everything about today’s Republican Party. Still, I think that sociology has become such a left-dominated field that we exhibit ‘groupthink’ on many of our issues, to the point that we have become intellectually soft.

I have railed about this for years now. Being a nonleftist, I tend to see the biases in the field more easily than my more progressive colleagues. But now more of my fellow scholars are starting to see it as well. Perhaps they had concerns all along but kept silent about them. There is a powerful informal sanction to not bring up issues that are unpleasant for the activists. But as it gets worse I think we are going to have to bring up this problem of politicization of science more and confront the activists more directly.

I know that we cannot have a completely objective science. I accept that I, and everyone, brings biases to our work. But we can work towards the principles embedded in the scientific method and get closer to our goal of a more objective science even if we cannot completely achieve that goal. Activists create a huge barrier towards a more scientific approach in academia. Until more of the activists see the damage they are doing to science and to our society with their polarization, then I think we may never be able to recover from their activism. Glad to see this article, but it is depressing in that it reinforces what I already know.


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11 responses to “Is Sociology a Science or Political Ideology?”

  1. Fundamentally, sociology’s bias is toward compassion for people who are disadvantaged.
    For each of us, we come to the choice between prioritizing the [feeling of being right] or [doing good].

  2. Seeing calls to limit immigration as illegitimate does not mean supporting open borders. It includes everything from the status quo policy to open borders and everything in between.
    Saying gender differences don’t explain gender imbalances in stem is not the same as saying there are no such thing as gender differences. One can have this view and believe anything from gender is a pure social construction to something that makes a massive difference in someones life (and again anywhere between).

    The second part of the article could be plausible but the first part has very strange logic

  3. Apparently, sociologists whose experience and study in the field lead them to positions that George Yancy disagrees with are ‘against science’, and yet Yancy still clings to his defense of Mark Regnerus and his blatantly dishonest and politically motivated study on gay parenting.

    Perhaps you should take a good long look into your own biases before throwing stones at the mainstream of the profession.

  4. People who say that we cannot study certain research questions are certainly anti-science. Please point out any time I have said something should not be studied. Or that I think people are not scientists who disagree with me are anti-science. Oh nevermind. I know you are not honest enough to address what I actually said. Nice strawmanning though.

  5. The actual statement used is “Calls to limit immigration sometimes legitimate” So even calls to limit immigration under the status quo would not be seen as legitimate to someone who disagrees with that statement. As to the second question I think you are confusing gender with sex.

  6. I think in my entire life I’ve only met 2 people that are pro-open borders with one of them being a right wing libertarian.

    People who believe in the current immigration law up to perhaps some tweaks would probably answer no to that question.

    If I got that question I’d give a no because I’d interpret it as a call to reduce legal immigration or even be more punitive on illegal immigration than we currently are

    for the second point I don’t follow. There is no contradiction between trans-idealogy and believing biological differences do not explain differences in stem fields unless you add additional assumptions. Also many I know approach that question differently anyway – we do not know what would happen on a level playing field until we have a level playing field. In other words gender differences are difficult to test but the question we can answer is “are there barriers and how do we remove them” and if we succeed in removing such barriers then the more difficult question of gender differences becomes answerable.

  7. I think we need to take seriously the forces that inhibit our scientific endeavors.

    Like a belief in a magical sky faerie?

  8. I will leave the first point alone as the question is about any attempt to limit immigration which naturally leads to open borders. As to the second point let me clarify. If men and women have biological differences more than the obvious physical differences then inevitably they would sort out into different occupations to some degree. That is sex differences. Gender is societal expectations on fact we are men and women. So we can talk of leveling the playing field if all there is is gender differences. But if that is all there is then trans ideology of people being born men or born woman now makes no sense. We are all innately the same. That is the contradiction some scholars do not want to face.

  9. The “trans ideology” is a criticism of genital determinism: we do not set out the future course of our children’s lives based on their genitalia- including the ascribing of gender norms.