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The title question has been asked frequently in recent years, both within and outside the field. I think that it can be answered rather easily: sociology has fallen victim to two severe deformations. The first began in the 1950s; I would label it as methodological fetishism. The second was part of the cultural revolution that started in the late 1960s; it sought to transform sociology from a science into an instrument of ideological advocacy. As a wider public became increasingly aware of these changes, sociology lost the prestigious status it once occupied in American cultural life, lost its attraction to the brightest students, and, not so incidentally, lost a lot of its funding.

I am not a disinterested observer of these developments. As a young sociologist, still full of enthusiasm for my chosen discipline, I wrote Invitation to Sociology. It was published in 1963, before the second deformation began and while the first one still seemed containable. The little book is still in print and still gets students interested in sociology. My own view of the discipline has not changed fundamentally since then, and I do not regret what I wrote at the time. But whenever I am asked about the book (especially by students), I have to say that the picture I painted of the discipline bears little relation to what goes on in it today. The relation is a bit like that of the Marxian utopia to what used to be called “real existing socialism.”

The 1950s were a sort of golden age for sociology, even as the first deformation was beginning to develop. There were three powerful academic centers from which eager young teachers fanned out across the provincial hinterlands. At Harvard there was the imposing figure of Talcott Parsons, putting together, book by book, the theoretical system known as “structural functionalism” and producing a growing body of active disciples. Parsons wrote terrible prose (it read like a bad translation from German), but he dealt with the “big questions” that had been the subject matter of sociology from its beginnings: What holds a society together? What is the relation between beliefs and institutions? How does change come about? What is modernity? At Columbia University there were two other figures, almost as impressive-Robert Merton, who taught what could be called a more moderate version of “structural functionalism,” and Paul Lazarsfeld, who helped develop increasingly sophisticated quantitative methods but who never forgot the “big questions” that these methods were supposed to help answer. And at the University of Chicago there was still the lively presence of two distinctively American traditions of sociology—the blend of sociology with social psychology, called “symbolic interactionism,” which began with the work of George Herbert Mead (who had taught at Chicago most of his life), and the so-called “Chicago school” of urban sociology, which had produced a whole library of insightful empirical studies of many aspects of American life. Columbia and Chicago also sent out their young graduates across the country and, increasingly, to foreign universities; Europeans came to study sociology in America and European sociology for a while had the character of an American missionary enterprise.

What I mean by “methodological fetishism” is the dominance of methods over content. In principle this could happen with any method in the human sciences; in fact the methods have been invariably quantitative. Statistics became the mother science for sociologists. Now, there can be no question but that statistical analysis has been a useful tool in many areas. We live in a society comprising millions of people and statistics is designed precisely to make sense of such a society without having to interview every one of its members. To say this, however, is a long way from assenting to the widespread implication that nothing is worth studying that cannot be analyzed quantitatively.

In order for data to be analyzed statistically, they must be produced by means of a standardized questionnaire. This means, inevitably, that people are asked to reply to a limited number of typically simple questions. Sometimes this works; sometimes it does not. Take the example of the sociology of religion. One can get useful data by asking people how often they have gone to church in the last four weeks (leave aside the fact that, as has been shown, they sometimes lie about this). But then such questionnaires try to cover beliefs as well as behavior, and there the meaning of the replies is much less clear. Even such a seemingly simple question as “Do you believe in God?” will be interpreted by respondents in so many different ways that their replies are hard to analyze, let alone capable of helping a researcher construct something like, say, an index of orthodoxy. This does not mean that the intentions behind these replies could not be clarified; it only means that survey research is not a good way of doing so.

The reasons for this worship of quantitative methods are probably twofold. As often happens in intellectual history, there is a mix of “ideal” and “material” factors (the sociology of knowledge is the attempt to sort out such mixes). On the level of ideas, there is the enormous prestige of the natural sciences, in which quantitative methods are indispensable, and little sociologists want to be as much as possible like their big brothers in physics. On the level of material interests, many of those who fund social research (such as government agencies) want results that are within very small “margins of error” and can therefore be presented as unassailably scientific arguments for this or that course of action. This too pushes toward quantitative methods. In sociology as in many other areas of endeavor, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Methodological fetishism has resulted in many sociologists using increasingly sophisticated methods to study increasingly trivial topics. It has also meant that sociological studies have become increasingly expensive. Earlier sociologists (such as those of the “Chicago school”) would go into a community, check into a cheap hotel, and spend the next months observing and talking to their neighbors. Latter-day sociologists, as a joke has it, need a million-dollar grant to find their way to the nearest house of ill repute. Inevitably, the “big questions” tend to get lost in this version of sociology. Its results can still be useful to this or that institution (say, a government agency that wants to find out how many people are making use of one of its programs, and perhaps even what those people think about it), but they are unlikely to be of interest to a wider public.

The ideologization of sociology has been even more devastating. However trivial or simplistic have been the results of methodological fetishism, at least they have been produced by objective investigations that merit the name of science. The ideologues who have been in the ascendancy for the last thirty years have deformed science into an instrument of agitation and propaganda (the Communists used to call this “agitprop”), invariably for causes on the left of the ideological spectrum. The core scientific principle of objectivity has been ignored in practice and denied validity in theory. Thus a large number of sociologists have become active combatants in the “culture wars,” almost always on one side of the battle lines. And this, of course. has alienated everyone who does not share the beliefs and values of this ideological camp.

The ideological amalgam that is transported by this propaganda campaign is, broadly speaking, of Marxist provenance. But the adherents of Marxism proper have considerably shrunk in numbers. (In the wake of the demise of “real existing socialism,” those who remain have a certain heroic quality, like adherents of flat-earth theory in the wake of the Copernican revolution.) The ideology is not so much Marxist as marxisant—in its antagonism to capitalism and to bourgeois culture, in its denial of scientific objectivity, in its view of the combatant role of intellectuals, and, last but not least, in its fanaticism. In recent years this version of sociology has intoned the mantra of “class, race, and gender.”

The first term of the mantra is still the most visibly marxisant, except for its substitution of the working class by other categories of alleged victims, such as, notably, the people of developing societies as described by theories of neo-imperialism. The anticapitalism of the ideology is also expressed by way of environmental concerns and, most recently, in opposition to globalization. “Race” and “gender,” of course, refer to a variety of victimological categories—racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians (recently expanded to include transvestites and transsexuals—one wonders whether there are enough of those to make up a credible group of victims). The ideological amalgam here draws from the theorists of multiculturism and feminism. Unlike the doctrines of orthodox Marxism, some elements in the amalgam are in tension with each other. For instance, how do multiculturalists and feminists negotiate a topic like “Islamic modesty”? But logical inconsistency has only rarely been an obstacle to ideological dominance (the Leninists were an exception in their insistence on relentless conformity). And, as has been amply documented, this particular ideology, with its stultifying mantra, has become dominant not only in much of sociology but in many of the other human sciences. Along with methodological fetishism, this ideological propaganda has been a crucial factor in the decline of sociology, and not only in America.

I don’t want to exaggerate. Here and there one can still find sociologists doing excellent work. Since I mentioned the sociology of religion, let me refer here to the work of Nancy Ammerman, Jose Casanova, James Davison Hunter, and Robert Wuthnow. And there are still sociologists who, in one way or another, address the “big questions,” such as Irving Louis Horowitz and Orlando Patterson in America, or Anthony Giddens and the recently deceased Niklas Luhmann in Europe. But the contributions of these sociologists, none of whom have created anything resembling a school of thought, only serve to underline the overall depressing condition of this discipline. It would take an enormous and sustained effort to reverse this condition. I’m relieved to observe that I am both too old and too occupied elsewhere to participate in such an effort.

Sociology originated in the attempt to understand the profound transformations brought about by the processes of modernity. Its basic question, to paraphrase the question asked in the Passover ritual, was “Why does this age differ from every other age?” In its classical period, roughly between 1890 and 1930, sociology flourished principally in three countries-France, Germany, and the United States. In each country the basic question took somewhat different forms, due to differing intellectual and political milieus. Sociology produced such intellectual giants as Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, and powerful schools of thought derived from their work. Given the structure of modern academic life, sociology became a distinct discipline and a profession. However, one could argue that, unlike other disciplines (such as political science or economics), sociology does not concern itself with a delineated field of human life. It is a perspective rather than a field (a perspective which, incidentally, I tried to describe in Invitation to Sociology ). This perspective (sometimes misunderstood, often correctly applied) has greatly influenced virtually all of the other social sciences as well as the humanities. Perhaps, then, sociology has fulfilled its purpose and its eventual demise should be seen as less than an intellectual catastrophe.

Peter L. Berger is Director of the recently founded Institute on Religion and World Affairs at Boston University.

Image by geralt licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.