The Problem With Sociology


During my tenure as a graduate student at SUNY / Stony Brook, my contribution to the door of the office I shared with 4 other grad students was a warning sign:


You are now leaving the CENTER FOR SOCIAL-BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES and entering the antisocial, misbehavioral periphery of the social arts.


"Hmm", mused one professor in passing, "there are some unspoken assumptions in 'SBS' that we don't often think about." Since I really was trying to convey something in addition to my own outsider's stance, I was glad to have overheard that!

Sociology (along with other social-behavioral sciences) operates around the premise that the most effective way to come to an understanding of people and how they behave is through scientific research. The researcher is supposed to suspend (as much as humanly possible) her or his biases and political agendas and make measurements of how well various behaviors match up with possible behavior-determinants. Systems of belief can be behavior-determinants, as can categorical variables such as race or socio-economic status, or prior experiences and behaviors of the subject group. The resultant understandings of such research do not always yield any clarity about why one person is statistically more likely to do such-and-such than some other person, but they enable pretty good predictions about how behavior rates will be exhibited within groups of people depending on the distribution of various behavior-determinant categories.

The problem with sociology is not that it is a poor science of prediction, because the limitations of its applicability to specific individual cases have long been accepted, and sociology's ability to provide reliable predictions about large masses of people has proven useful. Nor is it immediately obvious that the problem with sociology is that it is a poor science of explanation, because the question "why" in relationship to human behavior is a very different thing than the question "why" in relationship to, say, the behavior of a virus or the behavior of a subatomic particle. We--the ones who pose the question--are ourselves human, and often what we mean when we say that we don't know why some form of human behavior occurs is that we can't imagine our own selves behaving that way under those circumstances. It does not take a cynic to note that our own self-images play a role here in our accepting or rejecting the adequacy of any explanation of "why". Consider the behavior rape. Suppose a sociological study of the behavioral determinants of rape showed that people who had the opportunity and means to rape others, with the likelihood of being apprehended minimal, were significantly more likely to rape than those without easy opportunity to do it without getting caught. It would be fair to say that this "explains" rape--people rape if and when they can. But many, probably most, people do not think that they themselves would rape someone simply because they had the opportunity and thought they wouldn't get caught. They would be likely to say that this study does not answer the question why. (Even Susan Brownmiller, who has come pretty close to stating that men rape if and when they can, would probably be thoroughly uncomfortable with the premise that if she had the opportunity and means to rape without getting caught she would be likely to do so). But because the human "why" question is so slippery and complicated, some theorists (most notably B. F. Skinner) have rejected the entire notion that motivations and intentions are interesting or meaningful when it comes to studying behavior. In other words, just as we don't ask about the motivations of the negative electrical charge for repelling other negative electrical charges, we should not ask about the motivation of humans for behaving as they do, and instead concentrate on which stimuli cause which responses. So, in light of that, it is not fair to say that sociology is a poor science of explanation unless we can defend the idea that human behaviors need to be explained beyond knowing what predicts them most accurately. (I personally do think this constitutes a problem with sociology, but I am acknowledging that, in and of itself, this is is a subjective dislike for sociology's impersonality. This is a dislike commonly shared by many but rejected as meaningful by many others, and therefore by itself my dislike for sociology's impersonal and detached way of "explaining" human behavior is not a compelling criticism of sociology).

Instead, the problem with sociology is its failure to operate on its own terms as a neutral mechanism for the study of human behavior. Dorothy Smith writes (p. 88-89) of an ideal, feminism-friendly sociology that

would aim to make available to anyone a knowledge of the social organization and a determination of his or her directly experienced, everyday world. Its analyses would become part of our ordinary interpretations of experience and hence part of experience, just as our experience of the sun's sinking below the horizon has been transformed by our knowledge that the world turns and that our location in the world turns away from the sun...

Unfortunately, of course, this is not your everyday, normative sociology in relationship to the human subjects whose behaviors it studies. The very stance of detachment that sociology requires of its practitioners--that they leave their emotional reactions, biases, politics, and opinions at the door and study behavior without partisanship, with the attempt to avoid having an effect on the behavior being studied--means that, during the interval that research is taking place, the researcher provides the people being studied with no insights, explanations, or assessments of how those behaviors are caused by various things and in turn cause various others to occur under certain circumstances. Theoretically, I guess, the researcher could mail copies of the completed report to all subjects of the study after the study is completed, to share the information obtained with those whose lives and behaviors supplied the data, but quite aside from the observable fact that social scientists don't as a general rule do that, and quite aside from the predictable tendency of such reports to be written in jargon that the study subjects might not be able to understand, the big problem is that the social scientist is analyzing the observed behaviors using certain concepts as taken-for-granted starting points from which to explain things. These are mostly concepts that only other social scientists would use as starting points to make sense out of the situation; the study subjects would not make those assumptions. Meanwhile, precisely because of the social scientist's practiced neutral position as observer, the scientist is missing experiences of involvement which would create a different set of starting points for explaining things. This often means that important explanatory concepts are lacking. In other words, if we pretend that sociologists will always forward the final study results to the subjects of the study, and we pretend furthermore that these study participants are able to wade through the jargon, it is still likely that in many circumstances the study subjects will give a different explanatory interpretation for the data observed, and even more likely that they will have some strong criticisms about which questions were asked or which subtopics of study were investigated in the first place, because they will be approaching the entire situation from the perspective of their own interests and intentions. (as attested to by Vine Deloria in Custer Died for Your Sins.) But of course the social scientist was approaching the entire situation with interests and intentions as well.

This is where the social scientists tend to be blind: it is not the matter of intentionality as a tool for explaining or predicting behavior that is invoked, but the matter of intentionality as the foreground for doing the study itself.

As you can see, the purpose of these studies is not to provide information to the people being studied. Who, then, is it all for? An intentionless, disinterested, objective pursuit of knowledge for its own sake? Are we to pretend that sociology is not utilized by policy makers, marketeers, legislators, and other people with an institutionalized interest in controlling behaviors and shape the world according to their own ends and purposes? Are we to pretend that graduate students and university professors do not need to seek and obtain funding in order to pursue most of their projects? I do not accuse social scientists of attempting to convince incoming students of the field or interested outsiders, such as they may be, that such fictitious circumstances prevail; instead, I suggest that mostly they do not think about it one way or the other. You study behavior during the "study", which is then typed and submitted for publication or grade, and you try to stay neutral in relationship to the matters being studied, but you do not study the behavior of those doing the studying, or how they came up with the study design; you study structure and politics and power and dynamics of various groups--you even rely upon theoretical models that describe oppression, and include an awareness of unequal distribution of resources, and in most cases (despite the objectivity clauses) these theories are implicitly critical of inequality and oppression as social problems (although they are usually posited as thoroughly intractable ones). But you do not use these models to study yourself, your profession, and where and how and by whom the information you are collecting is being utilized. In all fairness, I do not think most sociological studies are funded and planned in order to facilitate the spread of oppression, at least not consciously; it is more often the case that the intent is more mundane. For example, the spending habits of an ethnic minority in three suburbs that differ by average income and by their proximity to large shopping malls might be funded by a company that sells shaving lotion or tennis shoes, or by an ethnic organization interested in economic prosperity for its people, or by a suburban county government that needs to consider the advantages and disadvantages of approving the construction of new shopping malls. But this objectifying study of people to provide information about them to others who seek to modify popular behavior is nevertheless oppressive, exploitative, and colonialist in its everyday operation.


"I Object to Being Subjected to This..."


The problem, of course, is that the subjects of study have been reduced to a condition of passivity in relationship to the set of behaviors in which they are engaged, and in relationship to which they are being studied. This position of passivity, of being on the receiving end of study rather than being counted among those who are doing the studying, is an item of much attention within academic feminist theory. (In fact, on the most basic level, this is what differentiates women's studies in the feminist sense from the study of women as it exists within the various traditional disciplines.) Due to the strong presence of women (and by extension, of feminists) within the discipline of English language studies, this is often referred to as "subject position versus object position", borrowing from the grammatical terms. (Personally I find this set of terminologies confusing at times--one is treated as "an object" or "objectified" when reduced to passivity, and yet in common English language usage a "subject" is also an item to which passivity is often attached--e.g., the subjects of a king, the subject of a discussion, the subject of someone else's whims--so I find the theorists' reliance upon these terms to be unfortunate. Nevertheless, I find myself using them more often than not, as so many feminist authors who make points I agree with use them, and I begin to incorporate and borrow from their theoretical structures. For purposes of clarity, when used here, a "subject" should be understood to be someone who is acting from intentionality or who is directing the endeavor at hand, and an "object" is that which is acted upon and not consulted about it, or at least is not directing the endeavor.)

The corollary problem is that those doing the studying, in not considering their own role and motivations (or the motivations of those who have chosen to fund their research), accept their own hypothetical neutrality as a proper scientific position from which to operate. It is of course true that most sociologists and other behavioral scientists acknowledge nowadays that one does not truly expect to attain value-free unbiased objectivity, that all one can do is valianty strive for it (try to be aware of one's own biases, etc), and that one does not go forth expecting to attain a hands-off interaction with the subjects of the study, since it is now accepted that the presence of the researcher in the study subjects' lives, however minimally disruptive it might be crafted to be, does at least technically have an effect on that which is being studied (this understanding courtesy of the Heisenberg principle in physics, which says that the measurement tools always affect as well as measure that which is being measured). But again, the social scientists tend to dismiss all of this with a rueful smile and a shrug, and the comment that one simply does the best one can within the scope of these human limitations.

They're missing the point.


Certainly the fact that the present is controversial doesn't mean that the events of the past are established as true beyond dispute. Too many historians have assured us that the past is reinterpreted by each changing stage of "the present" for us to be deceived about that. But the very fact that the events and ideas of the past can be manipulated means that they can be separated from the framework of concepts surrounding them. We see that thev are open to various interpretations. For the living, on the other hand, today's facts are embedded in today's situation. We accept them as being self-evidently tnie, as signifying what they are; or at least, we try to. We are unhappy with puzzles and ambiguities, uneasy with shifting roles and mysterious behavior. Why?

Because they demand something from us. Present events act on us and call for action by us. Since we can change them, not simply define or describe them, they acquire a moral presence. They pose a question of responsibility, and by doing so they change the way we look at them. The past can be described and debated, but it doesn't call for action-except, of course, as its effects continue into the present and so become the present. But of the true past, one can say: this condition existed, it resulted in these actions and reactions which produced these events and ways of looking at the world. Not so with the present. Here we say, this condition exists-in the same world as the observer. Therefore he is no longer merely an observer, because being present he is involved with the condition. Whether he evades direct involvement or not (and one can't, after all, become involved in every problem), the question arises: Do I approve of this situation? Is it right that it should exist? Can it be changed? And how?

So valuing invades description, moral judgment confounds analysis. The objectivity we found easy in looking at the past becomes a matter of degree when we deal with the present, not something we can achieve absolutely no matter how "scientific" our approach. Even the most dedicated social scientists find it difficult to get rid of the idea that some human situations are better than others, not perhaps in the way of an overall judgment of a total society, but at least in part. They may cling to an ideal of objective reporting, but it is hard not to form some conclusions about value, if only on the basis that the people being investigated seem happy and content with the way they live. An unspoken assumption hovers here that it is absolutely good to be happy, not simply that happiness is the measure of a viable society. Or, to put it another way, a viable society which contents its members is to be taken as a good society, while deviates, alienated fantasists and suffering neurotics denote a society approaching breakdown, which is a bad society. Even with this pragmatic approach, we have not avoided a value judgment.

So, in this sense at least, moral questions are bound to be raised when current social situations are under discussion. In fact, if they were not raised, a strange condition of separation between man and his world would exist, which would itself shift man's relation to life. No one can not care about the rights and wrongs of the human condition unless he has moved deep into alienation from humanity.

-- Elizabeth Janeway


The Idealistic Religion as Social Art


That which we call religion does not suffer so much from these problems that beset sociology and the other social sciences. However much orthodox organized religion may suffer from its own problems, religion in general urges of its participants that they believe they can change the world in which they live, and should; and of its clergy in particular that this is what they are here for, even in the spectacularly passive mode of being an obedient vessel for the carrying out of God's will. I have assailed traditional orthodox religion for the unholy rigidity of its belief systems, the equivalent for religion of theoretical tenets, but suspending theory and looking at practice for a moment leads us to the surprising realization that, unlike the social scientists, those who see themselves as actively religious (whether as clergy or as apostolic individuals "spreading the word of God"), these practitioners acknowledge as a daily fact their moral responsibility in the world.

In other places I have also written about the central importance of understanding the role of emotion in making sense of the world in which we live. This is a complicated thing to summarize briefly and I will not attempt to do so here, but if I may impose upon the reader, let me postulate at this point that every little piece of what anyone "knows" about the world--"reality"--is chosen from among an infinite variety of possible explanations for what is sensed through the physical senses by how well and "elegantly" it fits into the picture they hold of the world through prior experiences, and that these choices are ultimately dependent on feeling (i.e., nonverbal or preverbal) rather than the conceptual (language and terminology-dependent) processes we usually call thinking; I ask that you either accept this premise for the moment for the sake of argument or read the paper in which I develop this perspective in more detail.

Now, in this paper as it exists up to this point, I have provided the argumentation that should allow me to conjure up the image of people engaged in the daily process of making sense of the world in which they live by studying it and its peoples with the best tools as their disposal, but rather than doing so in a way that distinguishes between the studying person in the subject position and the persons being studied in the object person, doing so in an even-handed way and focusing on one's own everyday world and one's own felt issues and personal concerns and moral and political imperatives as one does so. These matters of personal issues determining the subject matter to be studied, and of the resultant understandings we gain from such studying bringing with them new moral imperatives and responsibilities that demand action from us are now coupled with the claim that knowledge is attained through a process that is ultimately fundamentally emotional in nature and often intuitive in its processes (such that we are not always aware of exactly how we came to the point of understanding something in a certain way).

These changes, each by themselves constituing a major reorienting of our departure point, which was sociology, when considered simultaneously, present a model that should look familiar. It should resemble religion. And yet at the same time it varies considerably from religion as religion is conventionally constituted.

In truth, insofar as both religion and social science are institutionalized forms of human attempts to approach the matter of how we are to understand ourselves, and in both cases a body of theory or knowledge that constitutes the results of those approaches, it makes sense that a new approach, in this case one emergent from the theoretical perspectives of radical feminism, might resemble previous approaches in various ways.

Yet it is irresistably amusing and intrinsically entertaining to consider that both orthodox religion and conventional sociology find radical feminism to be an unwelcome and upsetting presence, and that each has sought to discredit feminism within their respective realms of influence by associating it with the other: sociology rejecting feminism for being "mystical", religion rejecting feminism for being secular and ungodly.

To be sure, it could be argued that as of yet this model of meaning and of one's relationship to the world and how one comes to know one's moral and political responsibilities within it are substantially different from what we normally call religion insofar as it lacks reference to either God or prayer. I would readily imagine that America's foremost Christian fundamentalists would characterize it as "secular humanism", noting that despite the reliance on emotionally-informed intuitive processes of coming to knowledge and the emphasis on social responsibility, and even the element of content that holds that the world in which we live is in sore need of alteration and is not as it should be (i.e., a place of evil and iniquity), it is nevertheless not religion and is secular due to the absence of references to God or prayer.

To the probable discomfort and possible dismay of some academic theory readers who appreciate radical feminism and have followed and even enjoyed much of what has been said here so far, I am about to remedy the above-mentioned situation, coopting and incorporating the healthy skepticism of the agnostic and issuing no challenge to the Absent God in whose nonexistence the atheist so devoutly believes as I explore feminist epistemology and identity issues a bit further.

I find it amusing in a way that the content of my theories here do not merely address certain areas that are normally considered "religious", but in fact tend to extend from one such area to the next as if to provide an "allan" version of all ordinary aspects of religion. I suppose that amusement would be jeopardized if I started worrying that everyone who read though my writings assumed that that was my intention from the start, to fabricate a new religion to have as an alternative to the conventional (patriarchal) ones. Believe me, I would be entirely comfortable with feminism and feminist theory if it had led me to dismiss all religion and the conventional topics (i.e., God, prayer, the intentional creation of the world, life after death, etc) as superstitious nonsense and irrelevancies! But such has not been the case. Furthermore, the topics conventionally addressed by religion are not a random grab-bag of subjects; in my own approach to the first such issues, I found implications for some of the others and began considering them, and so on.

Of course I don't think a radical feminist theory of God and prayer will endear either me or feminism to the religions fundamentalists, either.


Forward to next section, The Theoretical Heretical: God, Self, and Feminist Identity