What’s the Matter with Sociology? A Conversation with Robert Dunn

HS: Sociology used to be a much sought-after subject some decades ago. Students flocked to it. The works of sociologists received wide attention across the social and human sciences and even by the general public. But today it has become somewhat quiet around the field. Can you explain what has happened?

RD: A number of interrelated things.   First, social change itself is perhaps the most fundamental reason for the decline of interest in sociology.  More than any other academic discipline, sociology is closely tied to society and therefore gives expression to its general state of affairs—its structure and culture and the forces that shape and change it over time.  If conditions in society change, this will be reflected in changes in the discipline, in the kind of work being done and in theoretical orientations. For a number of reasons I think of the postwar period in the US as the heyday of American sociology.  The 1950s and 1960s were decades of unprecedented change, ushering in new possibilities, promises, and dangers affecting all parts of the population.  These possibilities captured the attention of large segments of the public.  As you say, sociology seemed to have an impact beyond disciplinary borders.  For one thing, the discipline for the first time began to acquire scientific legitimacy.  Major theoretical statements were being made, most (in)famously that of Talcott Parsons, who attempted to establish the functionalist paradigm as the foundation of the field. Also, numerous developments in research methodology.  At the same time, social change was accompanied by a host of new social problems and issues of concern to a growing number of educated readers.  —there emerged a kind of popular sociology in mass circulation books and other media—what I call in my book the tradition of social criticism–.  C. Wright Mills stands out in this regard.   These two tendencies, forming a contradiction and set of tensions within the field, imparted a dynamism to sociology, giving it a strong presence both inside and outside the university. Toward the end of the sixties and into the 1970s, sociology took on a political flavor.  Cultural and identity politics drew large numbers of students into the field who were interested in issues of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on.  So, I guess the first part of my answer would be that those decades represent a period of exceptionalism in the discipline, just as many believe it was for society at large.  We know how society has changed since then.

The rest of my answer has to do with the discipline itself and trends in academia more broadly.  Sociology has lost definition.  Since the demise of the functionalist paradigm, the field has gone in different directions; there has been a dispersal of ideas and energies, a lack of cohesion and coherence, to the point where nobody can quite say what sociology is anymore.  If anything, positivist forms of thinking have to some extent reasserted themselves so that content has given way to formal considerations of research methodology and technique.  In effect, the field has been fragmented through overspecialization.  (This is a big point in my book.)  Also, funds have been flowing elsewhere, into the physical sciences, information technology, business, etc., resulting in underfunding of the social sciences.  Of course, this is also clearly a matter of social change.  The job market has been less friendly to sociologists than to people entering these other fields.

HS: There are certainly past writers in the field who are still being cited: classical sociologists like Weber and Durckheim, but also more recent ones like Bourdieu and, perhaps, one might also add here Foucault. But I can’t think of anyone of equal stature today. Who do you think is producing work that deserves attention beyond the boundaries of the discipline?

RD: Certainly, thinkers of the stature you mention seem to have disappeared.  Let’s note first of all that these earlier thinkers were European not American.  This country has never produced theorists of the quality of the Europeans.  American sociology has labored under an anti-theoretical bias—perhaps a reflection of what the historian Richard Hofstadter long ago called the anti-intellectualism in American life.  Parsons and his descendants are a failed and ideologically motivated example of the poverty of theory.  The discipline has instead favored piecemeal empirical work, the study of milieu, to use C. Wright Mills’s term.  In opposition to this trend, Mills advocated studying the relationship between milieu and social structure.  He chided other sociologists for failing to look at “the big picture.” There are a few sociologists today attempting to do this kind of work.  Theda Skocpol,  Erik Olin Wright, Fred Block, Michael Burawoy, are a few names that come to mind.  Also, the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, strictly speaking not a sociologist but she has done some excellent studies accessible to general readers.

HS: Your criticism of sociology focuses on, what you call formalism. Could you explain what you mean by that term?

RD: I think of formalism as a type of sociological thinking and practice that gives priority and sometimes reduces things to concept formation and methodological rigor, at the expense of attention to content.  Formalist sociology is preoccupied with analytical tools and procedures while minimizing engagement with actual subject matter.  This kind of sociology manifests itself in the form of abstract theoretical systems or structures and research methodologies that are divorced from the real world.  C. Wright Mills accurately characterized this situation when he accused the discipline of engaging in what he called “grand theory” and “abstract empiricism.”  Interestingly, the prominent sociologist Robert K. Merton, a student of Parsons, years ago gave the cat away, so to speak, when he suggested that sociology, or sociological theory specifically, was mainly in the business of analyzing concepts.  Perhaps this was more of an agenda setting statement than many have realized.  Another way of putting this is that formalist agendas are attempts to implement scientific protocols at the expense of engagement with social realities.  Or, we might say a failure to ground sociology in real empirical phenomena.

I take the work of Mills as a model of the latter type of sociological work.  Mills was theoretically and methodologically sophisticated but studied society on its own empirical terms, regarding theory and method as only necessary means or guides to social inquiry rather than ends in themselves.

HS: You associate formalism with value-neutrality. But what is the connection between the two? I would think that the two issues are really separable from each other.

RD: As I attempt to show in the last chapter of my book, social science is inherently normative in character.  Social life is founded upon and shaped by values.  Genuine social analysis, whether theoretical or empirical in nature, cannot escape dealing with the problem of values.  Not only is the subject matter of sociology inherently value-laden, but value judgements inhere in the research process itself, not to mention the very language we use to talk about and analyze society.  So, it seems to me that with genuine substantive work value questions are unavoidable. A major impulse behind formalism is the attempt to avoid the problem of values and value judgments.  This is joined to the positivist impulse to emulate the rigor and precision of the natural sciences by turning social phenomena into objects of purely scientific concern.  Thus, for me, formalism and value neutrality go hand in hand.  I might put it this way: Formalism is both cause and effect of a preoccupation with analytical constructs, and such constructs tend to become substitutes for the investigation of real social and cultural phenomena.

HS: Formalism flourishes not only in sociology. One of the doctoral students I am working with right now is writing on formalism in neo-liberal economics. And I am inclined to say that formalism also manifests itself in philosophy. I am speaking of the pervasive drive to mathematization in all these fields. How are we to explain this development?

RD: I’m not entirely sure how to explain the drive to mathematize but it is surely evident in sociology, where for a long time there have been attempts off and on to develop mathematical models and procedures.   I guess I see it as another manifestation of the worship of scientific technique and the ambitions of those seeking scientific respectability in their respective fields.  To me, mathematizing the subject matter is simply sociological positivism at its extreme, driven by the mistaken belief that science always means quantification and the illusion that scientific “truth” is ultimately to be found in numbers and ideally in mathematical concepts and relationships.  Tension between “quantitative” and “qualitative” methods in sociology is an old story, and I think to this day these competing approaches are still debated between rival camps.

HS: I was struck by a certain ambiguity in your book and even its title. Sometimes it reads as if you were describing a past moment when John Dewey and C. Wright Mills were working towards a pragmatist sociology. In other parts of your book you seem to be saying that contemporary scholars should work toward a pragmatist sociology. Is your book more of a backward-looking essay on the development of sociology since Dewey or one about the future? More a historical treatise or an exhortative call to action?


RD: I see the book as both.  The overall structure of the book comprises 1) an attempt to retrieve past “progressive” or “radical” traditions in the disciplines, represented primarily by the work of Dewey and Mills but extending into the social criticism genre of the 1950s and 1960s; and 2) an effort to show how these past traditions can revitalize the field and perhaps bring it back to its original sense of mission as a critical and democratic project to solve social problems and bring about social improvement.  The crucial turning point in my historical perspective is the 1940s and 1950s, decades during which the discipline assumed the mantle of “science,” thereby marginalizing or overshadowing the earlier progressive and ameliorative tendencies in the field.  Whereas the disciplinary focus had once been on social problems and their resolution, the focus now turned to the development of scientific technique.  This was when professionalism and formalism took hold, the change that is the main object of my critique.  So, the book both looks backwards to something “lost” and forward to a revival of an intellectual and political vision and a greater sense of social relevance and responsibility.  My arguments culminate in the notion of a “public sociology,” as articulated by Michael Burawoy, which would bring the work of sociologists and the concerns and interests of the public closer together.

HS: To what extent do you believe can Dewey’s philosophy be of help to today’s sociologists? I always have difficulties in reading Dewey. He often paints with a very broad brush and with little attention to the complexities of history. What I find most problematic in him is, however, his Hegelian progressivism. He speaks of himself as thinking in evolutionary terms. And it used to be the case that the theory of evolution was understood as telling a progressivist, quasi-Hegelian story; but we have come to understand that the theory has also a dark side: species can and will fail; historical developments can be dead ends; some forms of life can flourish for a while but still eventually be faced with a situation they can’t master. Dewey seems to me to have had a naïve view of the course of democracy. We can see today in China and other places that technological and scientific progress can very well be de-coupled from political liberty.

RD: I agree that Dewey paints history with a broad brush but it’s important to keep in mind that he was motivated by a specific philosophical agenda, namely to “reconstruct” philosophy along pragmatist lines.  Accordingly, he talks about major moments, broad trends, turning points, etc. to develop a frame for his critique of traditional philosophy and inherited habits of thought.  Also, he attempts to show how salient ideas and movements of thought are tied to changing historical and social conditions.  Here I think he conducts a sociology of knowledge far superior to most of the work that’s been done in this subfield.

I think the real problem with Dewey is the multiplicity of intellectual and philosophical influences shaping his thought and work.  There are many Deweys, at any given point in his career and over time…. In my book I attempt to highlight those intellectual lineages that shaped his conception of society and human behavior.  For instance, you raise the question of the dark side of evolution.  I’m sure Dewey would agree but would say that the value in Darwin’s work and the idea of evolution more generally resides in the understanding it provides of processes of adaptation to one’s environment, adjustment, change, problem solving, and so on—key elements in Dewey’s social thought.  To take another example, I emphasize in the book his belief in the unity of theory and practice, which I believe he took from the Hegelian-Marxist tradition.  Richard Bernstein heavily emphasizes the parallels here to the Marxist notion of praxis.  These are the aspects of Dewey that I think are highly significant for today’s sociologists.  The field is in need of a reorientation (back) toward problem solving and its connection to social change, major themes in Dewey.  I think Dewey’s concern for the problems of agency and the consequences of social action in this respect are extremely important.  The other side of Dewey, his commitment to democracy and his role as a public intellectual, I try to weave into these issues.  He saw the social sciences as playing a central role in guiding society toward a freer and more democratic state by having a strong and relevant presence in public life.  History, especially now, perhaps is showing him to be naive but there nonetheless is in his writings a political vision, a sense of commitment and intellectual purpose, and a strongly humane approach to society’s problems that can serve as a model for the practice of sociology today.

Robert Dunn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the California State University, East Bay.


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