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Sociology’s Stagnation

Emile Durkheim is the father of modern sociology; he is a titan. Over a century ago the great man issued an edict that would forever alter — or you could say, forever derail — the course of the discipline that he established. His proclamation, paraphrased loosely, was that any social occurrence was a product of other social occurrences that came before it. Society and culture were “prime movers”, an ultimate cause of things in the world that, for its own part, had no cause. Social facts orbited in their own solar system, untethered from the psychology and biology of individual humans. It’s almost as if this idea originated from a burning bush, high on some ancient mountain, as it would to this day steer the direction of much social science thought. Durkheim’s insight would be a hall pass for social scientists to spend decades ignoring certain uncomfortable realities. Let me try and give you an idea of just how fetid the waters really are.

In 1990 (over two decades ago) the sociologist Pierre van den Berghe wrote an article entitled Why Most Sociologists Don’t (and Won’t) Think Evolutionarily. I had to read this article as a graduate student in 2007. For context, that means that when my eyes first scanned the pages the essay was already 17 years old. I remember being struck by the venom that dripped off the page. The author seemed angry, he seemed frustrated. He railed against so many things, but his ire was focused particularly in the traditional sociological way of doing business:

Sociologists, on the other hand, deal mostly with abstract categories like classes and ethnic groups; engage in statistical massage of aggregated data; do secondary analysis of public opinion surveys; speculate about the impact of religious beliefs and political ideologies; project, manipulate, and interpret statistical trends; and generally pontificate about the state of society. They do not watch people being bumped over the head; they feed the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports to their computers. They do not observe women having babies; they speculate about fluctuations in birth rates provided by the Bureau of the Census. They do not attend political conventions and follow people into polling stations; they read public opinion surveys.

Mind you, I’m guilty of all of the sins described by van den Berghe. I’m a product of the system that he is eviscerating. This is not my attempt to sit in the stands and jeer the coaches’ play calling from a distance. Rather, this is an attempt to change the game plan from inside the locker room. Yet, I never took van den Berghe to mean that we should abandon statistical rigor. Indeed, he makes the rather intriguing — and often overlooked — point that most of the statistics used by sociologists were invented by biologically inclined statisticians to understand the nature and development of biological organisms. In fact, he was advocating that we remember our heritage and embrace the idea that we could be plying our trade much more effectively.

I come from a small, rural farming town. To hear any particular conversation around the town square would be to observe speculation about when it might rain again, whether the football team might beat Baker High (a rival of ours) this week, and what time the local political rally and fish fry would start on Saturday. My early exposure to sociological theory in college was an intellectual assault. I was confronted with words I had never seen, ideas I had never entertained, and concepts that were foreign and abstruse. This is what college, in many ways, is all about. However, an onslaught of complexity can sometimes mask a hollowness behind the curtain. Van den Berghe perceived this very problem woven into the fabric of sociology:

It follows from this attitude that any simple, straightforward theory is received with great suspicion. Things cannot be that simple, and neither can theories. Not that sociological theories (or what passes as such) are always very complex, but at least they are presented in an arcane, convoluted, and turgid way. What a theory lacks in complexity is amply made up by opaque jargon, clumsy syntax, and faulty logic. When physicists are confronted with a simplifying, unifying concept that seems to work, they get a psychic high. They equate simplicity with beauty. For the sociologist, on the other hand, simplicity equals simple-mindedness.

Five dollar words, as we refer to them from my hometown, can mask a pennies’ worth of insight. Is human behavior complex? Yes. Nonetheless, matching that complexity with multi-syllabic linguistic inventions may not guarantee us success in the endeavor of explaining why people do what they do, and why societies are the way that they are. It might feel good, and it might keep us employed, but will it amount to much in the end?

I remember being shocked to read an academic paper as angry as van den Berghe’s paper. Most scholarly essays were so…scholarly. Not that van den Berghe was really breaching the rules for scholarly etiquette, but he sure wasn’t pulling any punches. He concluded his essay with one of the most memorable paragraphs from my academic training. A slap across the cheek of decades of sociological insight and the cornucopia of social theory being taught to students like me:

Such a theoretical potpourri is premised on the belief that, in the absence of a powerful simplifying idea, all ideas are potentially good, especially if they are turgidly presented, logically opaque, and empirically irrefutable. This sorry state of theoretical affairs in sociology is probably the clearest evidence of the discipline’s intellectual bankruptcy. But let my colleagues rest assured: intellectual bankruptcy never spelled the doom of an academic discipline. Those within it are professionally deformed not to recognise it, and those outside of it could not care less. Sociology is safe for at least a few more decades.

Intellectually bankrupt? Those are strong words. Can a field survive like this? It can, and it has. Hundreds of new sociology PhDs are minted every year across the country (not to mention the undergraduate and graduate degrees that are conferred as well). How many students were taught that human beings evolved about around 150,000 years ago in Africa? How many know what a gene is? How many can describe Mendel’s laws, or sexual selection? The answer is very few. And, what is worse, many sociologists do not think this ignorance matters.

In the minds of many sociologists, it is a great sin to “biologize” human affairs. How disgraceful to relegate the complexity and richness of human culture to the grimy bin of biology. Yet, it is somewhat unfair to say that sociologists have a “biology problem.” If we dig a little bit deeper, the heart of the matter is not so much a disgust with hormones or physiology; the real nausea-inducing prospect involves a discussion of “genes.” The richness of human society is replete with cultural inventions; songs, plays, religious practices, and other traditions that are passed on and amended culturally. How could bits of DNA play much, or any, role in shaping societies, their politics, their religions, and their traditions? It is true, of course, that societies can morph and change over time for reasons not connected to genes. And those fluctuations in fashion, ideas, and beliefs can impact the individuals living within those societies. I don’t dispute that.

Yet, what has been lost in the sea of time — to sociologists in particular, it seems — is that societies are comprised of individuals, all of whom bring with them psychological qualities and dispositions. Moreover, a large fraction of the differences in these dispositions is explained by differences in genes. We have decades of evidence regarding the heritability of human traits. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point. However, it is worth reiterating that the assumption of “culture” or “society” existing as uncaused causes is untenable. It is, in fact, no different from a religion at its core. You could insert “god” for “culture” and you’re just replacing one uncaused cause with another.

There is an old saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything is going to look like a nail. Not every social phenomenon calls for a purely biological/genetic explanation; but if you think that a working knowledge of evolution, biology, and behavioral genetics won’t help to clarify every topic that sociologists study then you need to yank your head out of the sand. This is, in fact, the entire point of the essay. It makes zero sense to exempt sociology majors (and criminology, and economics, and social work, etc.) from a working knowledge of genetics and evolution, and presume that they can be good behavioral scientists without this information. Unfortunately, there is an inertia at work in all of this that is deeply resistant to change. Faculty produce other faculty, who then teach undergraduates, who either head out into the world or enter graduate school for more brainwashing, schooling.

The curricula of sociology departments are so deeply flawed that they will need to be revised from the ground up. For the field to prosper, it will have to find its place in the pantheon of natural sciences. It will have to view itself as an outgrowth of biology; as an extension of psychology. Let me be clear, there are many scientific contributions that sociology has made in the last 40 years. But the discipline could make many more and have a unifying theory if it would only embrace the major tenets of Darwinism. Six years after van den Berghe published his piece, the criminologist Lee Ellis tried to again sound the alarm bells in an essay entitled A Discipline in Peril: Sociology’s Future Hinges on Curing its Bio-Phobia. Had things improved in six years? To some extent, yes they had. As Ellis noted, some sociologists were spending increasing amounts of time integrating biology into their work. Yet, because of their heresy it often meant publishing their papers outside of their field. Is that really a way to change a discipline? Fear of biology was still spreading like a virus, though perhaps at a slower rate.

Tides turn slowly in academia. At times, there will be whiffs of improvement. Dalton Conley is one very good example of someone trying the change the field from the inside. Conley has written widely on the importance of integrating sociological and biological knowledge, and he remains a highly respected figure in the field. Yet, he is the exception that proves the rule. Assuming the majority of sociologists take up Conley’s mantle, the field will quickly and inevitably morph into something unrecognizable to today’s consumers of traditional sociology. Boundaries will blur between sociology, population genetics, psychology, epidemiology, and evolutionary biology. The field will have to relinquish some of its autonomy, but it will do so to its everlasting benefit.

We should try and appreciate why fields like psychology have integrated biology so much more quickly, and so much more completely, than others like sociology. In large part, sociology maintains certain “sacred values” — beliefs that cannot be challenged and lines that must not be crossed — that make integration very difficult. The history of scientific inquiry is one of violence done to human intuition. Sometimes that has meant trading in our sacred ideas when presented with new information. Sociology seems loath to do this. Consider the rather charged prose of van den Berghe again:

By assessing that Homo sapiens is absolutely unique and positively radiating emergent properties, social scientists can claim a turf permanently beyond the purview of biology. By further claiming that society and culture are realities that transcend the individual, sociology and anthropology have respectively created their special impregnable turf vis-à-vis psychology. The artificial distinction between sociology and anthropology also had to be rationalized better than by admitting that sociology was the study of “civilized” white folks and anthropology that of dark “primitive” colonials. Society was declared irreducibly different from culture; sociologists took the former, anthropologists the latter. Evolutionary biology extended to human behavior constitutes the most serious challenge to their intellectual turf that sociologists have had to face since behaviorism. No wonder they raise their antireductionist hackles.

All fields seek to maintain boundaries. But these are illusory walls, not impregnable fortresses. Sociology can be a powerful explanatory science. It can be the science of “us” as human beings living in large collective groups, states, societies, and civilizations. But it will never be that unless it reverses course. I fear, however, that it may be too late for that. The momentum of large objects is hard to shift, and sociology is a hulking beast.

In 2001, Douglas Massey — then president of The American Sociological Association — suggested something rather stunning during his presidential address to the field. In contemplating whether his field was well positioned to describe important demographic shifts in our species (in particular, a transition en masse to city dwelling). He was less than optimistic. The reason for his pessimism? Among other things, an ignorance of biology:

Somehow we have allowed the fact that we are social beings to obscure the biological foundations upon which our behavior ultimately rests. Most sociologists are woefully ignorant of even the most elementary precepts of biological science. If we think about biology at all, it is usually in terms of discredited eugenic arguments and crude evolutionary theorizing long since discarded in the natural sciences.

In 2014, Mark Horowitz, William Yaworsky, and Kenneth Kickham conducted a survey of sociological theorists actively working in Sociology. The survey was intended to take the temperature of the discipline and it’s theoretical thinkers. Consider the following from the discussion of their findings:

Sociology is a house divided. Just over half the theorists in our sample deny the role of natural selection in shaping a range of human tendencies. Many more are unwilling to acknowledge the plausibility of evolutionary arguments applied to sex differences.

Horowitz and colleagues rightly point out that the field has experienced some encouraging shifts; certainly, not all respondents were hostile to biological insight, and some were hopeful about how such insight might improve the state of their field. How representative are these findings of all professional sociologists? That’s tricky to say, given the sample was relatively small, and the response rate wasn’t stellar (both are technical issues that the authors readily acknowledge and discuss). The extent to which these findings might change with a larger, more representative sample remains to be seen (although one could argue that the picture could look even more bleak).

I want you to consider something now, based on the Horowitz survey: What would your reaction be if over half of survey respondents in biology departments felt that natural selection was unimportant, or played only a minor role, in shaping their particular organism of study? We would rightly wonder, who are these creationists populating our university biology departments? Human beings are animals subject to, and products of, precisely the same natural processes as other life forms. Why is it that, in the study human animals alone, we demote the importance of biological knowledge?

Can anyone formulate a good reason why this self-imposed knowledge vacuum has persisted for so long?

The aroma of sociology is one that has grown stale, it is one that lacks pungency, and one that is increasingly failing to excite the appetite. That could change, but it’s a bit like turning an ocean liner; it won’t be done swiftly. Moreover, desire to help turn the wheel can wear thin if it is always met with stern rebuke from the captains of the field. Time will tell what becomes of sociology. My hunch is that van den Berghe is right, though, and the field will continue to exist (it shows no sign of vanishing). But existing is not the same as thriving. Thriving, it seems, may no longer be in the cards for sociology.


Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1


  1. Anna Clare Bryson says

    Durkheim would in no way have denied biological determinations but it is clear that his achievement, as a founding father of classical sociology, was precisely to characterise human society and the social (the subject matter of “sociology”) as an object and phenomenon “sui generis”. Put another way, in his founding work on suicide, on “social facts”, and then “religion”, he precisely distinguished his approach from the “psychological” approach, which might indeed, quite legitimately, involve investigation of biological determinism including evolutionary thought, but which – however successful – simply does not explain what Durkheim was interested in explaining!

    Much of the impetus for the development of social sciences (and that well before Durkheim), came from the discovery of many other cultures, subsequently coupled with the 19th-century sense that society was going through an unprecedented transformation from traditional to modern. The primary problem to be explained, then, was variety and change within the category of the social (cultural), rather than (as with physical anthropology, or some basic psychological natural science of human behaviour), the overall character of homo sapiens in all times and places (as abstracted individual).

    The degree to which biology, or e.g. a subdiscipline like evolutionary psychology, can help us here is really very limited. To take an example.
    Biology and evolutionary psychology might very well help to explain most known human societies have been characterised by male dominance…(although it is rather poor at explaining “anomalies”), but supposing that you want to know why in Afghan society, for example, male dominance is extreme while in British society it is very mild and contested…How will evolutionary psychology or biology help you? (unless you want to investigate the theory that Afghans are – through natural selection – already biologically different from British people in this respect).

    One does not have to be a nutty constructivist, but that is just one undesirable extreme (however common alas), to defend sociology (or indeed any social science, or one might say historical science) from messianic claims from the other extreme (inappropriate scientism). I have nothing against biology, evolutionary studies etc…in their place, but as a social historian – so lots of sociology! – I just don’t find their conclusions and methods of much help to me in my usual pursuits.

    It’s quite simple. Just ask yourself the following sorts of question:
    1) How would a better modern knowledge of human biology have improved Durkheim’s analysis of patterns of suicide in modern (late 19c) French society? or
    2) How would a knowledge of 21st evolutionary psychology have changed/improved Weber’s take on capitalism and the reformation? Or forms of political leadership?

    • Jon says

      I’m not sure why you say human biology can’t inform these two questions of yours. It seems that this blindness is precisely what this article is talking about.

      1) Knowledge of human biology such as what hormones trigger depression, would definitely better inform the social conditions which cause it.

      2) Knowledge of the genetic composition of alphas, particularly male, would definitely shed light on what makes certain political leadership styles desireable. Or you can even look at successful female political leaders and compare them to their male counterparts. The possibilities are endless.

      • Lex says

        You think you can actually reduce entire cultural paradigms to the genetic composition of males? Of course you can, but you would be committing the same mistake that the sociologist does by reducing everything to social construct. “Possibilities are endless”, yes. Possibilities to spew bullshit are endless too.

    • Luke Reeshus says

      …unless you want to investigate the theory that Afghans are – through natural selection – already biologically different from British people in this respect.

      Well… what if someone does want to investigate that theory? Would that be verboten? Taboo? Beyond the pale?

      Let’s see…

      Such an investigation would, of course, need a disclaimer. It would not aim to classify Afghans as a separate species or anything like that. It would maintain that humans are humans and that psychological makeups vary far more between individuals in any group than between aggregate differences among groups.

      For context, it would recognize the synergistic link between male domination, authoritarianism, and the potential for inter-group violence, and then cite the evolved psychological mechanisms in the brain that facilitate and perpetuate these phenomena. It would remind its readers that there is a substantial heritable component to individual psychology, i.e. personality.

      It would then wonder, in terms of selection, about the distribution of personality types among two human populations, in two very different settings, separated by many miles and many thousands of years of history. One of these settings is a fertile, topographically boring island at the edge of the Eurasian continent. The other is land-locked among mountains, at the historical crossroads of many conquering civilizations. The investigation would try to tease out these settings’ geographic-historical influence on the prevalence of dominating/authoritarian/violence-prone personality types in their respective populations, and see if it could correlate any differences in prevalence to differences in the broader culture.

      Of course, it probably couldn’t. All of this is wildly unscientific. But it is interesting, no? (“No, it’s racist!” I can hear people saying…)

      I suspect that, even if there was a way to pursue this investigation with rigor, it probably wouldn’t turn up much. The ratio of compassionate-egalitarian personality types and authoritarian-dominating personality types is probably so close among Brits and Afghans that it’s indistinguishable . But maybe not. Either way, it is fun to think about the link between psychology and culture at large. We could never, in principle, do that, if we were to take cultures at sociological face value.

      Just some food for thought.

  2. juanjimeneza2014 says

    I think that part of the e problem is that sociologists see the situation as competition -anything that is biologically explained then it put the thing outside the field of social sciences. So, accepting biological explanations is putting sociology out of work. And I don’t understand that position.

    Let accept that, for instance, there is genetic basis for, I don’t know, mathematical ability (let’s accept for way of hypothesis this is 100% genetic). Now, there is still a lot of things interesting to study as a social scientist: In which social conditions is that ability a valuable trait? What variations are there in different social environments in the outcomes of having that trait? Society is an environemnt for social beings, a lot of the value of a trait is based on that environment. You can think of several milieus where mathematical ability is less relevant than other traits, and some in which it is very relevant. And so on.

    For beings that are social due to its biology thinking as competition do not make sense. You can ponder how different the field of sociology of work could be if Homo Sapiens could have the methabolism of a lizard.

    For beings that their social environment is part of evolutionary explanations thinking as competition do not make sense. As far as I know, there is some basis to think that a cultural acquired trait (raising cattle) did had biological consequences (ability to digest lactose).

  3. One of the key differences between biology as a natural science (which psychology may also be included in) and sociology as a social science is methodology. The importance of this distinction especially in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of the social sciences cannot be overlooked. One of the effects of your article, “Sociology’s Stagnation,” is to remind the reader that there are other ways of tackling human problems, please consider Evolutionary Biology…again!

    There are several interests which different fields attack differentially. Where biology and evolution address purely technical and epistemological interests, sociology takes on an emancipatory interest and an interest in scientific rigor in terms of the social sciences. Anthropology, for example, often addresses similar topics and problems as sociologists but with different methodological expectations. In sociology, the requirement is data collection and analysis; in anthropology, the requirement is to make observations in the field. Evolutionary Biology is even more abstract and consists in exercises restricted to the lab. All of the fields in both the Natural and Social Sciences attempt to contribute solutions to human problems amidst the contestation in each field over funding and acceptance. The history of each field in the context of the history of science involves all of those political issues of power and influence found in Kuhn and others, and perhaps ensconced in your pithy phrase, “The history of scientific inquiry is one of violence done to human intuition.”

    The question of the role of evolution in sociology may be overlooked by some socioogists, but others have included an evolutionary perspective: Habermas’s evolution of social learning processes as related to reason-giving in communication addresses the hard naturalists; Parson’s evolution of societies and the extension of evolutionary thinking thru evolutionary universals established by the analogies between the evolution of certain organ systems and the evolution of certain social structures under his guiding theme of differentiation; Gouldner’s discussion of Marxism’s historical analysis of ‘revolution’ through processes of social evolution – one critical event, revolution, can be analysed through evolutionary processes! albeit an incomplete study if we want to understand the role of genetics in large-scale social movements; Giddens addresses social evolution found in Spencer and Durkheim where the latter posits a primary determination of culture in sentiments and only secondarily in the division of labor, whereas Spencer’s Social Darwinism is notoriously racist, ethnocentric and classist but it is instructive to note that the violent reaction was not to Durkheim or Spencer, but to Darwin’s natural selection!

    A new field has emerged recently, Evolutionary Psychology, which takes up the stringent requirements for relating genetics to social and individual behavior and often involves merging the methodological requirements of the natural sciences and the distinctive requirements of the social sciences together. For example, Robin Dunbar states in an article on ‘Evolution and the Social Sciences,’ 2007, “Contemporary evolutionary research on human behaviour focuses on two main issues at the micro-social scale: understanding the trade-offs in individual decision-making and understanding the cognitive constraints that limit flexibility of decisions.” There are examples of this same thrust in medical sociology where recently emerging problems of military technology, PTSD, homelessness, addiction, and the everpresent problem of suicidality point to somewhat dramatic changes in the environment to which the human genome responds is peculiar ways.

    Baumann, 1977, in Towards a Critical Sociology, points out that we should avoid a devolution to animal life which rears up under catastrophic social change due to extreme evolutionary flexibility. Janine Wedel uses the term, ‘flexion,’ to characterize the emergence of individuals who seem insulated from all structuration and lead the .1% towards degrees of unthinkable inequality!

    Other recent ideas about social changes from the quickly changing environment are Ritzer’s “Prosumption” of the merging of the producer and consumer roles – a new development in the role of the subject; Evolutionary Epistemology from the works of Karl Popper and Donald Campbell which today serve as central points of discussion in the Philosophy of Natural Science and Social Sciences; Blaug’s work on Evolutionary Economics and Behavioral Economics; “The Evolution of Emotional Communication” by Scheve and Salmella.

    As Baumann’s work clearly spells out, and as can be found in every field of study, there is a disconnect between commonsense views about humanity and social life, and scientific perspectives. Truth is reduced to desirability and preference, to beliefs without substance, while social scientists and natural scientists pursue a standard of truth which is incomprehensible to most people. Gregory House, the medical diagnostician, makes frequent commentary and even uses as a strong heuristic the notion that everyone lies!

    Making connections between biology and history that changes individual behavior now towards more adaptive solutions to problems in the social environment and physiologically is a tough sell because of pervasive anti-intellectual attitudes – making the connections theoretically and methodologically is also a tough sell because of the complexity of the environment.

  4. This all derives from one’s own subjective sense of agency. If one analyzes one’s neighbor using the same methods that one analyzes any other objects, these anomalies do not arise. Of course, humans are social creatures, and if I analyze person B using evolutionary logic, I may understand why the behaviors of person B lean toward understanding others people as agents rather than objects, and thus why it goes against the evolutionary grain to see people as empirical objects.

    • Part of the problem is that we try to treat evolutionary behavior as if we are identifying personality traits or class-related behaviors. Evolutionary biology is a reductive science whereas sociology is supervenient. Evolutionary biology looks at specific behaviors survival and reproduction in terms of environmental triggers or conditions whereas sociology looks for long-term changes in social conditions and indices of changes in quality of life. Where sociology intersects with evolutionary biology is at the point of vital statistics: deaths by violence, genetic disease, suicide and the fertility rate. The trouble is that sociologists are not attuned to making the percipient insight into how environmental conditions are related to the vital statistics and evolutionary biologists rarely address the changing social conditions – the environment – related to reproduction preferring a genetic and physiological explanation!

      • Does sociology simply make “supervenient” assumptions, or does it demonstrate bona fide “supervenient” realities?

        • Where biology is reductive and searches out smaller and smaller entities which explain biological existence, or human behavior and thought and disease, sociology tends to become supervenient and searches for larger and more inclusive structures or wholes which also explain human existence.

          • Samedi says

            Out of curiosity, do sociologists construct mathematical models of cultural evolution and then test them? I’m interested in, but know little about, how sociologists model and empirically measure cultural change in any particular social group. I realize that the definition of “culture” is famously problematic.

          • Do the “larger structures or wholes” make predictions that biology does not? Perhaps as long as the understanding of biology remains incomplete – or a matter of computing power, perhaps.

  5. Wait till they have to start thinking about physics as well as evolutionary biology. I can’t only imagine how confounded a sociologist would be when also trying to factor in entropy into their studies and conclusions.

  6. Thomas J says

    The degree of interdisciplinary knowledge a sociologist needs is dependent on what kind of questions he wants to answer. This article does not mention qualitative research, which is a huge proportion of the sociological work that is being done. The goal of qualitative research is – basically- to study the (social) world as it presents itself, not to explain how it occurrs in the first place. Qualitative research can identify patterns of behavior in a reality which is complex and confusing, and it can represent that reality in condensed form. This is actually what every science does – within their respecitve domains of focus.

  7. Reisen says

    “How many students were taught that human beings evolved about around 150,000 years ago in Africa? How many know what a gene is? How many can describe Mendel’s laws, or sexual selection? The answer is very few. And, what is worse, many sociologists do not think this ignorance matters.”

    Should we not encourage alternative theories to Out of Africa? After all, this idea du jour has all the rage and was promoted in Victorian society as African was the Eden of all life. But if human beings were found in Britain 700,000 years ago, where did they come from? Did they come from Africa, or somewhere else?

    Or is this a distraction from the thesis at hand?

    • Reisen,

      Homo sapiens were not in Europe 700kya. That time period would be on the early end of when Neanderthals inhabited the area.

    • In order to get a sense of human existence, it is important to have a sense of the time range and the geographical differences between human groups. It helps to understand ethnicity and language differences which are relevant for understanding cultures. When you consider that the anthropologists and sociologists of the 19th century had no clue about the distant past in terms of real time and yet still posited our Evolutionary Environment of Adaptation at the hunter-gatherer stage, that is, savagery, long before the stage of barbarism or agriculture and domestication of animals, the resulting modern forms of social arrangements might make more sense when considering what has survived since then, and not prompt a wholesale rejection of tradition or a complete blindness where certain traditions originated.

    • seedie says

      It may be a distraction, Reisen, but if you are a member of the sociology community it provides one relevant datum on the level of knowledge of the human evolutionary process. Cursory sampling of popular science magazines such as Scientific American or New Scientist would provide the information that no H.Sapiens existed anywhere 700,000 years ago, and the timing and routes of the diaspora of anatomically [i.e. cranially] modern humans are easily available to interested amateurs. Despite the paucity and value of data in this field competing groups are learning to share it, even to the point of offering access to sources, i.e. bones!

  8. Nick says

    “Let me be clear, there are many scientific contributions that sociology has made in the last 40 years.”

    Can someone please name a few of these scientific contributions, preferably the ones that have had some real impact on our lives?

    • I wish you had read my essay below. I tried to clarify that point.

      Here are some results from sociologists in the past 40 years or so which might be of interest:

      1.) P. Bourdieu’s analysis of elite education and departmental hierarchy indicating the importance of status and how it is maintained.

      2). Annette Lareau’s work on unequal childhood proving wide differences between middle class and lower class parenting.

      3). Zygmunt Baumann’s analysis of societies following the 60’s where revolution became impossible which disrupted the left’s approaches to revolutionary politics which ws considered immanent.

      4). Anthony Gidden’s demonstration of the decreasing impact of the labor movement and the increasing ability of the nation-state to wage war.

      I could go on writing short summaries of what the major sociologists have asserted that have a real impact on our lives, the list really does not end.

  9. John says

    Some nice “five dollar words” from the sociologists in the comments (sui generis, supervenience, structuration)

  10. Santoculto says

    “The scientific method is a tool for the construction and justification of dominance in the world”

    but but but.. it’s not true*

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    Any sustained study of Durkheim’s texts (which also have to be read in light of his PROJECT, both within the academy, and more generally) would disabuse a person of good faith of the caricature of Durkheim offered up here.

    Furthermore, any sustained “history and sociology of ideas and practices” of Sociology and sociologists would also disabuse a person of good faith of the notion that sociology is any more or less of an actual social-cultural phenomenon itself than any other discipline.

    What’s missing from ALL of these generalized critiques and counter-critiques is actually, proper, sustained sociological analysis of sociology(ies) and sociologists.

  14. Steven Lopez says

    There are many examples of sociological research that make scientific contributions to our understanding of the world in ways that affect people’s lives. I’ll offer just one, because it so clearly illustrates why sociology cannot be reduced to an extension of biology or psychology: Bearman, Moody, and Stovel (2004), “Chains of Affection: The Structure of Adolescent Romantic and Sexual Relationships.”

  15. Steven Lopez says

    Sorry, I inadvertently left off the rest of the citation. The full citation is Bearman, Moody, and Stovel (2004), “Chains of Affection: The Structure of Adolescent Romantic and Sexual Relationships.” American Journal of Sociology 110(1): 44-91.

  16. Amira says

    I don’t really get the criticism. The field is called ‘sociology’. i.e. it is orientated towards the study of social phenomena. The field of academia, like most modern human occupations is characterized by specificity rather than generality, hence, sociologists study social phenomena within a particular remit and are not genetic biologists etc.

    Boutwell’s argument is analogous to a neuropsychologist writing a piece about how social psychologists should study neuropsychology. i.e. it doesn’t make sense.

    If he wants to collaborate, he is free to do so, assuming her can finding willing collaborators.

  17. Big Rome says

    What, no ode to Herbert Spencer? Notwithstanding the striking lack of intellectual modesty in the claims made here, I’m happy to endorse the general argument that sociology students (and professional sociologists!) stand to gain much from a greater familiarity with life sciences. Like so many others, I’m happy also to say that this is an entirely uncontroversial position among my colleagues- in spite of what this screed suggests. This, however, is where my sympathy for the article ends.

    Other disciplines are called in, if only briefly, for the same critique, but our author fails to make it clear why Sociology is so uniquely impoverished by its disciplinary parochialism. Are not Biology majors equally disadvantaged by lack of exposure to Sociology? If not, why not? Speaking of hammers and nails, my sense is that all of us are inclined to think that the whole of the academy (and the society) would be better if only they focused a bit more on our own intellectual concerns- but not all of us write a bitter indictment of an entire diverse discipline over it.

    The primary reason that (some) Sociologists are uniquely attuned to the potential problems of biological determinism are given very short shrift in this text and that is an unfortunate, but I don’t think accidental omission. The centrality of the biologizing of systems of inequality in the justification of those systems can be scarcely overstated, nor can be the specter of complicity of the early Sociological discipline in doing that very work be ignored. I know the author knows chapter and verse the direct line from Eugenics to immigration restriction, sterilization, et al. To suggest, at this particular political moment, that those ideas and their impact have passed from the earth takes a particular bit of hubris– if not naïveté.

    Let us not make straw men: I know no scholar who suggests that every acknowledgement of trait heritability or of the role of natural selection in human behavior is a slippery slope to genocide. I spend a good deal of time in my courses (Race and Politics) dealing with the frames offered by population geneticists and evolutionary psychologists (and Epigenetics, of course!)- and it’s true that those discussions are always situated in the historical context of the way that these data have been and are being used- and by whom and to what effect. Much the same as I do for social constructionism more broadly. In spite of what the author and his readers might expect, as a Race scholar, I’ve never turned away students asking about biological factors involved in human behavior- even in intelligence. I do always ask the student why s/he is interested in this question or these frames given the others that are available- questions that are valuable for any young scholar to be sure.

    Here’s a kind of meta-question I’ve always wanted to ask those whose work takes up these questions, and I’d love some thoughts from our author, in particular: how might he characterize the gene/environment interaction that gives rise to the particular phenotypic distribution of scholars who focus on, for example, evolutionary psychology or biocriminology? What might be the factors, biological, and/or social, that lead to the kinds of demographic selection we see in these fields? And how might that answer bear on the broader themes explored in this column?

    • Amira says

      ^^^^ This is an excellent and articulate comment.

      To follow on from his/her final point…given Boutwell’s contention that ‘All human behavioral traits are heritable’, what are the H^2 estimates for the belief that all behavioral traits are heritable.

      And, moreover, given that research is a behaviour, what are the H ^2 estimates for those researchers that primarily concern themselves with heritability research?

      I have asked this question before, and to date, no such research exists. This might be a good starting point however, given the potential tautology that naturally follows from this claim.

  18. Larry Ray says

    So sociology is stagnating because it doesn’t become something else like a branch of evolutionary biology or psychology? Actually sociology has been one of the disciplines most open to engagement with other fields of study. Try talking to an economist about anything other than micro rational choice models of economic behaviour which BTW can’t explain why the economy crashed in 2008. More sociological understanding might reveal more layers to the process. As for bioscience the blog is out of date. Many sociologist have incorporated an evolutionary perspective such as Durkheim, Parsons, Elias, Luhmann, Habermas. But their focus was of course on social not biological processes. More recently there has been a rapid growth of engagement with social neuroscience, epigenetics and biosocial research. Recent issues of the American Sociological Review give at least as much space to genetics as to traditional sociology. I have worked with neurological and social explanations of violence and I do give my students the basics of evolutionary theory. But evolutionary explanations of social processes will only get us so far. For example there are some who claim the higher rate of child homicide by step parents than natural parents is because of a preference for ones own genes. But a preference doesn’t constitute a cause and this ignores phenomena of familial murder suicide (often natural family) and mundanely the fact that millions don’t have children at all. There are layers of social process that must be accounted for. Evolutionary psychology is often very speculative and untestable. So we have Pinker’s ‘inner demons’ vs ‘better angels’ that show that humans have evolved capacities for aggression but also self controls and cooperation. But this cannot explain why some societies have higher homicide rates than others or in what circumstances someone or some group will or won’t be violent. Sociology can and should engage with other disciplines but must also insist on the social as it’s object of study.

  19. neo malthus says

    The article leaves out one important, perhaps the most important, reason for acquiring a sociology degree: politics. In the state and federal government bureaucracies associated with the welfare state, a sociology degree is required. It is the stamp of approval for political correctness.

  20. Simple. Sociology like all of the soft sciences is agenda driven.

    The soft sciences have been flushed into the toilet bowl of political correctness. A mad scramble to dismiss inconvenient biological facts in the soft sciences have made them more irrelevent than ever. We are on the cusp of great changes through the physical science, Bioengineering and Artificial Intelligence. Sociology is now akin to 14th century theologians debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    Evolution is a reality. It applies to isolated populations of humans as well as Darwin’s finches. Yes, the human brain is a product of evolution. Subsaharan Africans do not have a an average IQ of in the low 70s because of ‘culture’ but because of physical evolution. Sociologists will go though contortions of non logic to explain away biological underpinnings of humans as a physical species. As w white male I realky can’t jump that well compared to most blacks but I am better at math than most females. Oh, the horror of it all.

    • Simon says

      @TOM, are you aware that IQ tests were originally normed according to Western education outcomes?

      • Salmed says

        And yet both Euro Jews and East Asians score within the same ballpart as Euro Gentiles at worst.

    • Joel Dahlquist says

      Tom, you don’t know anything about sociology, but it is clear that you know a lot about what some blogs say about sociology. No sociologist goes through contortions of non logic to explain away “biological underpinnings” of humans. Humans are biological entities, period. Every sociologist in the world knows this. Sociologists often try to educate people like you about the consequences of assuming that biology accounts for the panorama of differences in individual human behavior. As a white male, you clearly benefit from advantages, but not because of your superior biology. Oh, the horror of it all, it is the social system that confers those benefits, and not your biological underpinnings.

  21. Thanks for the interesting essay. I find I tend to fall into searching for theoretical frameworks whenever I look at a written argument. What viewpoint informs your thinking? To me this is sociology, being able to consider social problems from within a number of frameworks. Whether you use a structural or poststructuralist stance will shape your work more than reaching into another discipline.
    There is no rule saying we cannot bring data or research in from other disciplines, at least not one I’ve seen. It seems to me you’re after a biologically informed framework. Another way of informing a view of the social world.
    Mill’s railed against much of what you write in the 1950’s. Foucault explored ways of viewing the world that includes the researcher in research, a poststructuralist viewing. The work of Latour in his study of laboratories brings the social into ‘hard science’ and explores the idea that empiricism is inherently social, defined by what we are and what we think.
    I rather think that the social needs to be bought into other disciplines, not the other way around. I believe the job of the sociologist is to do this.

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