Twilight of Sociology

WILFRED M. MCCLAY

Seymour Martin Lipset explored the social forces that limit individual freedom. Is an era of inquiry over?

Seymour Martin Lipset
(1922-2006)

The death in late December of the distinguished political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset was an event of great importance in its own right. But it also symbolizes a more general loss to the world of ideas. The eminent sociologist Philip Rieff, whose 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, transformed the way we think about modern secular societies, also died recently; only a few years ago we lost David Riesman, the man who made sociology into a form of public self-examination in The Lonely Crowd (1950). Considering Mr. Lipset's death alongside the other two, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the discipline of sociology itself may now be ebbing away, as so many of its leading practitioners depart the scene without, it seems, anyone standing ready to replace them.

Of course, sociologists are still being trained, books are being published, and university departments of sociology show no sign of going out of business. But the sense of free-wheeling inquiry that drew some of the best minds of the 1950s and 1960s into sociology — in what appears now to be its golden age — is no longer in evidence. Some of the most influential sociologists of our day, such as the prolific Alan Wolfe of Boston College, actually prefer to be associated with departments of political science. What went wrong?

The quick answer would be that there are two equal and opposite culprits. One of them is politics. Sociology fell victim to a dogmatic belief that it was not enough to understand the world; one must also change it. And if, as many sociologists came to believe, all reality was "socially constructed," then nothing was grounded in nature, nothing was justified by tradition or custom, and nothing was to be treated as enduring. All things were provisional, and all could be reshaped, usually along predictable political lines. Thus academic journals and scholarly monographs were given over to supporting the reigning views of race, gender and class — and fiercely suppressing any inquiry that might challenge these views.

But it is equally the case that many sociologists, while seeking to avoid politicization, fell into the trap of scientism, of thinking that by imitating the methods of the "harder" social sciences, such as economics, they could achieve for sociology the precision, and status, of the natural sciences. Studies of, say, social mobility or family structure came to bristle with tables and formulae that only a mathematician could love. One could answer one's questions with precision. But were such questions worth asking?

There is much to be said for the two parts of this quick answer. But behind them is a deeper one: Sociology as a field seems to have lost confidence in the power of its fundamental categories. One can grasp what this power once was by looking at the career of Mr. Lipset himself. Whether in his studies of American "exceptionalism" or in his analysis of the pathologies to which working-class movements are prone, he was asking the same kinds of questions. As Nathan Glazer has put it, Mr. Lipset had a lifelong interest in how societies, guided by their histories, "set limits for their development that are difficult to transcend."

Sociology at its most vital has always been about the social cost of modernity's great disruption, and, in the words of the great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet, about "the quest for community" and the barriers to community within the new order of things.


Those words express one of the abiding themes of the "old" sociology: how the stubbornness of social forces circumscribes what is possible for us as individuals. Around every man, said Tocqueville, a fateful circle of freedom is drawn, beyond which that man ceases to be free. Such an observation is unwelcome in a culture that values the free individual above all else and imagines that all things should be possible. But by denying Tocqueville's insight, and by treating the structures of society as infinitely malleable, sociology betrayed its calling: It ceased to study society in a profound way, acknowledging difficult truths, and substituted activism, usually aimed at an ungrounded notion of "social justice."

It is odd that sociology should have come to be seen as a progressive discipline. One can make a far better case for it as a humanistic undertaking born of conservative impulses. Its founding figures were humanists in the grand manner, with a wide range of interests. Its foundational texts were nearly always focused on the great social upheaval wrought by the advent of the urban, industrial modern world and the steady dismemberment of traditional life. In the works of Tocqueville, Ferdinand Toennies, Max Weber and George Simmel, among others, the central drama is always the movement from village to city, from face-to-face relations to instrumental ones, from status to contract, or from aristocratic societies to democratic ones. Sociology at its most vital has always been about the social cost of modernity's great disruption, and, in the words of the great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet, about "the quest for community" and the barriers to community within the new order of things.

As it happens, the sociology of religion seems to have escaped the fate of the rest of the discipline: It remains a lively subfield, populated by outstanding figures such as Robert Bellah, Robert Wuthnow and Peter Berger. The social study of religion thrives, perhaps, because it must resist the tyranny of progressivism, the belief that the present is always better than the past, and better off without it. It begins by showing respect for the power of the most primal, even atavistic, elements in human life — the force of authority, the quest for status, the longing for a sacred realm. It cannot wish these things away and in the process reduce man — as so much of the discipline has — to an infinitely malleable object.

If sociology can somehow tame its misguided activist zeal — if it can reclaim a supple awareness of the hard and permanent things — it may gain back some of its lost status. Tocqueville believed that the great task facing modernity is not to erase the past and "reconstruct" the present but to recognize what was best in the past — what was essential — and to carry it forward.

Sociology will thrive again when it acknowledges the force of this insight. But if it sees society as nothing but a collection of arbitrary "constructions" ripe for re-engineering, and treats social forces as obstacles to be overcome rather than as boundaries to be reckoned with, it will have little to offer us. Social science should not be a wholly owned subsidiary of progressive ideology. Instead, it should challenge all ideologies, with a stern but truthful message about human limits.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Wilfred M. McClay, "Twilight of Sociology." Wall Street Journal (February 2, 2007).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal © 2006 Dow Jones & Company and from the author, Wilfred McClay. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Wilfred McClay is the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also Professor of History. He was appointed in 2002 to the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is also a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Professor McClay has written several books, including The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (North Carolina, 1994), A Student's Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books, 2001), and Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America (Woodrow Wilson Center/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). He is currently at work on a biographical study of the American sociologist David Riesman, and is editing two collection of essays, one called Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, which features sixteen essays by American historians on changing American understandings of self and person, and a collection of his own essays entitled Pieces of a Dream: Historical and Critical Essays.

Professor McClay is co-editor of Rowman and Littlefield’s book series entitled American Intellectual Culture. He serves on the editorial boards of First Things, The Wilson Quarterly, The Public Interest, Society, Touchstone, Historically Speaking, and University Bookman, and is a member of the Board of Governors of The Historical Society.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal


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