Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: What is Sociology's Job?

THE recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Society in Chi- cago (Hotel Stevens, December 27- 30) brought together perhaps ,ooo people who call themselves sociologists-mostly professors, instructors, and graduate students, but also gov- ernment employees and researchers on the staffs of foundations. This typical gathering, coming hard upon a year of fairly thorough reading of the sociological journals for this department, ir- resistibly tempts this writer to generalizations- I hope not too hasty or undocumented-on the present state of the profession, and upon how (and how well) American sociology is holding up its end as a division in the growing army of social science.

Chicago seems inevitably to play host to a number of these official get-to-gethers held by almost every scholarly society around Christ- mas and New Year’s. This year at the Stevens Hotel, while sociologists were registering at one end of a corridor, geologists were finishing up business at the other. Newcomers getting into the wrong end of the corridor were immediately aware of their error. Obviously these prosper- ous, self-assured men, who would have looked quite at home at a business association conven- tion, were no sociologists.

Sociologists create rather a different atmos- phere. At their end of the corridor was an ear-shaking hubbub, a whirl and crush of hu- manity, rising to a crescendo scarcely distin- guishable from the general disorder when ses- NATHAN GLAZER, assistant editor of COMMEN- TARY, is a graduate of the College of the City of New York and has a Master of Arts degree in anthropology from the University of Penn- sylvania.

sions let out. The practiced eye, bringing order out of apparent chaos, could see that the fastest moving molecules in the booming confusion were the graduate students and young instruc- tors, often passing through the crowd in chains toward certain stationary points. These sta- tionary points were professors at important uni- versities, former presidents of the association, writers of important books or textbooks-those, in short, who had arrived, and now had the power to dispense fellowships and faculty ap- pointments. These men rarely went in to hear papers read; neither, on the other hand, did many of the younger men in the field.

It seems pretty well established that sociologi- cal conventions carry on their employment- service functions with abnormal confusion. A few blocks away at the Palmer House, where the anthropologists were meeting, everything was much calmer. (Of course, there are fewer anthropologists.) And at the Stevens itself, the young sociologists who were offering themselves on what they wryly called the "slave market" (starting salaries for instructors carrying a full teaching load average about $2500) often ob- served that the economists and psychologists ordered these things much better: they drew up, in advance of their meetings, lists of avail- able appointments, and of available candidates and their qualifications.

The disorganization of the sociological job- market perhaps reflects the field itself. The field of anthropology, for example, is neatly divided into four specific disciplines; it produces well-shaped pegs fitting into clearly defined holes, reducing tension and uncertainty. Soci- ology, however, covers a much more variegated assortment of disciplines, including many bits and pieces that the other social sciences do not 181 THE STUIDY OF MANCOMMENTARY cover, picked up in the course of a fifty-year history. One doesn’t know whether a sociolo- gist is a social philosopher, a statistician, a social worker, a population specialist, a crim- inologist, a family-study expert, or a combi- nation of some or all of these; more disturbing, one doesn’t know which of the many ap- proaches in sociology he has been trained in.

(This is where personal introductions come in.) The heavy doors leading into the ballrooms and dining-rooms suddenly cut off the noise from the corridor. Here papers are being de- livered and discussions are being held. There are always too many sessions going on at the same time, but the most important one is gen- erally located in the large North Ballroom.

P ERE, on the first day, the meeting’s most exciting paper was delivered by Professor Herbert Blumer of the University of Chicago.

It was part of a session called "Social Theory," which was devoted to the influence of sociologi- cal theory on work in the practical fields of race relations, public-opinion testing, and in- dustrial relations. There was a rather lively interest in the meeting, not only because of the stature of the speakers, but also because all these fields now engage many sociologists, what with the current substantial flow of funds for research in these particular fields from private foundations, industry, and government.

Professor E. Franklin Frazier of Howard University, one of the country’s leading soci- ologists, and a Negro, led off with the discus- sion of race relations. Some of the so-called "fathers" of American sociology, and their con- temporaries who concentrated on the study of race relations, Dr. Frazier showed, had held some rather unscientific views on race relations and on the Negroes, views that anyone who has recently taken an elementary course in anthropology could easily prove false. How did they fall into such error? According to Dr.

Frazier, they were merely supplying ration- alizations for the existing Southern state of affairs: at that time, in the early part of the zoth century, Negro-white relationships had achieved an equilibrium based on Negro sub- ordination, and sociologists reflected this in their thinking. With the World War and the heavy Negro migration to the North, this equi- librium was broken, and sociology, in the per- son of Robert E. Park and his students, was affected by the new situation: it now studied the dynamic situation in the North, rather than made rationalizations for the static situation in the South, and produced a theory forecasting a gradual accommodation between the races, with a lessening in social distance and the gradual breakdown of the Negro’s caste status. Finally, a third phase in race-relations study has recently emerged, the approach in terms of class and caste, rather than race and race attitudes per se, of Lloyd Warner and his students.

Dr. Frazier seemed to be suggesting that changes in the way sociologists have approached the study of race relations may be ascribed to external social developments as well as to soci- ology’s own development toward greater ob- jectivity, consistency, accuracy, and concern with scientific method. Perhaps one has a right to infer from this that another change in the actual race-relations situation could make un- fashionable the present progressive tenor of race- relations study. However, since in this session, as in almost all the others, there was no time for discussion from the floor, it was not easy to decide how the sociologists in the audience reacted to Dr. Frazier’s analysis.

Public-opinion and attitude studies were the assignment of Professor Alfred McClung Lee of Wayne University. Dr. Lee pointed to the increasing interest of business and government in utilizing the new techniques of scientific sampling, question construction, interviewing, and so on-all hardly more than ten years old- in gauging public opinion and public taste, and the increasing participation of sociology depart- ments in such work. However, the science of attitude testing, Dr. Lee showed, is still faced with unimaginable difficulties in every step of the process of finding out what people really think. To take just one of these problems: interviewers are generally selected from middle- class college-trained persons. Now, when such a person asks a lower-class, and a middle-class, and an upper-class person the same question, he asks it in three rather different social con- texts: the upper-class person may feel superior, the lower-class one inferior, to the interviewer.

How does this affect results? Dr. Lee suggests that perhaps interviewers themselves should be made up of a cross section of the particular population they interview. But then we would still have to worry about the "stranger" effect: won’t questioning by a stranger distort results, especially for certain questions? (As in so many fields in sociology, while some men are acutely aware of the deficiencies in current practice from a theoretical point of view, most 182WHAT IS SOCIOLOGY’S JOB? investigators seem content to supply their clients with practical results, without too much con- sideration for or awareness of the possible dis- torting factors.) The effect of much current public-opinion testing practice-the questions it asks, the way it asks them, and the way it in- terprets answers-Dr. Lee concluded, is to aid the current trend toward discussion of crucial issues in meaningless generalities, or in gen- eralities that mean completely different things to different people. The results of much of this work thus lend themselves to distortion and are indeed used by commercial and political interests for their own ends.

ROFESSOR Blumer’s paper on "Sociological rTheory in Industrial Relations" was cer- tainly on a topical subject. At this very meet- ing, the study of factory life was to be recog- nized as one of the main branches of sociology by the establishment of a section of "industrial sociology" in the Society. Two full sessions at the meeting were to be devoted to papers in the new field.

Dr. Blumer began by asserting that it was all just a fad-like others that had come and gone. The researchers were naive in their ap- proach to industrial relations. Relations be- tween workers and managers were what is centrally important in the field, and, looked at realistically, this in turn meant relations be- tween great bureaucracies, in which the in- dividual worker or management representative, the focus of study of present-day industrial sociology, became insignificant. Further, these relations were uncrystallized, dynamic, mobile; a state of constant tension in industry reflected the necessary conflict between workers and management. Unless industrial sociology con- centrated on the dynamic relations between the two great sets of bureaucracies, it would be useless.

Dr. Blumer then listed five theoretical orien- tations that have guided sociological research in industry, all of which were, by his criteria, inadequate: (I) the approach in terms of "cul- ture," which looks at industrial relations as if they were a body of habitual routines or cul- tural norms; (2) the approach which treats industrial relations as a relatively fixed structure of stratified status relationships; (3) the ap- proach which sees long-range social trends- class, status, technology-as determining in- dustrial relations; (4) the "human relations" approach, in which industrial relations are broken down into relations between individuals; (5) the approach which treats industrial re- lations as a product of individual attitudes and feelin After thus sweepingly eliminating every tho- oretical orientation used so far to study in- dustrial relations, as well as a few that haven’t been, Dr. Blumer frankly admitted he had no alternative theory to guide future research.

None of our social theory, he asserted, is adapted to modern dynamic society. Unguided observation is, of course, not enough. What was necessary was to have open-minded ob- servers, with a background in which great bodies of interrelated data had been absorbed, approach the new subject. And we did not train that kind of social scientist.

There is one point of general importance that can be made against Dr. Blumer’s criticism -much of it well-deserved-of the factory re- search. He could well attack industrial research for avoiding the study of top-level management- union relations, and their unavoidable impact on relations in the shop. But is there no value at all in the study of the smallest work-groups in the single plant or department in industry? It would seem that many of these studies, be- cause they do avoid top-level relationships, might have a validity transcending some of the special conditions of present-day capitalist so- ciety. In such studies we can sometimes isolate problems in industry that would remain no matter what changes occurred at the top level, whether it was towards "socialism," "state capi- talism" or "fascism." For example, we have such problems as the relations possible between persons in authority and rank and file; the psy- chological effects of monotonous work; the psychological effects of exercising authority and of being subject to authority; the relation be- tween "material" and "prestige" rewards; and so on.

It is interesting to speculate as to why the sociologists enjoyed Dr. Blumer so much, even though his indictment let hardly anyone off.

Of course everyone likes a dramatic and well- timed performance. But suffering as sociolo- gists do from continual insecurity as to the real value of their work, there was probably also the pleasure of hearing someone boldly, openly, and without academic politeness express so many of the doubts that crowd just below their threshold of verbalization.

Let us try to explore the meaning of this reaction.

113COMMENTARY TO DESCRIBB the situation very schemati- cally, sociological papers and sociologists at these gatherings tend to fall into two groups: the majority discusses social problems, ways of studying social problems, and results of studies of social problems ("social problem" means crime, juvenile delinquency, divorce, race re- lations, absenteeism and restriction of output in industry, and so on). The second group, a small minority, attacks the first for making implicit or unexamined assumptions that viti- ate its conclusions. The first group (we are still being very schematic) is often called "em- pirical," the second "theoretical" (the labels are non-descriptive). And, to distinguish them further, the persons in the first group seem to select the problems they study because they are traditional or obvious; while persons in the second group will select problems for study be- cause they want to verify certain hunches about society (called "hypotheses"), or collect ev- idence for large theoretical generalizations about society. If we were to be historical, we might say that the first group descends from the social work and humanitarian elements that made up a good section of the sociologists forty years ago; the second from such sharp observers of society as Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, who tried to discover broad generalizations about social struc- ture and social change, by which many diverse problems of society-including those that oc- cupy the first group-might be illuminated. At the sessions, these two tendencies, which we have suggested only approximately, rubbed against each other again and again.

Dr. William P. Kolb, of Tulane University, in a comment on the session we have described, stated that he was disappointed to discover, on returning to sociology after a lapse of a few years, that the focus of interest seemed to have shifted away from the attempt to build up a body of social theory and toward the consider- ation of specific problems. As one of the losses suffered in the shift from theory, Dr. Kolb pointed to the field of marriage and the family: There the concept of the "happy" family is widely used. In empirical studies seeking to discover what "makes" a happy family, it is assumed that absence of conflict is a sufficient index to happiness (it is also assumed that "suc- cessful" marriages are those that last the long- est). Yet, said Dr. Kolb, marriages without conflict could conceal serious effects on the per- sonalities of the individuals involved. Were these also "happy" marriages? Here, sociologists had not thought through or worked out the- oretically their concepts of "happiness" or "success" in marriage; failing that, they had simply accepted the official or conventional cri- teria of society, and had unconsciously chosen the end of the stable family over the end of the free development of the individual.

In a similar vein, Professor Robert K. Merton of Columbia criticized a paper by Professor Robert C. Angell of Michigan, "Factors in the Social Integration of American Cities." Pro- fessor Angell’s paper reported on an elaborate attempt to discover what statistic or statistics on urban life would most accurately measure the social integration of cities. His conclusion, after correlating many possible factors with each other, was that crime rates and rates of social welfare activities were the best guides to the degree of social integration. On using these two sets of rates, it turned out that Northern and Eastern cities were more socially integrated than Southern cities.

The main target of criticism here is the as- sumption that crime, juvenile delinquency, etc., necessarily point to a lack of "social integra- tion." Might not a community be very well integrated around norms of unconventional be- havior? (An American sociologist once called the criminal "the genius of the slums.") What, really, do we mean by social integration? If we have in mind a concept referring to satis- fying kinds of social relations, then many in- dices that have been used to discover social inte- gration are valueless. Other indices might yet show upper-class suburbs to be as "uninte- grated" as slums, just as Edwin H. Sutherland, by going beyond the court’s register of crime, found crime where other criminologists had never discovered any. Here again, the theoret- ical problem of thinking through the concept of social integration seems to have been dodged, and society’s evaluation has substituted for ob- jective definition.

We will adduce only one more comment on this theme, by Dr. Peter Andreas Munch of the University of Oslo. Dr. Munch was scheduled as the last speaker at the last session of the meet- ing, one devoted to the theoretical considera- tions that affect the sociologist’s choice of a re- search problem, his conduct of the research, and his application of the findings. Dr. Munch commented that the papers he had just heard dealt with practical considerations affecting re- search rather than theoretical (broad, basic) considerations. He was surprised, he continued, 184WHAT IS SOCIOLOGY’S JOB? at the "optimistic" bias of sociological work in America (Dr. Everett C. Hughes of Chicago, commenting on a paper in industrial relations, had used the same words). Sociologists seemed to feel that their work only had value if it could be used to create a happy social life; and they seemed to feel that they had it within their power to do so. The idea "science for science’s sake" had little place in American sociology.

R. MUNCH had put his finger on an essen- Dtial characteristic of American sociology- and perhaps, as others have pointed out, of American thought in general. Americans have been called a pragmatic, practical, anti- theoretical people. This "failing" has had its virtues, even in sociology, where it may have been responsible for the development of certain refined techniques-as, for example, in public- opinion testing. But this orientation also meant, as C. Wright Mills once pointed out, that American sociologists looked not at society, but at its "problems." They were unable to see classes, statuses, basic motivations and patterns, except through European eyes or European formulations. Instead, they saw crime, divorce, poverty, juvenile delinquency, the breakdown of the family, (most recently) absenteeism and restriction of production, and so on, as ex- crescences on the body of an unquestioned and unexamined society.

Of course, the kind of American sociologist we have referred to is an "ideal type" (to use sociological language for an extreme case) and will not often be found in the flesh. For no one denies that it is essential to combine "theory" with "practice," "concepts" with "em- pirical work," "science" with "common sense." Yet when we proceed from the realm of talk to that of research all this agreement seems without effect; and the typical work of Ameri- can sociologists (not the best) continues to be studies in well worn paths, either proving noth- ing because their theoretical underpinnings are naive and confused, or proving the same thing over and over again. And while we probably have in America more sociologists, more classes in sociology, more students in sociology, and more man-hours of work being performed in sociology than in all the rest of the world to- gether, it is questionable whether our contribu- tion to the understanding of society equals that of a few French and German scholars.

The atmosphere of American thought does not, however, explain enough. Nor does the theory that American sociologists are afraid of the possible anti-status quo implications of their work illuminate the specific reasons for their sterility. Rather, we would assert, Amer- cian sociology stands in need of a divorce be- tween social science and an atomistic social meliorism-between the effort to understand society and the effort to patch it up. For while the two have historically been of great value and stimulation to each other, at this stage in- terest in bits-and-pieces social improvement, de- signed to show sociology’s "value," seems to be strangling social science. It is unquestionably important to plot the distribution of juvenile delinquents, broken homes, relief cases, and make correlations between them-important, however, for the community. For after this has been done ten or twenty times for ten or twenty communities; the study of such questions can only add to our knowledge of society if it is set in a framework of generalizations about society -"theory." Yet almost every sociology department in this country is under subtle pressure, from students, trustees, school administration, and community, to engage in such activities to the detriment of work in newer and fresher fields. The young scholar setting up a department of sociology in a college which has never had it (it is still being done every year) can, if he wishes, teach a course in basic social theories. On the other hand, if he teaches a course in marriage and the family, he gets an immediate response from the students (‘The impetus for these courses has apparently been supplied by the insistent demand of students for this type of instruction, rather than by professors who felt they had something important to contribute in this field" -Mirra Komarovsky and Willard Waller, "Studies in the Family," American Journal of Sociology, May 1945). And if he conducts a social survey of the community and suggests a program to reduce juvenile delinquency, he establishes good relations with community lead- ers and trustees, and proves to the administra- tion what a useful adjunct the sociology depart- ment is. Under the circumstances, how many students will emerge with any awareness of the really significant work and thought with which sociology has illuminated the essential features of our society? F ONE is trying to find out "what is wrong with American sociology," one must go to the grass roots-the ordinary undergraduate de- 185COMMENTARY partment. Here one will discover, for example, why even though American sociology seem to be interested in "social problems," it rarely touches such fundamental problems of our so- ciety as have emerged in the past two decades of depression, fascism, and global war. One thinks of the increasing concentration of eco- nomic and political power; the meaning of war and the preparation for war in modem society, and its impact on different classes; the implica- tions of cultural uniformity and mass culture; the fate of ethnic cultures and ethnic groups; pathological political movements. Sociology remains focused on problems at a community level, and, for the most part, problems that have come within the purview of social work.

Every graduate school of sociology has to reckon with the fact that most of its students have received their "training" in institutions and from teachers under the kinds of practical pressures we described. As a result, they are unacquainted with the chief names in sociology, let alone the dozen or two important and basic books in the field. They have been reading textbooks instead. But the very notion of text- books (which presume to offer crystallized truth) is absurd in the present immature state of the social sciences. It is no wonder that when graduate students do their research they are so often unable to see how their problem links up with other problems, or how it evolves from a social setting and illuminates that set- ting. Consequently, even if the research is done carefully and well, it is often difficult to know what it means and to connect with similar research.

At the meetings, awareness of these problems was by no means uncommon; the intelligence displayed in private conversation was often far above the pedestrian quality of work. Alas, this is no portent of better days, for the pres- sures to follow in the dull paths of predecessors are universal and continuous throughout the young sociologist’s career. He will be advised to select as his thesis topic something less inter- esting or vital to him than many others would be; but the suggested topic, treated with the ap- propriate array of questionnaires and statistical techniques (so often highly inappropriate), is the better path to the academic better ‘ole. And even when he is established, and has a little breathing-spell from classwork to do some in- dependent research, the availability of funds restricts his subject. As a consequence, one observes a widespread cynicism among younger men concerning the possibility of useful work; and one also learns to look hopefully behind the prescribed uninspiring facades to discover some of the best work being done in the field.

Hence the constant drumbeat of criticism by a few capable and brilliant men against the general level of sociological work. Many things could be done to improve the situation: for example, one could set up a committee to pass on or eliminate textbooks (but that would probably cut into, the income of the members of the committee); one could set up a com- mittee to go through the entire field of sociology and weed out valid from invalid empirical work; one could set up a committee to go through the field and list hypotheses, cataloguing for each the empirical work already done and suggesting empirical work that remained to be done. This kind of talk has been prevalent for years. But no trend is yet on the horizon that promises to change the general picture in sociology in the near future.

If the average level of performance in the field had to be depended on to attract new stu- dents capable of carrying forward the future of sociology, one could indeed despair. Fortu- nately, however, there is always, as stronger lodestars, the challenge of the field itself, the fact that it alone deals in the scientific tradition with the largest and most profound questions of society, and the presence of a handful of men whose work shows sociology’s high poten- tial.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.