16.12.15

DIED OF A THEORY.

Sociologist James D. Wright is asking mainstream (Marxstream?) sociologists to identify the evidence that would lead them to change their conclusions.
Marx is still taught in graduate theory courses as a classical social theorist, but Herbert Spencer or William Graham Sumner or E.A. Ross and other critics of state power are largely forgotten. These days, students have never even heard of Roberto Michels and the Iron Law of Oligarchy because it denies the very possibility of grass roots, democratic, progressive social movements.

Spencer was a proponent of what today would be called evolutionary sociology and his ideas about society as a “social organism” were important precursors to structural functionalism.

Sumner taught the first course ever offered in America on “sociology” (at Yale, in 1876). His research on folkways convinced him that government-mandated social reforms were useless and ineffective.

Ross was a prominent figure in early American sociology, an important precursor to contemporary efforts to marry sociological and biological thinking.

All of those ideas run very much against the political grain of most modern sociologists and so they have been effectively expunged from the classical canon. Meanwhile, Karl Marx continues to be revered as an essential social thinker.
And Oppression Olympics becomes the organizing principle, to the detriment of serious research.
The point of these examples is to show how ideological beliefs sometimes, indeed rather often, trump empirical data and research. If you believe as a matter of ideological commitment that marriage is a “prison for women,” or that violence against them is the result of a patriarchal and misogynistic society, all contrary evidence somehow must be wrong.

It seems to me that as a discipline, we sociologists have lost sight of the difference between hypotheses to be researched and conclusions to be defended. We tend to confuse identity politics with social theory, and mistake partisan advocacy for serious scientific analysis.
That's how priors work, and why thinking about the strength of evidence required to give up a prior matters.

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