Dear fellow sociologists,
I have a few questions about sociology that I would like to pose to those who have been sociologists for longer than I have. None of the questions below are rhetorical even though they may seem so. I am looking for answers--mostly for myself, but also for my students. In case a student in a sociology class asks me similar questions, I am afraid I currently don’t have convincing answers.
I enjoy being a student of sociology. I also enjoy teaching sociology. I enjoy them because it enriches my life, including my personal life. But when I read sociological literature, especially empirical research, I find myself wondering: what is the point in producing all this knowledge about problems in our society, when it hardly ever leads to policies that bring about change? An enormous amount of time, energy, money, brains, and other resources are invested into research that reveals the inequality and harsh realities faced by disadvantaged groups, but it’s not making their lives any better. We already know that the lives of minorities and those that have low SES are difficult in every way. We know that any new disaster will affect them more harshly than the more privileged. Do we really need more research to tell us that things are bad for disadvantaged groups in one more very specific way?
How useful is it to know that A causes B, or that group C has it worse than group D, or that X and Y are correlated, when those with the power to bring about any kind of change (law makers, leaders of corporations, the privileged) hardly read or care about the research sociologists are producing? Or even if they know and care, cannot bring about change?
I understand that some sociological research, especially that which is disseminated in news media, social media or magazines like Contexts (thanks to the efforts of public sociologists), travels beyond the academic community. But I don’t see it leading to real change in the lives of the subjects of the research.
I have been told that the job of sociologists is to produce the knowledge that others (like policy makers) will then use to bring about a change? But I don’t see the second part happening. Even if such sociologically-informed change does happen, it is so few and far between. Isn’t it? An analogy I often have in my head is of a factory manufacturing a high-quality product intended for sale. But the product is rarely sold. And because the manufacturing continues non-stop (like sociologists conduct research continuously), these high quality products pile up and gather dust in warehouses that get bigger and bigger.
It may be unrealistic to expect every study to lead to change. But even in areas where a huge body of research confirms a trend (for instance, that women do more unpaid housework than men, or the resulting negative outcomes for women), how is this body of knowledge leading to any change? I understand that policies are based on evidence. But how often are policymakers actually basing their decisions on the research we produce?
Should I think of knowledge production, which seems to be the end goal of sociology (is it?), as an end in itself? Marx would say that “the point” (of producing knowledge, in this case) “is to change” the world. The disconnect between this ocean of research (produced using the most sophisticated quantitative and qualitative methods, and which includes brilliant insights about what exactly needs to be done) and a reality where things are only getting worse for disadvantaged groups is discouraging.
I understand that sociological research is not a monolith. Some research topics have greater policy implications than others. I chose to research an important topic like domestic violence because I thought I would be making myself useful to society, and believed that I was contributing toward a solution to this serious problem in my own small way. But by simply producing knowledge (conducting research and getting it published, and nothing more) I know my work is not making any difference to the lives of domestic violence survivors or their abusers. And those who have the power to intervene and alleviate their suffering (the law enforcers or immediate community) are not going to be reading my research. So then, what’s the point?
By choosing to study a serious topic such as domestic violence over a topic like non-monogamous relationships or the lives of bartenders, am I being more useful to society?
Am I missing something here? Am I missing the big picture? If I sound naive, it’s all the more reason I need answers.
Shilpa is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Maryland, and a former journalist. Most of her academic and professional work has been in the area of gender equality. She is passionate about feminism, social justice, teaching, motherhood, water bodies, music, the color purple and unconventional ways of living.