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.
William H.L. Dorsey
5/13/2020 08:04:14 pm
Personally, I find the social influence on patterns of behavior fascinating. I also find it to be so enlightening that I want more to understand, rather than be blindly, unconsciously plugged into the "matrix." After 45 years of teaching this way I also know that when people understand social forces, they are generally empowered to change them.
5/13/2020 08:04:33 pm
I think it's a personal choice at the end. How far are you ready to go? I mean do you want to produce knowledge only or do you want to take an immediate actionyaction too?.
5/13/2020 08:57:50 pm
By understanding and mapping the complexity of forces that contribute to social issues into an intricate web of related phenomena, we are better able to see where ties bind and weak threads lay. Therein are the places that change can most effectively happen and efforts to that effect may be focused. That's what I tell my students, and I hold fast to it.
5/13/2020 10:20:31 pm
Sociologists are intellectuals in the traditional sense which finds resistance and obstacles in a society that is anti intellectual. The exclusion of sociological knowledge also has to do with those entities that control the instruments of dissemination. This is something Bourdeiu talked about frequently in his little book On Television (1998).European society may be more receptive for sociological knowledge which means in Europe Sociologists get more television time than Sociologists in the U.S who get smoke screen. In the end, this then also affects views about the legitimacy of the sociology discipline as well as sociologists that makes knowledge claims but can't find an outlet in a society which is hostile to intellectuals.
5/14/2020 12:00:48 am
Sociological research and professional advancement in the academy drain a ton of energy and time from people who are socially conscious and might otherwise use their energy and time to effectuate social change.
5/14/2020 02:51:00 am
An interesting article emphasizing gap between academic research and policy making. I think policy making is a political phenomena, and the policy makers think politically. So any decision they are making have its roots in politics, means their own interests. And so, the sociological research will make its way only when that is in the interests of policy makers. Second thing is that I found the author more inclined toward radical change and want a change in long-held social phenomena within a night. If we see, the world is better today for the disadvantage groups than it was some decades ago. So my point is that society changes gradually. Any radical change in society brings more misery than positivity.
5/14/2020 06:45:35 am
Social change is an endless process. Every research has its significance one way or another. One reasearch alone cannot be expected to bring a big change or policy making overnight in the our society. It's a connecting piece in realm of knowledge. Your research get connected with another form eventually. Your findings will give insights to yourself, people you're connected with and many more. It's evident from your words that your research is transforming you. It's great.
to your last question:
5/15/2020 10:42:11 am
I think you are missing an important point: A sociologist is not a policymaker, nor a politician. But a sociologist, like many scientific disciplines has (or must have) a public role, a public responsibility that means at least to diseminate findings and make clear their policy consequences. That public role is mostly absent across countries, with some exceptions
5/17/2020 09:06:06 pm
I really appreciate your concerns that you raise in this blog. Thank you so much for asking these important questions. I do want to complicate your last question a bit. You ask:
8/24/2021 06:38:52 am
Maybe a group of Sociologists can Start a political party
7/12/2022 04:14:19 am
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