The end of sociology? Only for those who don’t care about power

Lately, it seems as though I am compelled to defend my profession every time I turn around. Nicholas Kristoff, for example, recently denigrated sociology professors  because, apparently, our work is too easily dismissed:

Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.

Never mind that the right also “instinctively” dismisses climate science and evolution, amirite?*

Never mind that the sociologist making the biggest public splash these days is someone whose work is being used by the radical right to push anti-gay legislation based on deeply flawedand quite likely falsified – research on same-sex parenting.  Oh, and by the way?  This research was funded by fundamentalist Christians.  Purely a matter of coincidence, I’m sure.

Luckily, JustPublics@365 has created a roundup of responses to Kristoff’s asinine comments, so I feel much less compelled to respond directly.

However, as I was reading this week’s selection of articles for the Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative, I came across this delightful little gem by Chris Anderson at Wired:

This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.

Anderson’s ideas are neatly summarized in the title of his piece, “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.”

Apparently, the accessibility of big data allows us to say that “correlation is enough,” and thus we no longer need social scientists to construct models of human behavior to understand the world.  According to Anderson, “Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.”

Well – I suppose that’s true, if we posit that the purpose of data is to figure out how to sell as much crap as possible to as many people as possible.  Really, All Amazon needs to know is that I can and will buy crap.  Preferably from them.  In that case, I suppose theories explaining why people do the stuff they do are less important than the fact that people do those things.  Never mind that mega-corporations heavily utilize theories of human behavior to sell people shit they don’t need – which is why, rightly or wrongly, I cringe a little when marketing majors sit in on social theory courses.  But I digress.

The reason we need social scientists, and especially sociologists, is because we need people who are trained to analyze and interpret data through the lens of power.  In fact, numbers don’t speak for themselves, data don’t exist in a vacuum, and people don’t do things “just because.”  Our choices are shaped and patterned by broader structures and social constructs.  The idea that behavior – and data about behavior – exist in and of themselves in an objective fashion obscures the relationships of power that shape how and why people do the things that we do.

Of course, corporations want to use our data to induce us to buy more crap, but they need at least a basic understanding of theory – at a minimum, causal correlation – to do so.  Case in point: research indicates that adolescent consumption of media, like teen magazines, negatively influences body image.  And here’s a wild guess: people who feel bad about how they look are more easily induced to buy crap that has been produced to fulfill a need created by capitalism and its companions, racism, sexism, cissexism, etc.  Corporations need to know this in order to exploit it.  On the other hand, corporations will have a harder time selling me toxic sludge (ahem, I mean, cosmetics) if I consider makeup a tool of patriarchal oppression and if I occupy a certain status in society in which the fact that I do not wear makeup will not endanger my job, my relationships, or my life.

Here’s the deal: the idea that big data exists in a vacuum imposes an apolitical lens on an issue that is fundamentally about power.  At its best, sociology – and especially sociological theory – helps us explain, confront, and dismantle relations of power.  And we need that.  But only if we care about power to begin with.


* Philip Cohen, of Family Inequality, notes that “instinctively” is the wrong word; actually, the right conveniently dismisses the work of most sociologists.

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