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These are not good-faith actors, but they are good at what they do. If they succeed in lumping the label “sociology” into their basket of deplorable dog whistles, along with “CRT” and “gender ideology,” then our discipline may be in for a prolonged period of retrenchment, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of students who take our courses every year.
Although I join the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) condemnation of the Florida action, in this case I also agree with a conservative critic of sociology, the sociologist Jukka Savolainen, who recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Florida’s action should be a “wake-up call and an invitation to introspection” for our discipline.
The Florida situation is a little like wrestling with a pig: We all get dirty, and the pig likes it. These anti-education activists are not interested in reasonable debate. They are culture warriors against the very idea of social progress. But that doesn’t mean our predicament is not real. It is not true, as the Florida commissioner of education Manny Diaz said, that, “Sociology has been hijacked by left-wing activists and no longer serves its intended purpose as a general knowledge course for students.” But we do have work to do if we hope to build and maintain public trust.
It’s bad timing, as ASA is losing support in the field, and membership is down to its lowest level since 1966. And the community of sociologists does include a large activist wing, which has successfully mobilized to win elections for leadership positions in the ASA and other groups. This has magnified the target on our back. But that is not the daily work of most sociologists — even the activists among us. Sociological research remains crucial to addressing our social problems from job discrimination to housing insecurity to social isolation. And sociology courses provide foundational knowledge and perspectives to students from every major on our campuses. We have been grossly mischaracterized. If there is one thing sociology’s most strident critics have in common, it’s a failure to do the reading.
The Florida situation is a little like wrestling with a pig: We all get dirty, and the pig likes it.
That said, the public’s trust in the academy in general is tenuous at best. In many social quarters, intellectual is an epithet and academic is a pejorative synonym for “trivial.” Many of our fellow citizens believe that modern life is livable despite of, rather than because of, the efforts of nerdy, probably-liberal scientists, writers, doctors, and teachers — people often derided as “experts,” with scare quotes. The good parts of progress — like year-round avocados or Wikipedia or elections — are sometimes seen as the result of natural or automatic processes, while real, living professional intellectuals mostly just get in the way or worse.
Like it or not, our work is part of a knowledge system that needs public support and trust. We earn this trust partly by our tangible usefulness, but also by demonstrating some key values of our scholarly approach: openness, transparency, and accountability. You may not agree with our interpretation of the facts, but you must know that our work — our data and methods, our funding sources, even our personal biases and opinions — is open to public scrutiny.
Our steadfast dedication to integrity and transparency should be a core asset in the public discourse. At our best we also openly embrace uncertainty, which is inherent to all scholarship. And our ethical standards require us to publish detailed instructions for anyone who wants to prove us wrong. These traits are certainly not demonstrated by those attacking the field.
Unfortunately, as has been widely documented, American sociology sorely lags behind with regard to the practices of open science (and open scholarship more generally) — practices more widely embraced in, for example, economics, psychology, and political science — as well as open access in our publications. To be sure, this is not why our courses were delisted in Florida, but it’s a vulnerability we should urgently address.
The openness imperative extends to the classroom. My opinions are no secret to my students. (I sued President Trump for blocking me on Twitter, and won.) But I always invite opposing views, don’t censor those with whom I disagree, and never grade for political perspective. My “Family Sociology” students need to know the divorce rate, the poverty rate, the failure of the United States to provide work-family support like other rich democracies do, and the consequences of rolling back abortion rights, but they don’t have to share my moral perspective on these issues. My classroom is as safe as I can make it, but that does not include protection from hearing opposing or unpopular opinions and assumptions. We debate facts and opinions, and where to draw the line between them, but I won’t let that distinction be erased. I hope (and believe) this remains true in the majority of sociology classrooms.
Social scientists, in my view, can be citizens and scholars at once. We don’t give up our citizenship (or its public expression) when we become scholars — professional intellectuals — and nor do we give up our scholarly perspective when we enter the discourse as citizens. Instead, we elevate the integrity of both our civic activity and our professional work by subjecting them to the scrutiny of our critics.
I’m a sociologist who studies demography, so I have some mastery of social theory and methods. I also have personal morals and beliefs. I can put all that together and offer a relevant critique of politics or social practice. In my case, I can stand up to say, “As a sociologist, my opinion is that Donald Trump is terrible,” and back it up with evidence. There are costs to this, of course. I can’t expect readers to automatically embrace my scholarship if they hate my politics — they’re human, too — but at least they know I treat the quest for truth with the respect it deserves. And I’m not hiding relevant information.
Social scientists, in my view, can be citizens and scholars at once.
Some critics might say public political pronouncements like that undermine not just my science, but the reputation of sociology as a whole: that we provoked the Florida crackdown because our work is tainted by politics. I can’t prove they’re wrong. But I think the roles of citizen and scholar must ultimately be compatible within the life of an academic. We can speak out on the issues that matter while subjecting our own biases to strict scrutiny. We can tell the world when we know the answers while also admitting when it turns out we’re wrong. We can stand up for inclusive practices on campuses to make access to higher education more equitable without shutting down opposing views. Troubled times call for dedication to high ethical and professional standards. We might not win this round, but I hope sociology will survive. Having a discipline that more strongly embraces science and better communicates its values is a step in the right direction.
Parts of this essay are adapted from the book Citizen Scholar: Public Engagement for Social Scientists, to be published this fall by Columbia University Press.