Twilight Time?

February 4, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The death of Seymour Martin Lipset a month ago provided the news peg for the Wall Street Journal to run a piece proclaiming “The Twilight of Sociology.” Lipset was the WSJ’s kind of guy — a 1930s Trotskyite socialist who became a neoconservative.

The author of the article, Wilfred McClay, a professor of humanities, sees the 1950s and 60s as the “golden age” of US sociology, but the titans of that era are dying off (Lipset, Rieff, and Riesman in the past year or so). And according to McClay no new giants are rising up to take their place. Where are the grand sociologists?

McClay, the good conservative (what else would you expect to find in the WSJ?) first blames liberal politics. “Academic journals and scholarly monographs were given over to supporting the reigning views of race, gender and class — and fiercely suppressing any inquiry that might challenge these views.” Then he blames the concept of social construction: “many sociologists came to believe, all reality was ‘socially constructed.’”

McClay exempts the sociology of religion from his condemnation: “a lively subfield, populated by outstanding figures such as Robert Bellah, Robert Wuthnow and Peter Berger.” The irony of course is that Peter Berger is co-author of the seminal book on social construction.

McClay also blames “scientism,” making much the same criticism that C.Wright Mills leveled at the “abstracted empiricism” style of sociology fifty years ago. McClay never mentions Mills among the giants of that golden age, probably because Mills was guilty of what McClay sees as current sociology’s main sin— “misguided activist zeal.”

McClay urges sociology to recover its potential for greatness by going back to “one of the “abiding themes of ‘old sociology’: how the stubbornness of social forces circumscribes what is possible for us as individuals.”

I’m not sure that McClay is right about anything. Are there no sociologists of the stature of Lipset or Riesman today? It’s often hard to tell who the giants are until you look back from the perspective of many years. When you’re standing right next to them, they may not seem so impressive (though Lipset was indeed an imposing physical presence; so was Alvin Gouldner, a Lipset contemporary probably too liberal for McClay to mention).

And if it turns out that there are no towering figures, is the cause to be found in our ideas, our ideologies, and our activism? McClay is so eager to pin the blame on progressive ideas that he ignores his own advice. He says nothing about the social forces that constrain sociology today. The social and economic realities of universities, journals, granting agencies, and publishers probably have a greater impact on the form and content of our work than does our ideology.

It may also be that we are in a “normal science” phase, still working out the implications of ideas laid down in the social scientific revolution of a century or more ago. Sociologists in this phase may still do great work — even those who think that Lipset was a great sociologist could hardly argue that he shook the theoretical or methodological foundations of the field— but they are unlikely to be seen immediately as giants.

(I offer no link to McClay’s article because the Wall Street Journal does not provide free access to its articles. But if you have the AB Inform database, you can find it: February 2, 2007; Page W13)

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