Committing Sociology

April 27, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“This is not a time to commit sociology,” said Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper. 

It’s witty, especially if you don’t know that Auden made the same joke nearly seventy years ago.
Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
    Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
    A social science.
But it’s wit in the service of a bad idea – willful ignorance.  The less witty version is the introductory clause, “We don’t need ‘studies’ to know that . . .” with the word studies almost always in quote.   As I’ve said in earlier posts (here and here) the phrase is pretty much a guarantee that the writer has no systematic evidence or that the available evidence points in the opposite direction.

It’s not so bad when the sentiment comes from a poet few people know of. But when it comes from people with real power, it can do real damage.  Here in the US the Republicans in Congress don’t like political science research.  Understandably.  But they are not just clapping their hands over their ears and shouting, “I don’t hear you.”  They are saying, “I won’t fund you.”  And now some of them want to eliminate funding for all science that can’t wave a patriotic flag.
 the new chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology floated the idea of having every NSF grant application include a statement of how the research, if funded, "would directly benefit the American people." Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that he was not trying to "micromanage" the $7 billion agency but that NSF needs to do a better job of deciding what to fund given the low success rates for grant applicants and a shrinking federal budget.  (More here.)
The sociology Harper was referring to consisted apparently of remarks by Justin Trudeau on the topic of terrorism.  Trudeau suggested that a strategy to prevent further terrorism should include a consideration of “root causes.”

Naive Trudeau.  Had he been more familiar with to the recent history of his neighbor to the south, he would never have used that phrase.  When crime was in the US rose drastically in the late twentieth century (when Justin’s dad Pierre was prime minister of Canada), some people suggested that to reduce crime, it might help to understand “root causes.”  Conservatives, the defenders of “law and order,” hooted with contempt.  We didn’t need to understand. We needed to punish the bad guys, the more harshly the better. 

The same reaction seems to have been taking place in Canada in the days following the Boston bombing and the discovery of a plot to blow up Canadian trains.  Apparently that is what Harper meant by “this is not the time.”  At a time like this, when people are “uncertain and afraid” (Auden again), they do not want to understand.  They want reassurance both of their safety and of their moral rightness.  They want actions and words that reinforce the boundary between Us and Them.

The trouble, especially with potential terrorists in our midst, is that we need the help of people who look like Them. Terrorism plots are foiled by information from insiders.  Do we really want to paint the boundary in bright colors and force them to choose a side?  Here is the sociology that Trudeau committed.
But we also need to make sure that as we go forward, that we don’t emphasize a culture of fear and mistrust. Because that ends up marginalizing even further those who already are feeling like they are enemies of society.

No comments: