Role of Sociologists to Analysis and Solving Problems

What is the proper task of the sociologist? Is it merely to observe human action with the calm, detached curiosity of the ecologist who counts the lemmings as they dive into the ea? Or should the sociologist rush into social action? Should the professor of sociology encourage students to develop a detached understanding of social phenomena or inspire them to man the barricades for social reform? What is the proper role for the sociologist in a changing society?

The Sociologist as Research Scientist
Like all scientists, sociologists are concerned with both collecting and using knowledge. They share in these tasks in various ways.

Conducting Scientific Research: As a scientist, the sociologist’s foremost task is to discover and organize knowledge about social life. A number of full-time research sociologists are employed by universities, government agencies, foundations, or corporations, and many sociologists divide their time between teaching and research. Many university sociologists are engaged in “funded” research, with all or part of their salaries and their research expenses paid from research grants made by government agencies, foundations, or corporations. These grants are made to sociologists who submit an acceptable proposal for research on a particular topic. Since little research can be conducted without research funds, this gives the funding agencies great power to influence the direction of sociological research.
Radical critics of sociology (including some sociologists) claim that, behind a fa├žade of ethical neutrality and objective, sociologists have prostituted their research talents to the support of the interests of the funding agencies, and have thus supported militarism, racism, and other forms of oppression [Gouldner, 1962, 1970; Frederichs, 1970 pp. 823 – 85; any issue of The Insurgent Sociologist].
Whether sociological research has been widely corrupted in this manner may be debated [Horton and Bouma, 1971]. What is indisputable is that problems of bias and partisanship are present in all research, and that research findings are often helpful to the interests of some people and damaging to the interests of other people [Becker, 1967]. Even the definition of a research problem may carry an implicit bias. For example if we state a research problem as, “What characteristics of poor people contribute to their poverty?” we imply that the responsibility rests mainly on the poor people themselves; but if we define the problem as, “What social arrangements produce poverty?” then the responsibility is placed upon “society”.
Throughout most of the history of sociology, sociologists were often accused of being radical subversives whose research and teaching were a threat to established institutions and vested interests. Many older sociologists today, still bearing the scars of the anticommunist witch hunts of the 1950s, are puzzled and hurt when students and younger sociologists accuse them of having been lackeys of capitalistic oppression all their lives! But the question to society is as old as science itself, and will not soon be settled.

Correcting Popular Nonsense: Another task of the sociologist as a scientist is to clear away the intellectual rubbish of misinformation and superstition which clutters so much of our social thinking. Sociologists have helped to bury a great deal of nonsense about heredity, race, class, sex differences, deviation, and nearly every other aspect of behaviour. It is due partly to the findings of sociology that today we rarely hear an educated person argue that the white race is innately superior, that women are intellectually inferior to men, that behaviour traits are inherited, or that rural people are less “immoral” than urbanities – ideas which nearly every educated person accepted a half century ago. By helping replace superstition and misinformation with accurate knowledge about human behaviour, sociologists are perhaps performing their most important function.

Making Sociological Predictions: Although the track record of sociologists in making social predictions is not impressive, someone must make social predictions. Every policy decision is based upon certain assumptions about the present and future state of the society. A legislator who says “We need more severe penalties to curb drug pushing” is predicting that more severe penalties actually will curb the narcotics business without creating even greater problems. Another legislator who says “Legalize marijuana” is making a set of predictions about the consequences of this action. Thus every policy recommendation inevitably implies a set of assumptions and predictions. What sort of predictions do sociologists offer? Here are a few samples, offered without explanation or documentation at this point, as examples of the kind of predictions sociologists can make:
The trend toward employment of women will continue until most women are working for most of their married lives.
Birth rates will fall to approach death rates, or death rates will rise to approach birth rates.
Despite some experimentation with alternatives, the monogamous nuclear family will continue to be the basic family type in the United States.
The present popularity of jeans and casual clothing among young people will be followed by a return to high-style clothing.
The recent trend onward early retirement will soon be replaced by efforts to lengthen the work career.
Most social science prediction consists not of predicting specific developments, as the astronomer predicts an eclipse, but of forecasting the general pattern of trends and changes which seem most probable [e.g., Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, 1973]. All such predictions or forecasts should be offered with certain humility, for no certainty attends them. Instead, social scientists offer them as the best, most informed guesses available upon which to base our policy decisions and expectations for the future.

The Sociologist as Policy Consultant
Sociological prediction can also help to estimate the probable effects of a social policy. Every social policy decision is a prediction. A policy (e.g. federal grants for Head Start) is begun in the hope that it will produce a desired effect (e.g. narrow he educational gap between poorer and more prosperous children). Policies have often failed because they embodied unsound assumptions and predictions. Sociologists can help to predict the effects of a policy, and thus contribute to the selection of policies which achieve the intended purposes. For example:
What effect does dropping out of high school have upon a youth’s future earnings? (Little or none, when other factors are equal).
What would be the effect of intensified law enforcement upon campus marijuana use? (Little or no reduction, with aggravation of other student-police problems).
Would low birth rates and a small-family norm increase marital happiness? (Yes; there is research evidence that smaller families are better off in every way).
Would publishing the names of juvenile delinquents help to reduce delinquency? (No; it would more likely increase it).
Would the suppression of obscene literature help to reduce sex crimes and sex immorality? (Our limited evidence suggests that it would not).
Would legal barriers to abortion strengthen family life? (No; most sociologists believe this would increase illegitimate births, unwanted children, child abuse, and family discord).
These are a few of the many social policy questions which sociologists could help to settle. One of the greatest services any scholarly group can offer is to show the society what policies are most likely to work in achieving its objectives. This is a service which sociologists are qualified to perform.

The Sociologist as Technician
Some sociologists are engaged in planning and conducting community action programs; advising on public relations, employee relations, problems of morale or of “inter-group relations” within the organization; working on human relations problems of many sorts. Often these sociologists have specialized in social psychology, industrial sociology, urban or rural sociology, or the sociology of complex organizations.
Recently the term clinical sociologist has appeared to describe the work of the sociologist as technician [Gardner, 1978]. To some extent, this is a new name for what sociologists have been doing for a long time, but it also includes a considerable broadening of the range of sociologists’ efforts to be useful in society.
In such positions the sociologist is working as an applied scientist. He or she has been engaged to use scientific knowledge in pursuing certain values – a harmonious and efficient working force, an attractive public image of the industry, or an effective community action program. This role raises a question of ethics. When a sociologist accepts employment as a technician, pursuing values chosen by an employer, has scientific integrity been compromised? To make an extreme example, there is evidence [Monroe, 1962] that gambling operators engaged social scientists to find out why people do or do not gamble, so that the operators could learn how to attract more customers. (We do not know whether any sociologists were included). Would this be a form of scientific prostitution?
The radical critics of “establishment sociology” charge that sociologists have “sold out” whenever they serve as technicians or research scholars in any kind of effort to maintain or improve the efficiency of government, military, capitalistic, or welfare establishments. Thus, not only are sociologists (if any) working in war-related activities condemned, but even sociologists working in programs to improve the health of poor children in Mississippi, to increase agricultural output in Peru, or to teach birth control in village India are sometimes accused of supporting “oppression”. This is the classic view of the revolutionist – any attempt to make the present system work better, or to help people find better lives within the system is “oppressive” because it helps to perpetuate the system.
There is no simple answer to the question of what clinical appointments it is proper for the sociologist to accept. Each sociologist’s answer will be found partly in the prevailing views of the academic world at that moment and partly in his or her own conscience.

The Sociologist as Teacher
Teaching is the major career of many sociologists. In addition to the concerns and problems of teaching in any field, the problem of value neutrality versus value commitment is a particularly acute question. For example, in a course on “poverty”, should the sociologist supervise an objective study of facts, theories, and policies – possibly sympathetic but as objective as possible? Or should the course be designed to produce dedicated advocates of a particular action program? Should the sociologist seek to convert students to conservatism, liberal reformism, or revolutionary activism? For some decades the ethics of university teaching have demanded that the teacher refrain from all conscious “indoctrination,” but this question is now under spirited debate.

The Sociologist and Social Action
Scientists seek to discover knowledge. Should scientists also tell the society how this knowledge should be used? For example, the geneticists already know something about human heredity, and before very long it may be possible to control the genetic makeup of babies, and “order” babies according to a specifications list. Who should dedicate what sort of baby should go to whom? The scientists? The parents? The Government?
The basic question is whether science – specifically sociology – should be value-free. For example, sociologists know some things about population growth, race relations, urban development, and many other matters involving questions of public policy. Should sociologists become public advocates of birth control programs, legalized abortion, women’s liberation, legalized marijuana, racial integration, and many other programs which they may consider socially desirable?
Early sociologists gave an emphatic “yes” to this question. Without an adequate foundation of scientific knowledge, they rushed to support all sorts of public policies they believed wise. Between 1920 and 1940, many sociologists shifted to the view that sociology should be a more nearly “pure” science, discovering knowledge but not attempting to decree how it should be used. They sought to build sociology on the model of physics or chemistry, as a value-free science. As such, it should be committed to no values except those of free scientific inquiry. Sociologists generally avoided involvement in controversial issues and sought the status of “pure” social scientists.
More recently, this view has been challenged in both physical and social science. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists carries many articles by scientists urging their fellows to claim a larger role in deciding the uses of nuclear science discoveries. Many sociologists today believe that sociologists should claim a major role in making decision about public policy and should involve themselves in the major issues of our society [Lindesmith, 1960; Horowitz, 1964; Stein and Vidich, 1964; A. Lee, 1966, 1973, 1978; Becker 1967]. They charge that sociologists have buried themselves in “safe” research topics, leaving the really important questions to non-sociologists – questions such as “How can poverty be reduced?” “How can schools be integrated?” “How can communities be organized for more civilized social living?” “Should the goals and values of American society be altered to promote human welfare?” They feel that not only do sociologists have a duty to say what society might do about problems of race conflict, population growth, birth control, drug addiction, divorce, sex deviation, medical care, etc. but that sociologists have a duty to say what our society should do about such problems. Books like Shostak’s Putting Sociology to Work [1947] provide concrete examples of how sociologists are involving themselves in social issues and constructive social action and show what they have learned from these experiences.
Sociology today, in common with all the other social sciences, has some members who insist that, both individually and as an academic discipline, sociologists should openly and publicly support the “radical reconstruction of society” [Szymanski, 1970; Colfax and Roach, 1971; D. Horowitz, 1971; Sternberg, 1977]. This question is receiving much attention in sociological literature [Douglas, 1970; Lee, 1978; Harris, 1980]. Whether sociology should be value-free is an unsettled question, but sociologists are agreed upon the following propositions.

The Study of Sociology
Students are sometimes delighted to find in sociology (or another social science) evidence that some of their parents fondest beliefs are outmoded superstitions. But when they find evidence that their own beliefs are scientifically unfounded, their reaction to this correction may not differ greatly from that of their parents. To separate sense from nonsense is one of the objectives of sociology. Only those who are willing and able to subject their beliefs, assumptions, and practices to objective scientific scrutiny will gain much from the study of any of the social sciences.

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