The Human Space Between Activism and Objectivity in American Sociology

If by “objectivity” we mean approaching social research with no pre-commitments and no need for interpretive work, then true objectivity is impossible. Still, sociology should not be merely a vehicle for enacting a particular moral and political vision. It should be the systematic, disciplined pursuit of the truth about human social life.

For more than a month now, graduate students and professors in sociology have been having an extended conversation, mostly on Twitter, about whether sociologists should be engaged in “scholar-activism” or doing “objective social science.” The question isn’t really that simple or dichotomous, of course, or else it wouldn’t be much of a conversation. In my view, the answer is actually “neither.”

The conversation started in early September with the announcement of the theme for the 2019 meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA). This year’s incoming ASA president, Dr. Mary Romero of Arizona State University, chose the theme “Engaging Social Justice for a Better World.” The theme on its own sounds tame enough, but her written description raised questions. She wrote, in part:

Embracing a sociology that challenges social injustices and sustains scholar activists is pivotal in this time of increasing social inequalities. Sociologists possess the analytical tools and empirical data necessary to support communities fighting against injustices in many realms. These areas include: racial inequality, environmental degradation, immigration restrictions and law enforcement violence, housing segregation, unequal educational opportunities, disparate health outcomes, mass incarceration, and precarious violence against women and LGBTQ. Sociologists who partner with community groups, human rights organizations, civil rights lawyers, and other social justice advocates can make significant contributions to promote scholarship that can facilitate progressive social change.

In facing the growing normalization of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia, many sociologists are critically examining the concept of objectivity and its role in maintaining hierarchies of power within the discipline. In exploring steps toward a more epistemologically sound construction of unbiased methodological processes in sociology, the following questions emerge: What does “objectivity” mean? What is the role of objectivity in our field? Are objectivity and detachment the only routes to scientific validity? Can the linkage between sociology and public engagement lead to a sounder science and weaken status hierarchies within the discipline? Does the reification of objectivity and detachment in the discipline serve to reinforce status hierarchies more than produce sound science? Does a sociology that converges scholarship with applications to social equality create meaningful opportunities to shape social and economic policies? How significant is public sociology and purpose-driven-science in connecting empirical work to social justice scholarship?

With this theme, Engaging Social Justice for a Better World, we encourage our colleagues to draw on our historical activist roots in U.S. sociology, beginning with W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, George Herbert Mead, and others. Placing sociology more prominently on the national and international social, economic and political stage requires greater public engagement. A sociological analysis focused on social justice rather than neoliberal agendas is paramount in this effort. Centering scholar-activist sociology is an essential step in creating an inclusive discipline and relevant, methodologically rigorous scholarship.

This bold petition for scholar-activism, calling it “pivotal” and “essential,” is not surprising given that Dr. Romero works not in a department of sociology but instead in ASU’s explicitly activist “School of Social Transformation.” According to its website, the school encompasses five scholarly fields: African and African American Studies, Asian Pacific American Studies, Justice and Social Inquiry, Social and Cultural Pedagogy, and Women and Gender Studies. Students and faculty, the school’s homepage says, are working together “to change the world” and “to create social change that is democratic, inclusive and just.”

Now, I’m all for societies that are democratic, inclusive, and just—although I know different communities have differing ideas of what those concepts mean. But is Dr. Romero’s vision the best one to organize American sociology?

Objectivity is Impossible

A few sociologists in this past month’s conversation agreed with Dr. Romero’s suggestion that published research that goes under the banner of “objective” sociology actually serves to disguise power dynamics, perpetuate inequalities, and reinforce status hierarchies in the discipline. On that point, I agree with Dr. Jeremy Freese, professor of sociology at Stanford University. Freese suggested that the rhetoric of objectivity might reinforce status hierarchies in sociology but insisted that the idea that this is its primary function is “completely freaking insane.”

I too have a problem with the rhetoric of objectivity, but for a somewhat different reason. Regardless of what passes as “objective” sociology, objectivity is simply not the kind of epistemic perspective any sociologist can take.

If by “objectivity” we mean approaching social research with no pre-commitments and no need for interpretive work, then true objectivity is impossible. Dr. Christian Smith—the sociologist at Notre Dame who, in addition to his empirical work, is increasingly publishing as something like a Catholic social philosopher—has made this point multiple times in various works. He writes,

All of our perceptions and knowledge are conceptually mediated. All of our observations are also necessarily and simultaneously interpretations. There simply is no universal, neutral, preconceptual, and indubitable foundation for knowledge.

All facts are theory-laden. No one has a God’s-eye view.

Scholar-Activism is a Bad Idea

Strict epistemic objectivity is impossible, in the social sciences as in every other domain of human knowing, but that still leaves a long leap to saying the only other option is scholar-activism. As Dr. Kim Weeden, chair of the department of sociology at Cornell University, tweeted: “I know it’s just an ASA meeting theme statement, but I’m curious: What is the logic that connects the claim that there’s no objectivity in science with the conclusion that sociology must embrace a social justice (leftie) activist agenda?” That’s a good question.

She followed up: “I’m also not a fan of arguments like, ‘let’s return to sociology’s roots’ to justify a social justice activist agenda. Sure, some scholars in sociology’s history were activists (others were not) whose ideas were compatible with this agenda. Others embraced eugenics.” Moreover, she noted: “Certainly [this] statement doesn’t exactly lay out [a] welcome mat for conservative or even centrist voices.” And “What of curiosity-driven research whose sole purpose is to advance a scientific understanding of general social processes?”

It is no secret that much of sociology today is dedicated to a hypermodern, progressive, identity-politics, reformist, LGBTQ, feminist, quasi-Marxist, emancipatory project, which for many takes on sacred significance. I know that this won’t be convincing to sociologists who already understand themselves as scholar-activists enthusiastically advancing this project, but as a sociologist who (if I can speak in general terms) agrees with traditional Christian social and ethical teachings, I think there are major aspects of sociology’s project that are off the mark, to say the least.

But the immediate problem with leftist scholar-activism in sociology isn’t that I disagree with parts of it. The problem is that the scholar-activists’ findings and prescriptions are self-assuredly predetermined by their political ideology. Sociology in this approach, then, is no longer the systematic, disciplined pursuit of the truth about human social life—and, sure, how we might influence it. Instead, sociology becomes merely a vehicle for enacting a particular moral and political vision.

Leftist scholar-activism also gets humans wrong. Sociology of this kind has utopian aspirations, buying fully into the idea that humans should be infinitely able to mold and reinvent ourselves—and our social order—at will. Ironically, an activist approach likely makes outsiders, including policy makers, take sociology less seriously, potentially undermining the very influence it seeks.

Contemporary sociology needs to find a better way.

A Better Way

Strict epistemic objectivity is impossible, and scholar-activism is undesirable. The better way for sociology to proceed is somewhere in between.

Even though objectivity in the strictest sense is impossible, it is still very possible to be fair-minded, measured, and methodologically rigorous. Most sociologists, I imagine, know this. It seems sometimes when scholars say “objective” what they actually mean is “fair-minded” and “methodologically rigorous.” In that case, the real issue is correcting how we talk.

Reining in scholar-activism still allows that sociology is always a normative and moral discipline. In other words, even when sociological scholarship isn’t activist in character, it is also never really “value-free.” Fact and value, “is” and “ought” in social research, are very often at least subtly linked together.

Sociology isn’t nothing but normativity. It is still in the business of measuring, describing, understanding, and causally explaining human social life as accurately as we can. But in the very process of describing and explaining, sociology is thoroughly shot through with normativity. Not just its basic categories and methods. Not just its public implications. Like everything human, the entire discipline is moral. The easy division of facts and values is too neat and tidy.

Just think about the descriptions sociologists use. Developed. Malnourished. Colonized. Overweight. Queer. Exhausted. Unequal. Disordered. Married. Are these adjectives descriptive or normative? A sociologist cannot do work on health, violence, pornography, or schools, for example, and not be subtly implicated in how morally fraught these issues are, even when trying to write about them “descriptively.” On a deeper level, descriptive facts about what human bodies, capacities, limitations, and personhood are like has direct implications for what is good for us as persons.

Sociologists can and should bear in mind that, over both short and long term, their work is aimed at promoting the common good and a decent, if not thriving, society. But scholar-activism is a further step in the wrong direction. The better way is to recognize that all sociology is inescapably normative, but that we ought to conduct ourselves and our research in a way that is measured, methodologically rigorous, and fair-minded.

Notice the ought to in the previous sentence. Even sociology’s commitment to scientific integrity is normative and moral. As Dr. Doug Porpora explains, “it is not neutrality that is to be demanded of competent scientific researchers, but intellectual honesty—the honesty to admit when their own expectations go unmet, the honesty to admit when rivals have the better argument.” In the final analysis, sociology is inescapably normative and moral for the same reason it is never quite strictly objective: sociology is not only a social science but also, more fundamentally, a human science.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!