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by Peter Moskos

June 23, 2009

The state of sociology

I'm sure that just like me, you all are browsing the latest issue of Sociological Forum, the quarterly publication of the Eastern Sociological Society.

Hmmm, here's an article called "Anomie Among European Adolescents: Conceptual and Empirical Clarification of a Multilevel Sociological Concept." The "results lend strong support to the theoretical construct of anomie as exteriority and constraint."

O-kay... I'll think I'll skip that one. Actually, I usually skip most of the articles in sociology journals. So does the rest of the world.

But in this issues there's a series of short pieces relating to Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader For a Day, probably the best selling sociology book in decades. But Venkatesh has gotten some flack from the Ivory Tower because the book exposes weaknesses in ethnographic methodology and is, well, a memoir.

I've mentioned Venkatesh a fair amount about on this blog because our research and writing has a fair amount in common (not in sales, alas). I think we need more intellectuals like Venkatesh.

The point of writing is to be read (though Venkatesh points out that 90% of those interviewing him about his book haven't read his book). The point of sociology is to understand (and hopefully improve) the world around us. Venkatesh succeeds because he is interesting, insightful, and writes in a language we can all understand. There's no crime in that.

In the Gang Leader exchange in Sociological Forum, one author asks, "What does America want of sociology?" Venkatesh answers quite frankly: "I don't think America cares about sociology. And, unless we change our conventions, our writing, and our relationship to the public, I'm not sure they should."

I wonder what the fancy sociological term is for, "Oh, snap!"


Anonymous said...


Is there really any point in studying sociology as a major if a young person is only going to pursue an undergraduate, and not use the degree to gain admittance to law school or other graduate programs?

What advice would you give a young person considering this as a major?

When you were an undergrad and you told people of your major did you get the following reaction: "Sociology! What are you going to do with that?!

I'm not trying to be jerk here, but is an undergraduate degree in sociology really a "useless" degree?

Marc S. said...

Most undergraduate degrees aside from engineering or nursing are useless degrees nowadays. I've seriously seen job listings on craigslist for dog walkers that wanted a bachelors.

It's just a piece of paper to show to prospective employers that lets them know you finish what you start and probably have at least a passing grasp of the English language.

tim said...

Autoethnography as a form of inquiry allows for greater narrative truth AND is more accessible to the public? No way!

Admittedly, choosing South Florida as my doctoral program has insulated me somewhat from an academia that is apparently further behind the times than I was aware.

PCM said...

I think studying sociology as an undergraduate is a great idea because sociology is interesting. Especially as an undergraduate.

It's only when you get to grad school that the discipline pulls a bait-and-switch on you and turns out to be all about statistical regressions and dry journal articles.

Sociology is also a very broad field in that it can cover everything from economics to psychology to anthropology. That's great if you don't have a firm idea of what you want to study.

And hell, I was in my second year of grad school before I figured out what I wanted to study.

Is the degree "useless"? Well, only in the sense that all liberal arts degrees can be considered such. But I don't think so. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe in the power of eduction to simply make you smarter and thus be a better man or woman.

Steve said...

Sociology is a wonderful study but you must learn a hard skill along with it. Employers want to know what you can do for them and the soc degree is a hard sell.

Business majors study applied courses like accounting, marketing, sales management, communication, forecasting--all of these show how to do something. Sociology skills aren't as easily tied to something concrete: motivation, government, social problems, empowerment, group behavior, macro structures, mezzo structures, counseling, research. Nobody cares that you know all that until you can do something. Without a hard skill, new soc graduates are endlessly applying for jobs wondering why they just can't get in.

Once you have a set of hard skills, a soc degree is a step few people have. I earn management promotions every time I start with a new company. I can analyze a corporate structure and write status reports that MBA's cant even consider because I know all of that social theory. However, without the hard skils, the theory alone is useless. One must learn how to do something along with the theory.

Psychology brings the same crisis. If you choose one of these majors in your undergrad, take a hard skill with it. Don't repeat your graduate study with a program focused on theory.