I am sad to report that the number one search term leading people to my blog is “what fucking use is sociology”, followed closely by “fulbright alternate” and “wolfers”. For those of you looking for more information about being a Fulbright alternate, I can tell you what I know: it sucks. For those of you looking for more information about Wolfers, Pitseleh has some good links up.
However, I think I can address the question “What fucking use is sociology?” I’ll be taking a two-year break from my program while my girlfriend gets her Master’s, so I’ve thought a great deal about how to explain to employers what fucking use a sociologist is. This isn’t quite the same question, but close.
At the most basic level, sociology is useful for creating an empirical picture of what society really looks like. Without social scientists of various stripes, everything claimed about society would be based on pure anecdote or traditional stories. That would be a Bad Thing: even with social science, politicians and other assorted blowhards constantly bicker about what society is really like, which party has the real majority, etc. Several ongoing debates – immigration, the “war on the middle class”, outsourcing – would have radically different tones without social science informing them. Or they might not be debates at all (maybe not a bad thing in some cases – the only good Lou Dobbs is an unemployed Lou Dobbs).
Personally, sociology is also useful for understanding the forces that impact your life (as every intro text ever will tell you). A purely individualistic view puts all of your successes and failures completely on you and chance. It’s a lot easier to understand (and control) your life when you understand how social forces impact it. What opportunities do you have or lack because of your social origins? Why have you been stuck in the same position at work for five years while newer recruits have risen past you? Why did the plant close – and should you stick around town to face the aftermath?
All of which leads pretty directly into the applications of sociological research.* There’s a lot. A whole hell of a lot. Sociological studies (can) have a major influence on public policy, of course. The depopulation of rural communities and their corresponding grabs for any sort of economic development have been pretty symptomatic of what happens when sociological advice is ignored (i.e. prisons don’t make for good economic development or communities).
Then there’s the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System, employing anthropologists (okay, not sociologists, but bear with me) to figure out the intricacies of Iraqi society. It basically amounts to a weaponization of social science and would have been much more effective if it had been started, oh, ten years before our government started alienating anyone who spoke Arabic and had ties or knowledge of the Middle East – but damn, it sure would have been useful if our guys over there could have this kind of knowledge of Iraq’s cultures before they ever put boots in the sand.
But really, I think the only reason that questions like “What fucking use is sociology?” even come up is that we have a really, really hard time taking credit for everything that is, in fact, sociology, and an equally hard time claiming people who are doing sociological work. Naomi Klein is, evidently, an economist – as is this guy, even though he’s looking at weather prediction statistics. Lots of people who are not actually economists get called economists. But people who are doing sociological work – amazing sociological work (here, here and here) – don’t get called sociologists. Maybe we just don’t have the money or the public credibility to steal other fields’ luminaries.
It’s the science of human behavior, for chrissakes. What more do you want?
*I realize some of the things I said might conflict a bit with my angry ranting about what sociologists should and should not do; but let me clarify a bit. A friend of mine (a criminologist! I like crim folks! Really!) is preparing to teach a social problems class, and has been getting inundated with books. I have been skimming them out of curiosity, since I never took a social problems class. They suck. One of them has two articles from Wikipedia, for God’s sake. But worse than that is that many, many of them take an automatically progressive** stance on ANY social problem. They don’t talk about what gets defined as a social problem, how or by whom. They have a section detailing some research about this problem, and then some research into “solutions.” That’s what I hate – what you might call a lack of sociological self-awareness among sociologists. As Pitseleh mentioned in the comments to that post, it IS important that we demonstrate to students that societies can change – mostly because that’s part of understanding societies, but also because it probably is a bad idea to leave them in abject despair after your class. Nevertheless, I think it’s important not to paint grassroots organizations as good and corporations as evil – it’s not a sociological question. Both have been both, anyway.
**I’m a double-liberal, if you must know. Torn between my nanny-state progressive instincts and my soulless libertarian impulses.