Yesterday, a philosopher friend (h/t JN) forwarded this essay about the end of Oprah’s tenure, written by a sociologist. On the heels of reading the essay, I worked my way down my RSS feed and spent an hour catching up on the kerfuffle over at Scatterplot, initiated there by a post about the brief our disciplinary association wrote about the Wal-Mart case. The discussion thread has been closed, although I believe we need to continue to discuss the issues raised:
- What is the proper role of our disciplinary association in the public sphere? Particularly, what should be the scope of our interventions into political and legal disputes and what process should be undertaken to formulate those interventions?
- What counts as sociological evidence, and what methods are we willing to condone for what purposes? Particularly, what does “causation” mean, and how can we measure it?
- Is our discipline healthy? Is our main membership organization healthy? If we are sick, what are the causes and possible solutions?
- What is the role of the socblogsphere in the everyday life of the sociologist, and is this changing? Are the soc blogs undermining or reinforcing the legitimacy of status quo power relations in the discipline? What are the consequences of this?
The essay about the end of Oprah’s show raises (some of) these questions for me; questions reinforced by the dialogue over at Scatterplot (this order reflects my reading behavior, not their importance).
In the Oprah essay, the sociologist asks a totally unsociological question (“Is Oprah the greatest existentialist philosopher ever?”), provides unsociological evidence to bear on the question (personal opinion, presented in a hyperbolic fashion…to wit: “The breadth of Oprah’s personal talent and the scope of her intellectual reach enlist us to ferret the deep-seated metaphor lurking at the surface of our core being.”), and uses no theory or argument that I recognize as disciplinary. [For example, there is plenty of fine work on causes for the rise of “self help” culture–including the Contexts essay published in the current edition (and edited by yours truly): “The Purchase of Enlightenment” by Sarah Knudson, to say nothing of the fine work by Laura Grindstaff and many others.]
As a sociologist who is reputed to specialize in popular culture (although I would not introduce myself as such), I feel this is a poor representation of how much light sociology can shine on phenomena like Oprah’s show and what it tells us about contemporary American culture. But I recognize the author has a right to be a sociologist in whatever way he sees fit, and I also know very little about his career aspirations, which are certainly an important element to consider in evaluating the content of his scholarship (or should I say, his exposition in writing). Finally, I guess I really don’t worry too much about those who would confuse his work and methods with my own–it is evident to me that we are aiming at different targets, and I’m happy enough to let him fire away.
The same “live and let live” philosophy is not (as) possible when other sociologists are explicitly speaking on your behalf but without asking for your input on that specific speech. When the ASA Council (in consultation with hand-picked scholars) prepares and distributes a report, statement, etc. and signs o/b/o the sociologists within the Association, this has occurred. Such is certainly the case with the recent amicus brief in the Wal-Mart case
, and earlier Iraq war resolution (Update: Thanks to the sharp eyes and mind of Steve Morgan: we voted on the Iraq resolution.)
Those seeking to legitimate the ASA Council’s speech argue, in effect, that these are elected officers and in electing them we have delegated to them the right to speak on our behalf. But it is also true that we in the electorate have the right–nay, the responsibility–to provide information to them about our opinions.
Ideally, there would be systematic ways in which elected leaders solicited information about these opinions in order to better represent those who elected them. (If they were tasked with representing their own opinions, I would think those candidate statements would be polemical, and stipulate any range of political, ethical, religious, and sociological commitments the electorate would expect them to pursue during their tenure.) In my opinion, the ASA Council has not provided effective means to gather opinion–on issues of general interest (e.g., nos. 1 and 2, above), or on specific issues (e.g., the amicus brief). I am extremely disappointed by this. Instead, I keep hearing news that our leadership is passing malicious gossip and half-truths about the sociologists seeking to participate in professional, public deliberation around issues they have every right–nay, responsibility–to discuss. If these reports are true, this behavior is grossly unprofessional and just…well…mean.
Resourceful as we are, some sociologists have turned to the socblogosphere to discuss and debate. Some fear this will rock the boat–undermine the legitimacy of status quo power relations in the discipline (see no. 4, above)–while I am hopeful that it will. This is because I am of the opinion that a “healthy discipline” is both boring and dead. As Thomas Kuhn and others argue, “disciplines” rely on settled knowledge, established and resilient hierarchies, and they reinforce power disparities. I’m not invested in such a thing as this. I’d like a little disorder in my sociology–some vibrancy, dispute, and a constant circulation of new blood through the halls of power. I’m hopeful that the real soc blogs (that is, not WITW, which is mostly cat videos and snark) will commit themselves to creating a little disorder.