Sociology Needs More Diversity – Intellectual Diversity, That Is

“Diversity” is the new slogan under which academics and their institutions march. But what is it?  What does it mean? How will we know when we have achieved a sufficient amount? 

In my discipline, sociology, “diversity” can refer to almost anything other than white males, and may even include white males if they can lay claim to some form of victim status (e.g., are LGBT, “differently abled,” vegan, or depart from the mainstream in some other identifiable way).

Significantly, however, “diversity” does not seem to include political diversity.

Sociology departments would actively recruit an LGBT candidate for an opening, with something close to 100 percent consensus that this would fill a departmental need. But actively recruit a Republican, a conservative, or a born-again Christian Fundamentalist? Not a chance.

A proposal to do so would be laughed out the door because, for the most part, sociologists have decided that such people have no ideas worth serious consideration.

It comes as no surprise that most sociologists (indeed, most social scientists) are well left of center in their political thinking. Certainly, I am. Indeed, the political center of gravity in the discipline is now found somewhere in the ideological space between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and stretches out to the left as far as Karl Marx.

Indeed, Marx is still taught in graduate theory courses as a classical social theorist, but Herbert Spencer or William Graham Sumner or E.A. Ross and other critics of state power are largely forgotten. These days, students have never even heard of Roberto Michels and the Iron Law of Oligarchy because it denies the very possibility of grass roots, democratic, progressive social movements.

Spencer was a proponent of what today would be called evolutionary sociology and his ideas about society as a “social organism” were important precursors to structural functionalism. 

Sumner taught the first course ever offered in America on “sociology” (at Yale, in 1876). His research on folkways convinced him that government-mandated social reforms were useless and ineffective.

Ross was a prominent figure in early American sociology, an important precursor to contemporary efforts to marry sociological and biological thinking.

All of those ideas run very much against the political grain of most modern sociologists and so they have been effectively expunged from the classical canon. Meanwhile, Karl Marx continues to be revered as an essential social thinker.

The quest for “diversity” has become bound up tightly with contemporary identity politics and identity politics have in turn become the third rail of modern university discourse. In that discourse, it is an article of near-religious faith, for example, that any unfortunate condition that can be observed among the African American or Hispanic population is the result of racism and a social structure designed to exclude racial minorities from positions of affluence, influence and power.

Similarly, all women’s problems must be attributed to an oppressive patriarchal culture. 

To suggest that blacks or women (or obese people or victims of violence or any other favorite victim of the day) are in any way or sense at least partly responsible for the conditions in which they find themselves has become sociological heresy—words not to be spoken in the polite company of fellow believers. Ever since William Ryan’s 1971 book Blaming the Victim, holding anyone who could claim victimhood status accountable in any way for any aspect of their victimized condition has been a serious scholarly no-no.

I edited the scholarly journal Social Science Research for 36 years. A pair of papers we published in the last few years shows how badly sociology has fallen into a one-party mindset.

In 2010, I published a paper by Darren Sherkat, “Religion and Verbal Ability,” arguing, with a mass of supporting data, that Christian Fundamentalists scored more poorly than others on verbal ability testing. Since verbal ability is often taken as a marker for intelligence, the implication of Sherkat’s finding was that Christian Fundamentalists are relatively stupid.

Not one word of protest over this scurrilous conclusion was ever voiced, at least not to me, even though there are a lot of Christians and Fundamentalists “out there” who might well have taken offense. Christian Fundamentalists simply do not comprise a legitimate identity grouping in the minds of the American professoriate, so you can say pretty much anything you want about them and no sociologist will bother to question your research.

Two years later, I also published a paper, “How Different are the Adult Children of Parents who have Same-Sex Relationships?” by Mark Regnerus. It argued, again with supporting evidence, that children raised by same-sex couples suffer various penalties later in life.

At the time, there was a firmly held consensus of opinion within sociology that there were no differences of significance between same-sex and conventional marriages—a consensus that hung by a very thin empirical thread. Here was a paper whose findings challenged that consensus. Vicious ad hominem excoriation was the result.

The Regnerus paper ignited a year-long howl of protestation, enraged emails by the hundreds, demands that the paper be retracted, FOIA demands that I release all the (confidential) email correspondences between me and the paper’s referees, demands that the identities of the referees be made public, petitions denouncing my duplicity in publishing the paper (signed, incidentally, by the then-current and immediate past Presidents of the American Sociological Association), and ultimately a series of court appearances where I had to defend the importance of anonymous and confidential peer review in the overall scientific process.

Why the difference? Christian Fundamentalists, who by some accounts make up a third of the U.S. population, do not possess a legitimated identity—they lay no claim to victimhood—so they can be derogated without reprisal. Gay people, in contrast, are probably today’s most legitimated victims within sociology. As legitimated victims, they can only by referred to by sociologists in politically correct ways. 

Here is another illustration of the way sociology has blinded itself.

Within sociology, there is a minor industry based on the proposition that violence against women is unique, entirely different than violence against men, and that domestic or intimate partner violence is all about men’s “power and control” over women. So unique, so different, is violence against women that my department now awards a Ph.D. in domestic violence studies.

In 2002, the criminologist Richard Felson published a massive review of the research literature on violence and gender. It systematically dismantled virtually the entire violence against women narrative. Felson found that violence against women is rarely the result of sexism or misogyny. The motives for violence against women—to control, to achieve retribution, to defend self-image—are the same as the motives for violence against men.

I was so taken with the breadth and analytic depth of Felson’s arguments that I assigned the book as required reading in a course on Social Research and Social Policy.

My feminist colleagues were aghast—they were unsure that students should even be allowed to read this heresy, much less be required to do so.

Much the same reaction ensued when I also assigned Linda Waite’s The Case for Marriage. I was assured that both volumes had been thoroughly discredited, although I have yet to come across a negative review of either that, in my opinion, rises above diatribe.

The point of these examples is to show how ideological beliefs sometimes, indeed rather often, trump empirical data and research. If you believe as a matter of ideological commitment that marriage is a “prison for women,” or that violence against them is the result of a patriarchal and misogynistic society, all contrary evidence somehow must be wrong.

It seems to me that as a discipline, we sociologists have lost sight of the difference between hypotheses to be researched and conclusions to be defended. We tend to confuse identity politics with social theory, and mistake partisan advocacy for serious scientific analysis.

In his book The Decomposition of Sociology, Irving Louis Horowitz argued that sociology has lost the ability to distinguish between correct theory and mere ideology and that we have become “an ideological outpost of political extremism.” There are slivers of evidence to suggest that he may be wrong, but an imposing mountain of evidence to suggest he is right.