Commentaries
Confessions of an Iconoclastic Sociologist

The overwhelming liberalism of sociology professors stunts debate and turns away good students.

By J. Scott Lewis

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September 25, 2013

I confess! I am an atypical sociologist—an iconoclast. I fail miserably to toe the party line, and have suffered for it. It has made finding work difficult; and made gaining respect among other sociologists even harder.

I am a libertarian sociologist! Where most sociologists see the misery of the world and blame capitalism, I see the benefits that capitalism has brought to the world. Where they criticize, I celebrate. This has led to a clash of values that puts me in the crosshairs of the discipline’s most established ideologues.

My views have been shaped by years of working as a welfare eligibility specialist, as well as by reading many of the classic economic works. My training as a biosociologist has led me to pursue many avenues of research that lends itself inevitably to a conservative interpretation.

For example, despite the prevailing commitment to equality that permeates mainstream social sciences, biosociology demonstrates that stratification is a natural and integral part of social organization. Unfortunately, mainstream sociology would never let that fact—or any other fact for that matter—stand in the way of its grand narrative that equality is both socially desirable and achievable.

In several writings, Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, made it clear that while sociology can address questions of method, it cannot address questions of value. In other words, while sociology is useful as a tool to help build a good society, it is incapable of determining what a good society is.

That sentiment has been lost to most modern sociologists. Instead of a candid debate about what a good and just society should look like, sociologists assume that the debate is over and focus almost universally on pushing their liberal agenda to students, the general public, government, and even other faculty. In short, they assume that a bigger and more powerful government is the only effective way to address social ills.

My experiences as a libertarian sociologist bear witness to the degree to which sociology as a discipline will fight to suppress any hint of dissention. With the power of a groupthink mentality, sociology and its self-appointed mind guards act with celerity to ensure that dissenters are marginalized.

My first encounter with this mentality occurred within the first weeks of graduate school. As a former welfare eligibility specialist, I dared to challenge my professor on several blatantly incorrect statements about the American welfare system. Rather than concede that she was perhaps misinformed, she simply accused me of being a racist and of hating the poor. Another instructor told a class full of my peers that I was not a true sociologist since I did not accept the veracity of Marx’ criticisms of capitalism as supported by historical evidence.

Despite the frequent and nearly unrelenting faculty hostility, I made it through graduate school. Although my dissertation was controversial, it was read by so few people that is failed to stir anything more than a passing glance. The threat to my academic freedom did not stop there, however. The chair of my first academic position at a small, Midwestern liberal arts college accused me of being “cognitively rigid,” a term that she applied because I refused to agree with her liberal view on the reasons for the gender wage gap. That was quite an intimidating label to place on a young, untenured faculty member trying to find a place in a small department.

That labeling was key in my decision to leave that post in favor of a position that is more tolerant of my iconoclastic views. The overt disdain for my approach to sociology and the world at large was manifest in that one claim. I became an object of ridicule because of what I believed.

Despite a generally more tolerant attitude at my current post at Penn State-Harrisburg, my views have still variously been referred to as misguided and even delusional by some of my closest colleagues. But when I argue with them, the strength of the evidence for my position does not matter. The absence of evidence for their view is irrelevant. That the views of the other faculty were in the majority, and were assumed to be correct were all that mattered in such assessments.

Of course, the mind-guards do not limit their assault to graduate students or other faculty. The indoctrination begins much earlier. One undergraduate, who was clearly very intelligent, had not said a single word in a class I was teaching. When I approached him after class about his conspicuous silence, he confessed that in a previous sociology class, he had been belittled by the professor for his conservative views. Keeping silent kept him out of trouble.

The assault on students is, I believe, the more egregious problem.

Despite a general increase in the number of sociology undergraduate majors nationwide, many smaller departments are struggling to compete with more robust majors. What is odd is that given the dominant value of inclusiveness, faculty members who are best equipped to attract students in the major often alienate them instead. The brightest students seek knowledge and wisdom, and shy away from being preached at by a priesthood of liberal sociologists.

Rather than embracing libertarian values that could strengthen the discipline, the self-appointed mind-guards systematically frustrate any attempt to vary the narrative that sociology has developed. By keeping dissent from the classroom, good ideas are censored and good students are kept out of the major. The inclusiveness that is valued extends only to those who do not deviate from the orthodoxy. That does not make for a healthy discipline.

In sociology today, the debate about what constitutes a good society is over before it begins. For example, as already noted, the commitment to equality is more assumptive than real, both in theory and in practice. Additionally, many of the assumptions about the benefits of socialism resist all attempts to present evidence to the contrary.

Still, I believe that there is cause for hope for a healthier and more evidentiary sociology.

A handful of sociologists remain true to Weber’s vision for the discipline: one that recognizes the necessity of value neutrality in academic inquiry. By reaching a few students, by drawing them into the foray and encouraging dissent, sociologists who work in that tradition can crack the walls of the ivory tower.

While Weber’s axiom is consistently violated by sociologists today, there is still hope for constructive contributions from sociology. It may be futile to attempt to overturn sociology’s prevailing vision of what constitutes a good society, but we dissenters can still force debate on the best ways to accomplish that vision. Instead of arguing over the desirability of such values of equality of opportunity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, we should make the issue how best to realize those values.  

If we can do that, the evidence favors conservative and libertarian approaches. Unfortunately, those approaches have been declared out of bounds. That is what must change.

Iconoclastic sociologists and their iconoclastic students who challenge the dominant paradigm are the hope for sociology. This hope is defined, not by any particular political or social world view, but rather by an evidence-based assessment rooted in Weber’s words of wisdom.

Only by placing aside our preconceived conceits and returning to the value neutrality that Weber advocated can we build the discipline.

 


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