Sunday, December 13, 2009

Abandoned Sociology

Today I re-read an article from 1994 in the Sociological Forum by James A Davis, who for many years taught at the Harvard sociology department. What intrigued me most about this article is that Davis thinks that sociologists are often very good at coming up with original ideas and then dropping them. Some of his examples of abandoned sociology:

(1) Occupational prestige: According to Davis, occupational prestige ratings are "remarkably robust" and constitute "the only sociological finding one can try on a class knowing it will work and knowing they will not say they knew it already" (180). More studies could examine the causes and consequences of occupational prestige, as well as investigate prestige scales for other categories (e.g., schools, countries, parties, and so on).

(2) Union Democracy: Lipset, Trow, and Coleman's (1956) classic study of the International Typographical Union showed that, contra Robert Michels' "iron law of oligarchy," the large union governed itself through democratic means. Davis wonders why more sociological studies haven't developed basic principles for the factors underlying democratic forms of governance in various types of organizations.

(3) Authoritarianism: The idea of the "authoritarian personality" dominated research in public opinion and sociology, but then disappeared (according to Davis), despite the fact that measures capturing authoritarianism were highly predictive of views on free speech and other attitudinal variables. Davis concludes: "Does personality have a big influence on social attitudes? We'll probably never know since we lost interest in the question (181)."

Are these ideas uncovered by sociology still abandoned 15 years after Davis' article was first published? While not as dominant as before in sociology, many researchers are still exploring these ideas. For example, regarding prestige, in the past several years scholars have examined various topics, including diseases (myocardial infarction is the most prestigious, anxiety neurosis the least so),  women in occupations (occupations with a balanced proportion of men and women are the most prestigious), and prestige in firms (young firms benefit from prestigious affiliations). Similarly, researchers have resurrected work on authoritarian personality (see, for instance, research by the social psychologist John T. Jost) as well as democratic forms of organization (see, for example, research by Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright on "Real Utopias"). Thus, although sociologists have shared these recent extensions of sociological findings with other researchers, it is fair to say they have not been entirely abandoned.