Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998
Tam, T. (1998) 'The Industrial
Organization of Sociology'
Sociological Research Online, vol.
3, no. 1, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/3/1/4.html>
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The Future Of Sociology
- I have a few observations about the
present state of sociology and some proposals for the future of sociology. The
observations are based on my encounter with American sociology, though the
proposals may well be relevant to sociology in other countries.
- My starting point is that professional
sociologists are in the business of knowledge discovery, accumulation, and
dissemination. We are part of an industry of knowledge production. Unlike most other
industries, sociology is not driven by the profit motive. In fact, we are institutionally
shielded from the influences of the profit motive through, for instance, the nonprofit
status of the university. Not surprisingly, the industrial organization of sociology is
quite different from that of the consulting industry. This essay is not the place to
engage in any scholarly analysis. I will simply offer a few observations without any
attempt to justify their validity and generality. Suffice it to say that the observations are
quite consistent with those expressed in two recent publications on the discipline: (1)
Clemens et al. (1995) -- one of the Centennial Essays for the American Journal of
Sociology that offers an intriguing comparative analysis of book and journal
publishing in sociology and (2) the CS Symposium -- the January issue of
Contemporary Sociology (1998) presents an interesting symposium on the core
of the sociological project.
Careers In Print
- Publish or perish. This is the harsh
law of survival that we all have to conquer early in the sociological career. But there are
multiple pathways to making a career in print. Clemens et al. (1995) have presented
new evidence on how recognition is created by articles in elite journals and by books
nominated for the ASA Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award. They identified
two paths to status or fame: "articles may provide recognition by one's disciplinary
colleagues, while books offer the possibility of more universal academic renown" (pp.
482). We shall not ignore, however, the majority of publications: articles published in
non-elite journals that may be specialized and relevant to applied subfields, and books
that do not get nominated for a major award or are not published by a famous university
press. Some sociologists may earn substantial recognition and support from
government agencies or a sizable audience because of, for instance, a long series of
informative articles published in non-elite journals. But they may not enjoy much
recognition from the discipline or other disciplines. Thus we do not only have articles
versus books, but also elite journals versus non-elite journals, well-recognized
university publishers versus other publishers.
- I am sure this diversity of scholarship
is good for the discipline. Nevertheless, I am worried about the way in which
recognition and status is differentially distributed across scholarly styles and genres.
Yet scholarly status should depend mainly, if not solely, on the contribution of a
sociologist to advance knowledge by extending our scope (efficiently generating
important knowledge) or depth (rigorously solving difficult problems) of
understanding. All scholarly styles and genres should be able to achieve high scholarly
status. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.
- For instance, sociologists working on
certain areas may tend to publish articles in specialized journals where screening is
weak and the demand for a definitive treatment of a topic is low. As a consequence,
these scholars are able to publish many short articles efficiently. The quality of articles
published in non-elite journals may be quite high. In fact, the best articles from some
of the major subfields (such as aging and medical sociology) tend to be published in
specialized journals whereas articles from some small subfields, such as mobility table
analysis, are disproportionately represented in the elite journals.
- Proposal: For illustration
and the sake of debate, I propose the formation of two kinds of elite journals that
publish articles from all subfields with the entire discipline as the intended audience.
First, we need journals that rigorously screen and publish articles devoted to addressing
difficult issues that demand theoretical or empirical breakthroughs. These articles
usually contain comprehensive, innovative, and penetrating analysis of important
debates. But normal science mostly consists of cumulative small steps that may not
settle any debate but do report new and potentially useful facts. Such small steps
usually correspond to short articles that focus on fact finding rather than theory testing.
So, second, we also need journals that rigorously screen and publish short articles.
These articles should contain an extended and well-crafted summary intended for the
general public. I call the first and second types of journals the D-type and C-type
journals -- D as in diamond and C as in carbon. C-type articles are the building blocks
for future D-type articles, just as carbon atoms are the building blocks for the
glamorous diamond. Both types of journals should enforce the same high standard of
scholarship but specialize in publishing different genres of articles. D-type scholarship
is recognized for depth while C-type scholarship is recognized for scope. Either type of
scholarship should be able to bring equally high recognition. It would be really
unfortunate if the discipline somehow downplays the demand for rigorous scholarship
in, or withholds recognition from, short articles devoted to fact finding.
- Clemens et al. found that the best
sociological books tend to garner less disciplinary recognition than do elite journal
articles. I would have thought that the book format is best suited to produce significant
advancement of knowledge, both in scope and in depth, and so would be more likely
than the article format to produce high recognition among disciplinary colleagues. For
my purposes, I am willing to assume that the finding is true and is not due to any
sampling error or design problem in the study. I can think of a proximate and a distant
cause for this finding.
- The proximate cause is probably the
different screening mechanisms for journal articles and books. Whereas the screening
for journal articles is consisted of rigorous peer reviews that take place before an article
is in print, the screening for books mostly depends on the judgment of editors on the
marketability of the topic of a book and a much less rigorous refereeing process. For
articles, rigorous gatekeeping precedes publication. For books, scholarly gatekeeping
starts mostly after publication. This difference alone is sufficient to result in a dilution
effect that renders the average scholarly quality of the best books to be lower than the
average scholarly quality of articles from the elite journals.
- A distant cause of the phenomenon is
the different economics for journal and book publishing. The quality of all articles
published in a journal affects the marketability of the journal. The economic payoff
hinges on the cumulative quality of published articles. The most important impact of
this cumulative effect is the potential of serious negative externality -- the destruction of
reputation by a single substandard article. It therefore makes business sense to maintain
the quality of all articles. By contrast, the economic payoffs of the books published by
a publisher may vary wildly. Given the substantially higher costs and efforts required
to screen books, it probably makes business sense to skimp on pre-publication
screening. Thus I hope that the sociological community will take the initiative to
counter some of economic forces and produce a system of strong pre-publication
screening for all genres and scholarly styles. This may require the leadership of major
sociological associations. It will take much more than the establishment of awards for
- Proposal: I look forward to
seeing an experimental program of book publishing. The program should mirror the
operation of an elite journal in the periodic election of a distinguished editorial board.
The board should identify high quality referees for timely double-blinded reviews for a
manuscript (possibly charging a substantial processing fee) and synthesize the referee
reports to reach a scholarly judgment on the merits of the manuscript. Since this
experiment may not make business sense, at least for the beginning, I expect that it
would require the official sponsorship of a major sociological association. Once the
tradition is established and the technical glitches worked out, I expect the program to be
self-sustaining because there will always be aspiring authors who strongly desire the
recognition that will be endowed upon books that can survive the screening process.
Hopefully, the success of the experimental program will stimulate the formation of
similar programs by other publishers. I do not expect, however, that this kind of
programs will displace any, let alone most, of the existing paths to book publishing.
Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998
- The 1990s is a decade in which
sociology has been under enormous pressure from inside and outside the university.
Most contributors to the 1998 CS symposium emphasize in one way or another the dual
calling of sociology: to practice science and activism, or to combine the positive model
and the reflexive model of science. Instead of the profit motive, sociology is driven by
the dual commitment to the discipline of scientific inquiry and the relevance of the
inquiry for society. The consensus is no longer clear when it comes down to such
questions as the following: What does sociology do as a professional discipline? What
makes our work distinct from other social sciences? What justifies our request for
increasing financial support from the society and, perhaps, university administrations?
- Does sociology have a distinct
analytic and explanatory approach? I do not think so, even though sociology can claim
credit for a distinguished collection of writings, empirical findings, and theoretical
explanations for a wide range of social phenomena. But what we studied (such as
organizations, capitalism, the division of labor, and revolution) are not exclusively
sociological phenomena. I am well aware of the fact that most sociologists think that
sociology offers a distinctive sociological approach to analyzing and explaining social
phenomena. I just do not find the rationales convincing. Most important, I do not find
it fruitful to debate whether an explanation is sociological, economic, or something else.
Whether Karl Marx was an economist or sociologist by training or by institutional
affiliation, his theory and subject matters are surely relevant to the interests of
sociologists. Whether his theory of capitalist development is an economic or
sociological theory is beyond the question. By the same token, whether all sociological
theories may be rephrased in terms of an analytic framework from another discipline is
beside the point.
- What sets sociology apart from other
social sciences is the subject matter rather than the corpus of theories. This was the
way the disciplines of social sciences originally came into being. It should continue this
way. Subject matter is not a source of the identity problem that has plagued sociology.
Political science, for instance, is a discipline defined by subject matter rather than
theory. It has shared with economics, sociology, and even psychology some common
interests for decades and it readily draws upon theories that may be originally developed
in other disciplines. But political science has never faced any disciplinary crisis or any
difficulties in recruiting students. The substantive scope of sociology is an asset, not a
- Many sociologists have called for a
tight engagement between sociology as a science and sociology as activism.
Throughout its history, sociology has never existed in a social vacuum. Pressing social
issues have persistently been a fertile ground for research problems. Whether we are
proactive or reactive, we have mobilized our social science training to study phenomena
of great policy concerns (such as the effectiveness of public schools in the U.S.), to
examine and test the validity of policy assumptions (such as welfare dependency), to
adjudicate among different explanations or interpretations of a phenomenon (such as
single motherhood). Important social issues have a natural way of getting our attention.
If science should be informed by activism, sociology surely has done it well.
Nonetheless, we may have to rethink the allocation of talent, resources, and status
within sociology. Does the allocation well reflect the significance that should be
granted to the rigorous study of major social issues?
- Bringing science closer to society is a
fruitful way to build our identity. This sort of engagement will be crucial for the
justification of support for the discipline. If we cannot bring our best scholarship to
bear on the most significant social issues, there is little justification to do anything else.
The sociological community should strongly promote efforts that bring sociology as a
science to bear on important social issues. I like to hear what other colleagues think
about the possibility and potential problems of establishing additional institutional
mechanisms to encourage attention to, and focus more resources on, the study of
socially pressing issues.
- The engagement of science and
activism is not free of dangers. When bringing science to bear on social action, we are
vulnerable to letting activist goals, commitments, and convictions to get in the way of
scholarly analysis and interpretations. The discipline of scientific inquiry, what some
would call the positive model of science, has to be one of the defining characteristics of
sociology. Without the scientific discipline of logical and empirical adequacy,
sociological articles will be no better than journalistic essays, sociologists are no more
useful than are smart observers of social reality.
- Rigorously studying important social
issues is not the only way to build support for sociology. Professional identity and
status may also be established through exclusion and segregation. For instance, one
may build an elaborate set of sociological terminology that is hard for nonsociologists to
acquire and understand. Such a device may give the appearance that sociological
theories and explanations are deep and exotic, and can keep a potential skeptic at bay by
raising the costs required for the skeptic to engage in a debate. While this defense may
work to deter challenges, it may not be smart because it could easily backfire. Such
segregation by language will kill the very source of life for the intellectual enterprise. I
hope sociologists will avoid this way of building sociology at all cost.
- Proposal: All things
considered, I propose that we should avoid spending time on (a) the definition of the
boundaries of sociological theories or (b) the use of exotic terms and obscure concepts
to present sociological work. To the extent that a central mission of sociology as a
science is to inform social action, it is imperative that the sociological community will
reward the use of plain language in scholarly publication as much as we reward
innovative methods, emphasize research on salient social issues as much as we
emphasize high quality scholarship. In this regard, the labor studies program of the
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER is an American nonprofit, nonpartisan
research organization) may be a nice role model. The program constantly identifies
strategic research topics that are of immediate policy concerns, mobilizes and
coordinates comprehensive team effort to study the topics, sponsors data or
methodological developments necessary to achieve breakthroughs in the study of
difficult problems, hosts conferences to present the findings and helps relay the latest
results to the general public. I regard it a major success story of semi-organized