Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


The Decomposition of Sociology

by Max Travers
Buckinghamshire University College

Irving Louis Horowitz (1995) The Decomposition of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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The state of sociology as an academic discipline, at a time when student numbers are falling or stagnating, and outsiders rudely question its relevance to current social problems, continues to generate discussion and debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Some contributors, like Anthony Giddens (1995, 1996), have argued that complaints about decline have been exaggerated, or that the closure of departments, and withdrawal of state funding, is 'mainly an American problem' (Bauman, 1997). Others have suggested that the discipline is in need of theoretical renewal (Lemert, 1995; Holmwood, 1996), although opinions differ widely on the causes of the problem, and how sociology can again become a vigorous and dynamic force in cultural and intellectual life.

One of the more forceful, and interesting, contributions to this literature in recent years has been Irving Louis Horowitz's The Decomposition of Sociology, which deserves to be widely read by British, as well as American sociologists. I will also discuss a wider range of literature, including a special issue (1994) of Sociological Forum, the journal of the American Eastern Sociological Society, entitled 'What's Wrong with Sociology?'.

Before considering the contents of Horowitz's book, it is necessary to say something on how it is written, given that one reviewer has already described the first half as 'an un-unified,intemperate, accusatory diatribe' (Goldman, 1994: p. 341). Any sociologist who is tempted to react in this way, should, however, remember that Horowitz is part of the proud, muck-raking tradition of American pragmatism, which includes William James, Thornsten Veblen, C.Wright Mills and Alvin Gouldner (see Eldridge, 1983); the book is intended to give sociology a good shaking, as well as to reach out to wider liberal publics in American society.

If you feel Horowitz is ill-mannered and unprofessional in his generalised comments about tendencies he dislikes in the contemporary academy, try reading Mills or Gouldner on the moral failings of establishment sociologists in the 1950s and 60s, who direct their fire at individuals (most famously, Mills' critique of Parsons), as well as schools. You might also wish to read Max Weber (introduced to America in unadulterated form by Mills), who, in essays like 'Science as a Vocation' and 'Politics as a Vocation' advances a critique of the intellectual far-left of his own day, which has a lot in common with Horowitz in terms of content, but is far more savage and direct.

Placed in this context, complaints about Horowitz's style of writing considerably miss the mark. This is a good book precisely because it fails to conform to the standards of objectivity and fair-mindedness laid down by the American Sociological Association. If one ignores the polemical content, it also exemplifies a style of essay writing which is virtually extinct on this side of the Atlantic, but is particularly good for generating ideas, and making these accessible to a wider audience.

Horowitz's main complaint about American sociology is that it has become the creature of ideologues on the far left. These include proponents of 'Marxism-Leninism' (who, according to Horowitz, still have a dominant role in the academy), as well as of new social movements based on 'single variables' such as gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality. On this reading, 'sociology has largely become a repository of discontent', and one consequence has been the departure of scholars interested in empirical work, who have contributed to the rapid expansion of applied policy disciplines such as demography, urban studies, social planning, criminology, penology, and international development (p. 13). However, even in these areas, sociologists have, at best a marginal role, and find themselves 'eclipsed by the expertise of police officers, legal and paralegal personnel, and so on' (p. 13). The result, according to Horowitz, is that 'we live in a period when the false option of crude empiricism competes with varieties of abstracted grand theory for the souls of disciplines already emptied of human content' (p. 14). This is, of course, Mills adapted for the 1990s, with critical theory having replaced Parsons as the main polemical target.

Horowitz is, perhaps, at his most interesting in talking about the intellectual fall-out of 1989, in that he suggests, in his third chapter, 'Sociology and Subjectivity', that epistemological relativism has always been generated by groups on the far-left, and that there tends to be an explosion of subjectivism, whenever radical movements fail to take hold in wider society (p. 43). In his words, 'the old Marxists could say with pride that subjectivism was the last refuge of bourgeios philosophers who could not face the truth of the dying of the capitalist light; but such intellectual hubris was denied to radical sociologists who could not face the facts of a communist blight' (p. 48). This provides a simple sociological explanation for current trends in the academy, but rests upon a contentious empirical claim: that there is a connection between post-structuralism, post-modernism and a 'failed' generation of radical academics.

Interestingly, I feel Horowitz was on stronger ground in a prediction he made in his 1968 collection of essays Professing Sociology that sociology only had a future 'to the extent that it helps in the betterment of the human condition'; if it failed to do so, and became 'unhinged and unrelated to human needs', its future would not be as a 'science', but as 'part of the world of esoterica' (Horowitz, 1968: p. 157). Given that no one any longer really believes in the Enlightenment view of sociology as a science (which would result in sociologists enjoying greater respect from the public, and more autonomy in their dealings with government departments), this seems a plausible view of what has happened to the discipline. Sociologists have either become abstracted empiricists serving the state in mindless fashion, or have retreated into a self-contained world, which has little, if any, connection with life outside the academy. This is a far cry from the independent, active political role envisaged for sociology as a science by Horowitz and others in the 1960s.

Part of the rhetorical force of Horowitz's book stems from the connection he makes between sociology as a discipline in intellectual decline, and the much talked about institutional crisis of American sociology, which is evident from falling enrolment figures in undergraduate degrees, and the threat of closure or cuts hanging over a number of departments. This is also the starting point for a collection of articles recently published as a special issue of Sociological Forum, the journal of the American Eastern Sociological society.

One interesting fact, which Seymour Lipset supplies, is that sociology students now get the second lowest scores in the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), an important indicator of achievement for American degrees, while the scores of other disciplines have not declined in the same way. In terms of enrolments, Horowitz cites a Newsweek survey which found that the number of undergraduate students had declined from a peak of 35,996 in 1973 to 14,393 in 1991. In Britain the position is somewhat better, but sociology now tends to have a service role on more popular degrees such as cultural studies and social policy. In my own institution, which is very much on the cutting edge of mass higher education, criminology has replaced sociology as a subject which attracts students, and those sociologists who have found a new professional identity as criminologists (see Rock, 1994) provide a living testament to one aspect of the decomposition of the discipline.

It is perhaps inevitable that, in explaining such statistics, all the contributors, most of whom belong to mainstream quantitative traditions in American sociology, employ a variant of variable analysis, without much explanation of the mechanism - whether causal or interpretive - connecting the variables. The most common view - which is shared by Stephen Cole, Randall Collins, James Davis, Seymour Lipset, James Rule, Ida and Richard Simpson, and Arthur Stinchcombe - is that the root of the problem lies in the disunity of sociology as a field of study. If only, one can hear these people mutter disconsolately, sociology was still a 'normal science'; whereas every attempt to re-establish it as such continues to be defeated by the bewildering variety of theoretical traditions in the discipline, which are underpinned by intractable meta-theoretical differences.

A good illustration of the problem can be found in an exchange between Randall Collins (1986; 1987) and Norman Denzin (1987) in the American Sociological Review in the late 1980s. Collins took as his starting point the fact that 'there is a rather widespread feeling that sociology in recent years has been in a depression' (Collins, 1986: p. 1336). Complaints came 'from many directions: that the field has grown repetitive, stagnant, fragmented; that it has lost its public impact or even its impulse to public action; that it lacks excitement; that it no longer gets good students or gets good ideas' (Collins, 1986: pp. 1336 - 55). In his view, doubts about the quality of recent work, or the intellectual prospects for the discipline were the result of an 'optical illusion' (Collins, 1986: p. 1354), partly caused by the institutional expansion since the 1960s which led to 'differentiation' into different sub-fields. These developed their own 'legitimating ideologies', and became prone to narrow particularistic studies, losing sight of how all fields were originally part of a cumulative scientific enterprise. Collins was particularly scathing about 'anti- positivism', which he saw as an ideology ideally suited to conditions of institutional fragmentation, and called upon interpretive sociologists - who, in his view, had run out of steam and 'seem to be merely repeating the same general points with different empirical content' (Collins, 1986: p. 1348) - to rejoin the scientific fold. Inevitably, this call for unity was not taken up; and indeed Denzin (1987) responded by suggesting that it was positivism which had run out of steam, and that there was no future for sociology as a normal science. Almost ten years on Collins has a similar piece in this issue of Sociological Forum, and most of the contributors have a belief in building general theory, establishing causal relationships, and making cumulative findings, which place them in this particular sociological camp (see also the contributions in Hage, 1994).

My favourite article was the contribution by Lipset who supplies a semi-autobiographical history of American sociology, which shows how the discipline has always attracted liberals, and has been increasingly subject to politicisation, and internal struggles since the 1960s. We learn, for example, that Talcott Parsons had been an 'active student socialist as an undergraduate', and 'figures in an official history of the SLID - the Student League for Industrial Democracy - the predecessor organization to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) of the 1960s' (p. 201). Lazarsfeld (the other principal target of Mills' The Sociological Imagination), was apparently 'a life-long socialist or social democrat', and Merton 'belonged to the teachers' union' at Harvard, and 'was part of a left-wing faculty social network'(p. 203). In the 1960s, younger radicals in the New Left turned against what they perceived as the conservatism of the liberal establishment, and this partly fuelled a revolt against positivism. Since then, theoretical divisions have prevented the discipline from having a unified voice, and sociology has become increasingly politicised. Lipset suggests that the high level of 'intradepartment bickering over personnel matters', is one reason why sociology has suffered in the competition for funding at a time of cut-backs in higher education. However, he also notes that the discipline was always subject to internal divisions in earlier historical periods, and that sociologists have a reputation for falling out even when they share the same theoretical leanings. One example he gives is the allegedly poor relationship between Herbert Blumer and Everett Hughes in Chicago during the 1940s.

According to other contributors, the future for such a divided discipline is not good. Stinchcombe suggests, for example, that there is a historical law making it probable that sociology will not survive, unless it becomes more like natural science. Another single factor explanation is advanced by Ida and Richard Simpson who document how the American Sociological Association has grown in size during the post-war period, mainly due to the expansion of higher education, but that this has resulted in the association being diverted from its original mission of training graduate students to reproduce the discipline. They also measure what they term 'elite dilution' in the officers of the Association. One senses, here, that the real complaint is that the discipline has been taken over by arrivistes from what we in Britain would call the 'new universities' who do not know much sociology. This argument is also advanced by Horowitz, who is less reticent about the failings of the old guard to maintain standards (p. 17). I have heard similar sentiments expressed in Britain to the effect that the only people who now attend the annual conference of the British Sociological Association are either graduate students or feminists. Although this seems rather an unfair characterisation, it is surprising how few of our best-known sociologists, from any theoretical tradition, participate in this conference, which is regularly lampooned in the British quality press (see, for example, Morrison, 1995).

The odd one out in the collection is Harvey Molotch, who belongs to what might loosely be termed the anti-positivist wing of the discipline. Molotch's is a confused, but entertaining piece, which suggests, following Gouldner (1971), that sociologists do not 'go out' enough to experience different social worlds outside the comfortable surroundings of the academy. The real problem, in his view, is not, however, sociology, but American society which is individualistic, jingoistic and arrogant, and has 'little use for sociology' (p. 221). This is something of a mirror-image of Horowitz's complaint that sociology is out of step with America, and ends with a call for integrity, and simple language (with the implication that convoluted styles of radicalism are a response to a hostile cultural environment). One thing that Molotch fails to mention, however, is that the students we teach already expose us to new social worlds, and to different social and political values which we ignore at our peril. It is tempting to feel that some American universities have become ghettos for liberals, in which the arrogance of beleaguered academics matches that of conservatives in wider society.

The principal difference between Horowitz, and the majority of contributors to this issue of Sociological Forum is that, in his view, the politicisation of sociology has reduced the level of genuine theoretical and methodological debate, whereas they see this as the root of the discipline's institutional problems. He notes, for example, that 'theoretical differences are evaporating as gentle intimidation displaces intellectual inquiry, and the result is an advanced form of decay' (p. 17). This is again a reference to political correctness in the contemporary academy, but connects to a wider feeling that sociology has lost its way.

Given that this debate is conducted through indexicals, and, as Garfinkel once said of sociology, the objectivity of any characterisation can only be achieved through texts, it is difficult to resolve any of the issues raised by these authors. The value of this literature is that it allows one to make better sense of periodic calls for Britain's sociologists to become more relevant (for example, Travers, 1994, and Walker, 1995), as well as enabling an appreciation of the moral basis underlying sociology's claim for status and funding from wider society. For these authors, sociology is a science or it is nothing; and it is easy to see how this position can create difficulties for its proponents, given that much of the best sociological work is of no use to anybody, outside particular 'interpretive communities', who decide on what is, or is not, good sociological work (Fish, 1980).

One unsatisfying feature of this literature is that the analysis seldom moves beyond making a loose connection between variables. For something considerably stronger, I would recommend reading Alvin Gouldner's The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, which, while written in the late 1960s, is still highly relevant today. Gouldner, who was to the left of Horowitz politically, but equally influenced by C.Wright Mills, saw the fate of sociology in his own times as inextricably linked with the welfare state (which he saw as concerned with controlling and buying off the working class, while supporting imperialist adventures abroad). The crisis referred to the contradictions of functionalism as a dominant paradigm for the discipline, given that it had traditionally advocated a limited role for the state, along with the rise of new theories representing new classes and interests in a changing American society.

What Gouldner did not predict, but is now all too familiar, is that contradictions in the welfare state have had dire consequences for sociology. In Britain, the money available for research which does more than collect facts for the government has virtually dried up, along with the post- graduate studentships necessary to renew the discipline when the 1960s generation, many of whom are now in their fifties, retire during the next ten or fifteen years (Halsey, 1987). At the same time, higher education has massively expanded, with subjects like sociology leading the way. In America this all happened earlier, so that sociology now suffers in the contraction caused by cut-backs. In Britain, there has been an under-funded expansion, which, combined with the reduction in government funding, now makes it even more difficult to pursue research. The main culprit, however, is not the utilitarian bias of the Economic and Social Research Council, nor the left-wing bias of some British academics, nor the celebrated disunity of the discipline, nor even the alleged staleness and exhaustion of existing paradigms. More prosaically, as Giddens (1995) has observed, our problems stem from the reduction of the total funds available to support thinking and research, and the fact that deteriorating conditions (not least, the dramatic drop in salary levels relative to other jobs) have made lecturing unattractive as a career.

Whether or not one decries (Halsey, 1987), or welcomes (Payne et al, 1981) these developments will depend upon where one stands politically, and how one values academic writing of no apparent social utility, such as Weber's The Protestant Ethic, Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Garfinkel's Studies in Ethnomethodology, or, perhaps more controversially, Parsons' The Social System. To my mind, the cultural value of such works is self-evident, and does not involve having to claim that sociology deserves funding because it is a science, can solve social problems, or perform a useful role mediating between different groups in a 'postmodern' society (Bauman, 1987). It would be nice to find more academics who are prepared to admit that, even if it is just an academic pursuit, without any higher purpose, sociology is still worth doing.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997