Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Tam, T. (1998) 'The Industrial Organization of Sociology'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <>

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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 excellence.

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.

Disciplinary Identity

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 liability.

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 research.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998