A note to aspiring sociologists

You are going to need to know some stuff. One of those things is the distinction between topical questions and sociological questions. I do not have the final word on this by any means, but it is something that every sociologist gets and accommodates herself/himself to at some point, or else ends up feeling frustration with the field.

The analogy I am going to use is a watch, comparing the time it tells and the mechanism that makes the watch work. This is, I know, a flawed analogy. The watch/watchmaker is often used as a crutch for Intelligent Design proponents. It also implies a functional worldview (a view which has been largely debunked by sociologists for its status quo justifications and tautological inclinations). Finally, there is lots in the social and natural world that is not explained and has no singular (or possibly even multiple) causality, so the neat relationship between machine and its operation does not hold. Still, the analogy I am going to use is a watch. Hopefully this is more helpful than distracting for you. If it is just too distracting to get over, you can substitute something else that makes sense to you. Sociology is a sandwich. Life is a house.

For my purposes (the watch), there is the time, and the mechanism hiding behind the faceplate that makes the watch work. And sociologists, largely, do not care much about the time. That is to say, we do care about the time. But the sociology of the phenomena you want to examine is, much more often than not, the mechanism. Sociologists may study autism, or the Dancehall club scene, or schools, or cults, or art markets. These are the watch face in my analogy. This is the time. But we study these phenomena in order to understand some underlying processes that organize these phenomena. These are the watch mechanisms. These are the guts. Sociologists as sociologists care more about the guts of the watch than the time itself.

This distinction, and the (largely true) perception that sociologists care less about the phenomena they study than the underlying processes that make these phenomena work is, as Adrian Monk might say, a blessing and a curse. It also sits at the center of a current debate over Public Sociology. Advocates for PS think we need to spend more energy on the time and less on the timepiece.

Now, the curse is that you find yourself from time to time in talks by a national expert on racial inequality and poverty, where the speaker, who received a $6M grant to study race and class can unselfconsciously say that massive degrees of economic inequality is “just so FASCINATING!” Sometimes when we are feeling particularly nasty, we call these people poverty pimps. Why does that work? Because it is nice and easy to criticize those who care so much about the underlying processes of poverty that they forget that ‘poverty’ is a word that refers to people who have no resources, and who do not get multi-million dollar grants from the NSF to study useful things. Because sociology is obsessed with the underlying mechanisms, sometimes the actual phenomena are treated as though they are not particularly important. You can see why Public Sociology advocates get angry about this.

The blessing, however, the blessing is that sociology is about the root causes and operating mechanisms of social life. What is happening around autism (the rise of patient-led advocacy, and mother-led advocacy in particular) is a decline in the authority of doctors in an age of the increased availability of medical information. The hypothesis that doctors protect themselves by monopolizing information, and maintaining authority based in part on this information asymmetry is not limited to doctors treating autism. It (potentially) demonstrates how information technology shapes professions, the future of work, the change in regimes of authority in (US) civil society. The sociology of this problem helps to explain autism diagnoses, as well as all kinds of useful problems around professions, information, and authority.

As I say, this is the sociology. So when someone inevitably tells you that your questions are or are not interesting, what they mean by that is: you are looking at an important or unimportant mechanism for how some aspect of social life operates. An ‘uninteresting’ question is a question that does seem all that useful in understanding the underlying processes of social and organizational life. You are, in my analogy, pointing at this tiny screw off in the corner, and instead missing all the hard work done by the mainspring. What I am trying to describe is also that elusive distinction between topical questions and theoretical questions. Topical or substantive questions are about the time; theoretical questions (especially capital-T theory, but theory-as-explanation as well) are about the watch mechanisms.

There is a tension here, since areas often come into and out of focus in the broader scheme of the world due to the public’s interest in the time. A nuclear plant melts down, and someone doing work on the effects of tight coupling on the prevalence of organizational disaster is sought after. Financial crisis? Let’s go see what the economic sociologists are working on. But, in my humble opinion but certainly an opinion rooted in long participation in the field, economic sociologists are not particularly interested in financial crisis. Economic sociologists care about, well, the things they cared about before the financial crisis: performativity and market models; markets as political jurisdictions; the morality of markets; embeddedness and social networks; financialization of the economy. So financial crisis is an opportunity, and more often than not a vindication of a worldview held before the crisis.

This is only partly a criticism, if you what you care most about is the human effects of widespread, unpunished fraud and the utter failure of regulatory apparatuses to do anything but accommodate powerful interests.

While that makes you a compassionate human being, it does not make you a particularly compelling sociologist. There is, as Bruce Kogut said to me after Donald MacKenzie couldn’t bring himself to say fraud or malfeasance or greed when talking about the collapse of the mortgage derivative markets, always greed. There is always potential fraud. The question we need to ask is, through which specific pathways is greed translated into market failure. Too much attention to the time, Dr. Levin, and not enough attention to the watch mechanisms.

But this is a largely negative reading of the situation, and it should not be. There is a vast value in caring more about the innards than the time. Substantive knowledge, without interests in the theoretical mechanisms that cause, contain, facilitate, or funnel the phenomena, is inevitably incomplete and non-transferrable. If you want to do something about inequality generated by financial markets, you need to understand not just how derivatives markets work on their face, but also the underlying processes that make derivatives markets possible.

My undergraduates rarely get this distinction, though I have seen graduate students and professionals crash upon these same shoals. It manifests when students say they can not ‘find anything’ in the sociology journals about improvisational theater. Not knowing what Improv is a case of, and what you what to understand about it, you are left hoping that someone has done exactly the same kind of study on exactly what you are studying. But while the phenomena of the world may be widely and wildly variable, the underlying mechanisms and processes we use to study them are surprisingly constrained.

I hope this helps make sense of some of your frustrations, aspiring sociologist. It may seem very personal, but what you are experiencing is a common problem of socialization to an existing set of conventions, defined by an organizational and epistemic community, to capitalize on and rationalize knowledge.

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