Sociology is the Social Science that proves to a certainty that rich people have more money than poor people.
Such was my less than respectful evaluation of Sociology when I majored in it years ago at the University of Toronto. Back then, Sociology was a muscle-flexing, growingly confident discipline. From an outsider’s perspective, they seemed a little smug.
Executing carefully crafted experiments, whose results were then submitted to rigorous statistical analysis, Sociology believed they had methods of drawing accurate conclusions about the questions those experiments were created to examine.
Sociology promised to crack the code in the area of “causation.” “Condition ‘A’”, to a statistical degree of certainty, can be demonstrated to have caused “Condition ‘B’.” Those things are always fun to know, and Sociology assured us they had the answers.
I remember being excited about putting Sociology’s methods to the test. I imagined crafting my own “causation study” on the possible relationship between “Crime and Height.” (Not really. That was just college-aged Earl, being irreverent.)
My respect for the emerging discipline was further challenged during our first semester of Sociology seminars. My immediate problem, hardly Sociology’s fault, was that our class took place in a cubicle-sized “Seminar Room”, where the first thing the professor did when it was time to start was to close the door.
A few postings back, I wrote, with emotion, about my fear of being trapped in an elevator. A tiny Seminar Room is no stopped elevator, but it is space-deprived and, with the door not open, enclosed. For some of us, that’s all it takes.
My first seminar in Sociology focused entirely on a single question. And the question was this:
“Can dogs lend things to each other?”
It was not just claustrophobia that had me thinking, “Let me out of here!”
The discussion proceeded like this. My fellow students would go on for hours on the subject of how smart and “almost human” their dogs were. They could fetch, they could bring the newspaper, they could answer the phone and take messages…
They were Superdogs. Every one of them.
Drawing on anecdotal experience, my fellow students concluded that, if their dogs could pull off such amazing – and many of them actually were – feats of accomplishment, it would in no way be beyond their canine capacities to hand something over to another dog with a reliable expectation of getting it back. (The definition of “lending.”)
My thoughts on the matter?
“What the heck are they talking about!!!???”
When I was finally called upon, that was my position. “They’re dogs.” Not a popular position. Assuring them I meant no disrespect to the dog owners in the room (a room that was rapidly closing in on me), I asserted that I believed certain things were beyond even the smartest dog’s abilities. And lending things to each other, in my humble, and admittedly un-experimentally verified opinion, was one of them.
It turned out I was wrong. Ending weeks of discussion, the professor informed us that the official, Sociological answer to the question, “Can dogs lend things to each other?” was this:
“We just don’t know.”
Since reliable experiments could not be devised to resolve the issue to a certainly, the question of whether or not dogs can lend things to each other remains open.
“We just don’t know.”
Thank you. Can we leave now?
It’s decades later. I’ve begun taking extension classes at UCLA, and, perusing my academic options, I decide to renew my acquaintance with Sociology. See how it’s doing. I choose a class called, “Sociology of a Scandal”, focusing on the “Watergate” scandal. You know, they broke into the place, the president knew about it, and blah.
It sounded perfect for me. I’d been a devoted follower of the “Watergate” hearings, I was familiar with the minutiae – the tapes, Tony Ulasewicz, the “hush money” in paper bags – the class was definitely up my alley.
On top of the subject matter, hey, it was Sociology, my college “major.” I knew Sociology’s “M.O.” I was eager to discover what reliably certain conclusions Sociology had drawn on this excruciating blot on our political history.
I was sorely disappointed.
Like a friend one had known in their prime, for whom the passing years had been particularly unkind, Sociology had unquestionably lost its mojo. The once robust discipline had deteriorated into an embarrassing shell of its former self. “What happened, Sociology?”, I wondered, a figurative tear glistening in my eye. “Where did you go?”
Where Sociology went – retreated might be a more accurate description – was to the disappointing world of theoretical fractionalization. Exposed as an interloper with a statistical veneer, “Sociological Reliability” had been laughed out of the “Fraternity of Real Science.” There would be no more swaggering pronouncements from this once burgeoning discipline. A giant in the “Certainty Business” had been unceremoniously toppled. (Well, maybe not a giant, but it was well over six-two.)
All that remained was a smorgasbord of competing theories. Marx. Weber. Durkheim. Parsons. Our entire class involved viewing “Watergate” through their differing ideological prisms. It’s the only thing Sociology now feels qualified to do. To the question, “What were the root causes of “Watergate?” Sociology, seriously humbled, can only respond with this:
“It depends on the theory.”
How the mighty had fallen. Sociology’s condition made me nostalgic for the spirited discussion of, “Can dogs lend things to each other?”
My disillusioning experience with what currently passes for Sociology has narrowed my options when it comes to extension classes. (Political Science let me down as well. Inconsequential experiments; not enough “something you can hold on to.”) This, by default, directs me to Philosophy, where I’ve already taken three classes.
Philosophy may not know what the truth is either, but at least they haven’t abandoned the search.