The Chronicle Review

How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant

Tim Cook for The Chronicle Review

December 01, 2014

Early in 2014, President Obama announced a new initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, aimed at alleviating the problems of black youth. Not only did a task force appointed to draw up the policy agenda not include a single professional sociologist, but I could find no evidence that any sociologist was even consulted in the critical first three months of the group’s work, summarized in a report to the president, despite the enormous amount of work sociologists have done on poverty and the problems of black youth.

Sadly, this situation is typical because sociologists have become distant spectators rather than shapers of policy. In the effort to keep ourselves academically pure, we’ve also become largely irrelevant in molding the most important social enterprises of our era.

We need to reinvigorate public sociology. To be clear, I’m not talking about general volunteer work—helping at a Habitat for Humanity project or a drug-rehab facility, for instance—though those are noble and worthwhile efforts. I’m talking about using our expertise to help develop public policies and alleviate social problems in contexts wherein the experience and data can, reciprocally, inform our work.

I offer as illustration my experience with a major collaborative study I partly wrote and co-edited with Ethan Fosse, The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, to be published in February 2015 by Harvard University Press. It explores ways to alleviate the problems of black youth. Sociologists have shied from such cultural work, fearful of critiques similar to those that greeted 1960s culture-of-poverty scholarship by Oscar Lewis, the policy studies of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and the Parsonian overdetermining emphasis on values. In focusing on ways that impoverished communities perpetuated poverty, such scholarship was criticized for blaming the victim, and for several decades, sociologists have taken pains to distance themselves not only from that approach but from studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty.

The great irony in that overreaction is that throughout that 40-year period of self-imposed censorship within the discipline, the vast majority of blacks, and especially black youth and those working on the front lines of poverty mitigation, have been firmly convinced that culture does matter—a lot. Black youth in particular have insisted that their habits, attitudes, beliefs, and values are what mainly explain their plight, even after fully taking account of racism and their disadvantaged neighborhood conditions. Yet sociologists insisted on patronizingly treating blacks in general, and especially black youth, as what Harold Garfinkel called "cultural dopes" by rejecting their own insistence that their culture mattered in any understanding of their plight.

Not only have sociologists been nervous Nellies in avoiding cultural explanations, they’ve mostly shied from engaging in public discourse. Economists have had their say in debates over incarceration, gangs and violence, high-school dropout rates, chronic unemployment, and socioeconomic disconnection, all subjects studied at great length by sociologists. But, with a few notable exceptions, where are sociologists’ voices in these public debates?

And it’s not just in the press that we’ve been largely silent, but also, as with Obama’s Brother’s Keeper program, in policy circles. Take another example, Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing, a multimillion-dollar, randomized, five-city experimental program sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s to test the effectiveness of moving people from underprivileged ghetto areas to socioeconomically better-off neighborhoods. In direction, design, and methodology, the program was completely dominated by economists. Not surprisingly, they found that moving people away from dilapidated, underserviced, violent neighborhoods had no educational and economic impact, though it did make them a bit happier and healthier. I say not surprisingly because, of course, most economists (and the economist wannabes among sociologists who slavishly imitate economists’ individualistic, rational-choice models) have long insisted that neighborhoods have no effects on people’s lives since their residents are largely self-selecting. We get the neighborhoods our personal attributes merit and, presumably, the ones we deserve, they argue.

The experiment was of questionable value. Had it been designed properly, the results and policy implications for black youth and the black poor would have been vastly different, as Robert Sampson, Susan Clampet-Lundquist and Douglas Massey, and other leading sociologists compellingly argued in a series of scathing reviews. My question, however, is where were the sociologists in the formulation of this experiment? The absence of sociologists was especially egregious in light of the fact that the first major study of the effects of moving people to better neighborhoods was conducted by a sociologist, James Rosenbaum, who reached entirely different conclusions in his finding that such moves had a positive impact, especially on black youth.

While neglected in the formulation of major programs, sociologists have played a much more substantial role in the evaluation of such programs, for instance, the Building Strong Families program, which was started during the George W. Bush administration and has cost nearly $300-million in federal funds. Andrew Clarkwest, Robert G. Wood, and Alexandra Killewald, in their meticulous forthcoming evaluation of the program, showed that 15 months after the intervention, it had no significant effect on couple/spousal relationship status or quality, nor on the level and kind of involvement of fathers with their children. In fact, they found, the intervention in Baltimore had a pronounced negative effect on relationships. In probing for an explanation, the authors were led back to deep sociological analyses involving the study of family fragility and the cultural meaning of motherhood, fatherhood, and manhood among low-income African-American youth. Exceptional analysis—but again, why were sociologists only in on the program’s post-mortem instead of its design, which any competent sociologist of the family could have predicted was bound to fail?

Several lessons about culture and public policy are evident from my recent work on black youth. First, culture is not immutable, as is commonly believed, especially by hyper-structuralist social scientists and most policy makers. Policies explicitly incorporating cultural change can be effective. Indeed, the history of change in America indicates that deep-seated cultural values, norms, beliefs, and habitual practices may be easier to change than structural ones. Compare the remarkable dismantling of the cultural system of Jim Crow or American values pertaining to gay people and same-sex marriage with the failure of structurally oriented policy to make a dent in inequality, despite the vast number of social, economic, and policy studies devoted to the subject.

Second, although past research has focused on how the poor are different culturally from other populations, the culture of elites and policy makers is just as important in understanding the reproduction of poverty as the cultures of the poor themselves. For example, James Rosenbaum and colleagues compellingly show how the cultural views of elites, which privilege a four-year college degree with certain requirements as normative, can have severely negative consequences for the education and upward mobility of the poor.

Third, black youth, and people generally, are not offended by attempts to change their values, habits, and even their modes of self-presentation if they are first persuaded that it is in their own interests to do so. Jackie Rivers and I learned this firsthand from our study of a group of inner-city youth, many with prison records, undergoing a demanding job-training program that aimed to alter those aspects of their cultural styles and attitudes toward work that made it hard for them to get or keep a job. None of them considered this a threat to their identities, as individuals or as black people.

In closing, I would like to suggest two "smell tests" for all sociologists, but especially those engaged with the public sphere, when assessing their work. The first is the Garfinkel rule, mentioned earlier: Never treat your subjects as cultural dopes. If you find yourself struggling to explain away your subjects’ own reasoned and widely held account of what they consider important in explaining their condition, you are up to something intellectually fishy.

The second is this: If you end up with findings that have policy implications that you would never dream of advocating for yourself or your loved ones, be wary of them. A case in point: If you find that neighborhoods have no effects, you should be prepared to do the rational thing and go live in an inner-city neighborhood with its much cheaper real estate, or at least advise your struggling son or daughter searching for an apartment to save by renting there. If the thought offends you, then something stinks.

Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard University.