Sociology: Now More Than Ever!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 | Jeff Olick

Jefferson Statue

One of my favorite movies is Robert Altman’s biting satire of Hollywood, The Player.  The action takes place at a profit-driven movie studio, which seems to have forgotten that film is an art form.  On the side of the main building is thus the cheesy advertising slogan, “Movies: Now More than Ever.”  But the slogan cuts both ways.  On the one hand, it is send-up of the studio’s crass commercialism, which misses what in fact made the industry great.  On the other hand, the slogan actually expresses Altman’s point: that despite the commercialism, movies can still be special, now (or then, since the film came out in 1992) more than ever.  But this requires a sense of tradition, and a bit of resistance to the winds of timeliness.  

All of this is a long way around to my point.  Like any form of intellectual inquiry, sociology has its ups and downs. Up in the radical 60s and 70s, down in the neo-liberal 80s and 90s.  Today, sociology faces a number of challenges, old and new: rampant individualism, which constantly reminds us that whatever deserts we get, they must be just; the tyranny of usefulness, under which liberal education has to demonstrate concrete payoffs to justify its existence; and new players in the academic firmament—think global studies, media studies, big data, etc.— which draw students and even faculty with their seemingly more up-to-date offerings.      

Even so, sociologists today are framing national debates on poverty, violence, policing, cities, identities, and a host of other crucial issues, timely and timeless.  Inequality, incarceration, racial and ethnic conflict, terrorism, immigration, higher education, health-care and other disparities and similar topics-- core themes of sociology’s diagnosis of our epoch—are surely not going anyplace soon, and even if they were, we’d need sociological light, theoretical and empirical, to understand them. Sociology, it seems to me, with its holy trinity of race, gender, and class, is irreplaceable, providing a durable and integrated (which isn't to say monolithic) framework for addressing the crucial issues we face today, and the scientific and conceptual resources for doing so. For me, sociology thus remains uniquely important to vouchsafing the liberal tradition supposedly expressed in our educational and intellectual institutions. So, for these and other reasons, I hope you will agree:

SOCIOLOGY: Now More Than Ever!