Sociology and Politics
With 2008 being an election year, we weren’t surprised to receive a number of wonderful contributions on politics.
Several of those were exceptional, and you’ll read them here, but writing about politics remains a challenge for a publication like Contexts, not to mention for the discipline of sociology in general.
Part of the problem has to do with the constraints of time. As a quarterly, we obviously can’t be as limber as newspapers, magazines, and online media. But even if we published every week, sociological analysis doesn’t always come quickly or easily. By the time we’ve properly formulated our questions, gathered our data, come to our conclusions, and assessed their public significance, the political process has sometimes moved on. There are some exceptions, to be sure: spot commentaries delivered by informed sociological bloggers, expert opinion pieces by sociologists in The New York Times or The Nation, and, we would add, interactive features at contexts.org, such as our roundtable on the social significance of Barack Obama’s candidacy.
Sociological content itself presents other difficulties. What we have to say often doesn’t lend itself to a 10-second soundbite or one-page press release. Our critical perspectives and insights into the complexity of the world can also be tough to translate into action or concrete policy. Sometimes, in other words, politicians, pundits, or ordinary citizens just aren’t ready to deal with the sociological take.
Other issues are also in play, issues that force us to confront some of the deepest fault lines in the discipline. For example, many get into this field because they see profound public and political value in the systematic study of social life. Yet there are many different visions of how sociologists and sociology properly engage and impact the world. On one extreme are those who believe sociologists must actively engage the social world with their research and commentary. On the other are those convinced the most appropriate sociological contributions must be made above the political fray, offering more detached and objective analysis. Suffice it to say, these different orientations—both of which, in our view, have their time and place—yield very different approaches to politics.
And then there’s the political orientation of sociologists themselves. Many people these days (some sociologists foremost among them) assume we’re a uniformly liberal or progressive lot, and that politics and political analyses are, therefore, as biased as they are predictable and uninteresting. We refuse to concede these assumptions. Not only do we know more than a few conservative sociologists (we’ve been trying to get more of them to write for us, by the way), we also believe that in certain respects—its skepticism about radical social change, for example, or its understanding of the limits of human consciousness and comprehension—sociology is profoundly conservative. All of which helps to explain why some of the best sociology can’t be shoehorned into conventional left/right boxes.
You may not agree with us on all these points, of course, and Contexts won’t adopt an editorial stance on any of these debates. We see sociology as a big disciplinary tent marked by its unique ability to both contain and engage these different perspectives. If that lack of a singular perspective makes it difficult for us to comment decisively on politics, so be it. But there is a unifying force that connects disparate sociological approaches to politics: the recognition that all politics is social.
The social dimensions of political life color debates, shape legislation and policy, and call forth the very issues framed as “political.” Our job is to analyze and dissect these aspects of the political process as issues are debated and decisions are made—and to do all we can to inject these analyses into the public agenda.