Sociology and Socialism

In the short time we’ve held the editorial reins, we’ve taken every opportunity to talk up Contexts, civic engagement, and public sociology.

Some of the most eye-opening of these presentations have been to community groups in the Twin Cities metro.

These folks have been supportive of the need for more and better social science to inform public debate and decision-making. Yet it’s also become painfully clear there isn’t always a good understanding of what sociology is and what it has to offer.

The most amusing recent example came at a public forum in front of 100 or so elder learners at a public library. After a couple Minnesota-nice softball questions and comments came a high hard one.

“So is it true that sociologists are socialists?” This wasn’t the first time we’ve heard this question. Indeed, our kids, trying to figure out what it is we do for a living, have asked us both, and if our parents and extended families haven’t asked we suspect it’s either because they’re too polite to do so or too scared to confirm their deepest fears. Nor was it surprising. There’s been a lot of talk about socialism in the first few months of the Obama presidency. Newsweek even ran a cover story on the theme back in February.

Uncomfortable and inaccurate as it may be, equating sociology and socialism isn’t entirely off base. At a very basic level, after all, sociology shares with socialism a fondness for system-level thinking—how all the various people, organizations, interests, and ideas that comprise modern societies fit together.

In fact, the articles on the economy that appear in this issue reminded us of this. Not only do sociologists insist on seeing the economy as a complex institution that extends far beyond the aggregated interests of those who compose it, we see that many of the seeming idiosyncrasies and irrationalities of markets stem from cultural taken-for-granteds—knowledge, trust, habits, and norms—that enable the regular, ongoing functions of modern societies.

Sociologists, Barbara J. Risman reminds us in this issue’s One Thing I Know, are uniquely positioned to sort out the implications of this knowledge and insight for public policy and social action. That’s why she and an impressive list of our colleagues are calling for a cabinet-level council for social scientific advisors to the president.

So does all this make us socialists? Nope. Or at least, not necessarily.

Unlike socialists—or at least certain types of socialists— sociologists tend not to put full faith in the government to coordinate and control the complex wholes that constitute contemporary social life. Indeed, we tend to be especially interested in (if not always supportive of) the non-institutionalized, unregulated activities and beliefs of civil society—formal and informal associations, cultural mores and practices, movements for change, etc. (Hence the extreme discomfort among some of us with the easy equation of socialism and big government.) Moreover, our politics, as we have written here before, are as diverse and diffuse as the communities and people we study.

Perhaps none of this will stop our audience from conflating words that look and sound as similar as socialism and sociology. Next time we get such a question at Contexts, however, we’ll emphasize the suffixes that distinguish a belief system from a body of science and knowledge—there’s a big difference between an -ism and an -ology.