Real People Problems

“What’s the Matter with Sociology?” This provocative question is posed as the title of a recent review essay in Slate by Sudhir Venkatesh, author of the sociological bestseller Gang Leader for a Day and Contexts board member.

In his piece, Venkatesh characterizes sociology as a field “confused about its direction.” The discipline, he writes, once took us into otherwise “foreign, impenetrable worlds,” and “examine[d] cherished beliefs and institutions… stereotypes and misguided policies.” In previous generations, “data-carrying” sociologists like St. Clair Drake, Herbert Gans, and James Coleman were some of America’s “most influential truth-tellers,” “important cogs in the civic wheel” who helped ”end school segregation, ensure fair housing policies, [and] promote public sector accountability.” No more. Now Venkatesh worries that sociology and its “great American intellectual tradition” is “weathering a troubled transition.”

At the heart of Venkatesh’s concerns is the claim that sociologists are not taking on the big public problems and divisive social issues that were once our bread and butter. ”Where sociology once gravitated to the most pressing problems, especially the contentious issues that drove Americans apart, it no longer seems so sure of its mission.”

We don’t necessarily agree with everything Venkatesh says in this wide-ranging piece, though his claims are certainly making waves inside the field (perhaps precisely because his review was published outside of it). But we are certain that the sociologists who write for Contexts are doing their part to engage what we talk of as “real people problems.”

In this issue, for example, we have pieces from Reynolds Farley and Maria Krysan analyzing the current status of U.S. residential segregation, the phenomenon Doug Massey and Nancy Denton called “American Apartheid” almost twenty years ago. We’ve also got an article from Liesel Ritchie and colleagues about the BP oil spill and its lessons about disasters and disaster relief more generally, and John Hagan describes how social scientists have been called upon—and are able—to provide much-needed information for the International Criminal Court’s consideration of the genocide in Darfur. We even provide a look inside the social change afoot in Wisconsin as UW sociology graduate students take us backstage for the state Capitol protests and political events that gained so much national media attention earlier this year.

These aren’t always the most uplifting or calming of topics; it’s not for nothin’ that sociologists have been accused of being the “Debbie Downers” of the social science world. Surely, though, this is the kind of work the world needs.

“Academic disciplines,” Venkatesh concluded, “should not have to apologize for serious scholarship that does the unheralded work of systematically breaking down stereotypes, advancing policy, and ameliorating social inequity. We need sociologists to keep applying their fine-tuned antennae to social frictions because these will never be topics that can count on appealing to public curiosity about social reality—a consumer base that is always moving on to the next big idea.”

And at Contexts we further believe sociology has a responsibility not just to conduct this research, but also to ensure that it finds its way to those who need it, when they need it, and sometimes even when they don’t even realize that they need it. So here you go. Read. Learn. And pass it on.