I get a lot of questions about Critical Social Justice and related topics, and I try to do what I can to answer them. Sometimes, the questions I receive are so useful in terms of helping people understand the important points being asked about, that I wish I could share them with everyone. In service to that, I’ll experiment with a series called “James Explains” in which I will answer ask-me-anything sorts of questions either in articles or in podcasts. If you have a question for me and are comfortable seeing it published (with or without your name), send it along. Maybe the answer will be useful to building the discussion.
I recently received the following email:
I don’t know if you’re warm to inquisitive correspondence but thought it was worth a shot, so no worries if you choose to ignore and go about your, I’m sure, mountain of work.
I’ve been following your work since the Grievance Studies Affair. Though I disagree with you on some things, I appreciate reading it and thinking about it and strengthening my own ideas. I really appreciated your exchanges with Thaddeus Russell.
I’m just a lowly 34-year-old recently graduated Bachelors Of Science in Sociology. I truly enjoy social theory and considering graduate school. I’m curious about your views on the field of Sociology. Do you lump Sociology in wholesale with the “grievance studies”? Do you think it’s a legitimate field? What would your advice be to future Sociology scholars, if you think it’s a field that can be legitimate?
Thanks. Hope you are well.
Here is my reply:
Sociology is a complicated topic. As we said when we went public with the Grievance Studies Affair, and as we have come to understand even better since, it’s best to think of grievance studies as a kind of infection. Different fields are infected to different degrees. Ultimately, what they’re being infected with is critical theory (and, to some degree, postmodern epistemology and ethics). Just throwing out some numbers, gender studies is probably more than 95% infected, if not wholly infected by definition. Ethnic studies is extremely highly infected, though not 100%, although critical race Theory and postcolonial Theory by definition are the infecting agents.
Useful for understanding this complexity, the same goes for postcolonialism, which is a broader field of study than postcolonial Theory, and includes socialist, materialist, and liberal approaches to studying the postcolonial context, all of which are against the Social Justice way, though the first two of these are, in fact, also critical in a different regard. The battle between radfems and gender Theorists is another location where you can see this: both are critical, both are constructivist, and both draw upon postmodernism, but they do not agree with one another (literally violently). So, there’s also a dimension of “it depends on what you mean by infected” here, as there are different strains of the critical virus.
Sociology is much more complicated. On the one hand, sociology really began with Durkheim, and the Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School saw Durkheim as a foundational scholar. They didn’t want to do a purely traditional theory of sociology, though; they wanted to do simultaneously traditional and critical theories of sociology. Much of sociology therefore developed under the direction of Critical Theorists, who seem to have eventually lost control of the critical side (which is much easier than the traditional side, especially in social sciences). That said, not all of sociology is critical in orientation, theoretical-first in approach, or browbeaten into compliance. There are, in fact, even conservative sociologists and sociologists who vigorously resist Critical Social Justice and the influence it has on their field.
Whether they are conservative or not (and on this I’m not sure), Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who wrote The Rise of Victimhood Culture, (resting heavily on the work of Donald Black) are two sociologists who have no love for the Critical Social Justice approach. I’d therefore call them traditional-theory sociologists and back their project completely. This support has nothing to do with whether I agree with their conclusions and everything to do with the fact that they’re playing the scientific game correctly (disclosure: I do agree with the work they’ve done and find it valuable and important).
So, as for whether sociology can be legitimate, then, the obvious answer has to be yes. The question really comes down to whether it’s being done as a traditional theory (which seeks to understand a thing) or a critical theory (which seeks to critique it so that they can change it, a la Marx). Traditional-theory sociology is as rigorous as a science about such a complex phenomenon as society can be, and it employs statistical methods, rigorous sampling, and the usual methodologies of theory formation and hypothesis falsification. It’s very difficult to do well given the complexity of the subject matter (societies), but at least in principle it can definitely be done rigorously (right).
This is why we called, in the wake of the Grievance Studies Affair, for the reform, not destruction, of the fields we named, including sociology. We extend this even to gender studies and all the rest, wishing to see them as genuine sociological fields instead of ones tucked within the theoretical humanities and utterly corrupted by critical activism.
So, my advice to anyone who wants to go into sociology is to eschew critical methods and try to be as rigorous and open-minded as possible. It really all comes down to one main point: are you willing to let whatever the truth is be the case, or does the truth have to line up with some theoretical take about how the world works?
If you are there to try to find truth, you can do it rigorously, though you may find it hard to publish anything that goes against the grain, especially in certain journals. Your job prospects may suffer accordingly. If you are there to promote your ideology or to find ways to support activism you already believe in, you’re doing a disservice to yourself and to the field, and you’re better off doing something different with your time and, maybe, coming back to it after you’ve matured a bit. So, pursue truth as objectively as possible. Don’t let your activism lead the way, but, if you want to do it, let it follow from what you find. The real charge of the sociologist should be to understand society, not specifically to change it. Change should follow naturally from rigorous work, and it’s the kind of change that works and lasts.
This advice extends to existing sociologists too. They need to reject critical theory. In fact, they should do everything they can to distance themselves from the “grievance studies” fields and make it very clear that these are not sociology. They should demand more rigor and try to review methodologically poor and politically biased work and start making it harder to publish. They should be critiquing bad sociology and theoretical humanities (critical theory) posing as sociology both academically and publicly. This won’t be easy for them, but the future reputation of their field may well depend upon it.
Hope that helps.
All the best,