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SOCIOLOGY: AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME

EARL BABBIE*
Chapman University

ABSTRACT: This is a revised version of the 2004 PSA Presidential


Address. It examines the vital need for sociology in today’s world and the
ways in which sociology already overtly and covertly makes a difference
and suggests ways to enhance the impact of sociology in the years ahead.

As I grow older and mortality is less of a theoretical concept, I find myself some-
times thinking about how I would like to be remembered. While “still alive” is per-
haps my first choice, I would also like to be remembered as a sociologist who persis-
tently and even annoyingly poked, prodded, and nagged his colleagues to take
their profession ever more seriously and to insist on sociology making a differ-
ence in the creation of a just and humane society. Hence this year’s theme, “Soci-
ology: An Idea Whose Time Has Come.” If I repeat a few things I have said on this
topic before, that is in the nature of nagging.
If we were gods, contemplating the state of humanity, I suspect we would be
inclined to start over. However, we are not gods. We are sociologists, so we are more
inclined to look for ways to patch things up, uncover problems, discover ways to
fix them, and so forth. I would like to suggest that we shift that orientation into
high gear. It is time for sociology with an attitude.
Let me begin by saying a little about why I feel sociology is important to
humanity, and then I will look at what kind of impact it has been having. I will
conclude with some suggestions for the future.

ALL SOCIAL PROBLEMS ARE SOCIOLOGICAL AND


SO ARE THEIR SOLUTIONS
To begin, I think it bears underscoring that all social problems are sociological. I do
not mean to suggest, of course, that we currently have all the answers, but I assert that
every social problem that concerns people today has its solution in the domain
tended by sociologists. This might seem tautological to many in our field, but it is
also worth pointing out that we, as a society, still tend to look for solutions elsewhere.

* Direct all correspondence to: Earl Babbie, Chapman University, Department of Sociology, Roosevelt 216, One
University Dr., Orange, CA 92866; e-mail: babbie@chapman.edu.

Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 47, Issue 4, pp. 331–338, ISSN 0731-1214, electronic ISSN 1533-8673.
© 2004 by Pacific Sociological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photo-
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332 SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES Volume 47, Number 4, 2004

It is my conclusion, for example, that overpopulation is the mother of all social


problems today. Harnessing population growth will not solve all the other problems,
but if we fail to do so we have no hope for long-term solutions to hunger, poverty,
ethnic violence, war, environmental degradation, and probably every other prob-
lem that concerns us. And yet where have we tended to look for solutions to the
problem of unchecked population growth?
We turned first to biologists, hoping they could tell us where all those babies
came from and why. The biologists gave us a definitive answer, but the problem
persisted. If only we could solve the problem without dampening one of the great
pleasures we had discovered. That became our new goal.
We asked the rubber industry for a solution, and they obliged. Yet the problem
persisted. Maybe if you could just take a pill, we mused—and the chemists pro-
vided a solution. Still the problem persisted.
It is time for everyone to recognize that the problem of overpopulation resides
in the sociological domain: in the form of pro-natalist beliefs, values, norms, and
other aspects of culture. And that is where we will find solutions. It has been my
pleasure to work with the Population Media Center1 in its attempt to fight over-
population around the world. It is currently working to get people in dozens of
countries to recognize, examine, and shift their views and practices regarding (1)
family size, (2) safe sex, and (3) the status of women. Their primary tool: soap
operas, which go to the heart of the cultural factors maintaining overpopulation
and related problems. The initial assessments suggest they are being very success-
ful. In Tanzania, for example, the leading male character finally gave in to his
wife’s two years of nagging and went to the family planning clinic for condoms.
The next day, real family planning clinics were flooded with men asking for con-
doms. In Ethiopia, new visitors to the family planning clinics commonly cite the
soap operas now being broadcast in two languages there as the stimulus for their
interest in controlling fertility.
Without addressing every social problem, one by one, I want to be clear that
what I am saying is not true just of overpopulation. Consider war. If we simply
look to where we spend money to prevent war, there is no contest: we spend it on
the development of weapons. This has seemed like the way to go for a long time.
For example, when Hiram Gatling invented the first fully automatic machine
gun, he is said to have declared that he had finally brought an end to war. His
new weapon would reap such devastating slaughter on the battlefield that no
general would ever send soldiers to face such sure death. By the same token, the
Wright brothers felt they had made future wars unthinkable, as airplanes could
now fly over cities and drop explosives that would destroy everything in sight.
Such hopes, of course, underestimated the vicarious courage of national and mili-
tary leaders.
Many of us remember the Cold War theory of Mutually Assured Destruction—
aptly generating the acronym MAD. The ability to destroy the possibility of
human life on the planet seemed the way to bring an end to war. Clearly, this has
not been working. Perhaps it is time to examine seriously such issues as ethnic
identity, international economics, exploitation of resources, and poverty. In the
wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, for example, scholars need to be able to

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Sociology: An Idea Whose Time Has Come 333

ask why people have such hatred for the United States without being accused of
being unpatriotic or of justifying terrorism. We need to be able to assign readings
such as Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback (2000) without worrying that it will invite
Justice Department investigation, without having to defend ourselves against
charges that we are lending aid and comfort to an enemy.
So to repeat, it is past time to recognize that our social problems and the solu-
tions reside in the domain tended by sociologists. We cannot waste any more time
addressing them elsewhere. Sociology is an idea whose time has come.

WE ARE EVERYWHERE
I realize my comments so far have a certain Rodney Dangerfield quality, moaning
that sociology can’t get any respect. That is not an altogether accurate assessment
of our current place in society. There are sociologists all around us, though they
are not necessarily recognized as such. I think it is important to recognize that
people who have been trained in the sociological imagination are everywhere.
When I taught at the University of Hawaii, I could inform students considering
majoring in our field that Jim Lui, my insurance agent, was a sociology graduate,
as was Francis Keala, the Honolulu chief of police, and Don Ho (in 1997 Ho
received the Citizen-Sociologist award from the Mid-South Sociological Associa-
tion). At that time, I could report that my wife, Sheila, was a sociology graduate
and that my father-in-law had a Ph.D. in sociology. (Later, our son, Aaron, would
major in sociology as well.)
In his 2001 commencement address to graduating sociology majors at the Uni-
versity of Oregon, Peter Drier of Occidental College listed a few other sociology
majors who might not be known as such.2 They included, among others, mayors,
members of Congress, and other government officials; civil rights movement
founders Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, Jesse Jackson, and Ralph Aber-
nathy; the archbishop of Washington, D.C.; community organizer and activist
Saul Alinsky; arts and entertainment figures such as Saul Bellow, Regis Philbin,
Dan Akroyd, Robin Williams, Dinah Shore, and Dr. Ruth; and former President
Ronald Reagan.Clearly, students of sociology have had a diverse and powerful
impact on modern society. Sociologists have been active organizers and partici-
pants in all the major movements in social life: civil rights, women’s liberation,
environment, peace, labor, poverty, and others. Often, sociologists are recognized
for making sociological contributions. As World War II was winding down, the
U.S. Army asked Sam Stouffer to poll soldiers on the issue of who should be
released first, those just entering the service or those who had been in the longest.
Also, sociological research figured into the 1954 arguments of Brown v. Board of
Education, and the Coleman Report (1966), a decade later, brought about more
changes in public education.
During the Second Vatican Council, some participants wanted a formal pro-
nouncement that the Roman Catholic Church did not hold the Jews responsible
for the death of Jesus. Those opposed to the proposal stated that the church had
not blamed the Jews, hence there was no reason for disclaiming that position.
After research on anti-Semitism by Charlie Glock and Rod Stark (1966) pointed

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334 SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES Volume 47, Number 4, 2004

out that many rank-and-file Catholics believed that the church in fact held Jews
responsible, the Council made a formal declaration that they were not.
There are many continuing examples of sociologists at work as sociologists in
the community. Marc Smith is a sociologist at Microsoft, studying the nature of
on-line communities of cyberspace (Festa 2003). Ross Koppel (2002) recently esti-
mated the annual cost of Alzheimer’s disease to American businesses at $61 bil-
lion, and that contribution was recognized as sociological research. When presi-
dential candidate Howard Dean wanted to discuss the persistence of institutional
discrimination in America, he used the sociological research of Devah Pager (2002),
whose dissertation revealed that a white man with a criminal record stood a bet-
ter chance of being hired than a comparable black man without a criminal record.3
Rather than pursue more examples of our overt recognition, I want to draw atten-
tion to the covert side of sociology. This goes to a powerful distinction between
making a difference and getting credit for making a difference.

COVERT SUCCESSES
Sociology has had what might be called covert successes in the past. This can be
seen in the form of respected fields that are specialized spin-offs of sociology:
social work, demography, criminology, human resources, organizational leader-
ship, marketing research, to name just a few. I tend to add economics, political sci-
ence, anthropology, and others to this list, but it often makes colleagues in those
fields cranky. However, their knowledge and use of sociological concepts, tech-
niques, and findings lends support to the image of sociology as the Mother Ship
of the social sciences.
The point is that sociological methods and insights are making important con-
tributions to modern social life, even if people generally do not think of those
contributions as examples of sociology at work in the world. When we discuss
sociology making a difference in the world, it is important that we distinguish
between (1) making a difference and (2) getting credit for making a difference. I
would suggest that when we stop worrying about getting credit, we see sociolog-
ical footprints all over modern society.
There are countless terms in common usage that originated in sociology. Con-
sider W. I. Thomas and Dorothy Thomas’s dictum regarding the “definition of the
situation,” popularized by Robert Merton, as the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Mer-
ton also gave us the concepts “role model” and “focus group.” And the list contin-
ues with Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption,” Sam Stouffer’s “relative
deprivation,” Max Weber’s “charisma” and “Protestant Ethic.” Were George Her-
bert Mead alive today, I am sure he would regularly watch Significant Others on
the Bravo channel.
Socioeconomic status and stratification, the upper middle class, peer groups
and peer pressure: these are terms that ordinary Americans relate to and use. Per-
haps few recognize that these originated in sociology, nor do they see them as part
of a conceptual armory that can be used for more than casual observations and
sitcom themes. Yet to some extent they shape the nature of common discourse;
these embedded concepts are like sleeper cells of the sociological imagination.

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Sociology: An Idea Whose Time Has Come 335

Sociological research techniques are being used extensively and regularly—by


sociologists and by others. Opinion polls and focus groups are obvious examples.
Small-group research in the form of mock juries is another. When investigative
journalism is at its best, it smacks of sociological field research.
In assessing the impact of sociology in the world today and in the future, I think
we have to be willing to include the sociological activities of nonsociologists. Ear-
lier, I mentioned my work with the Population Media Center and its use of soap
operas to affect family size, safe sex, and the status of women. What I did not
mention is the “Sabido methodology” used in that program. Twenty-five years
ago, Miguel Sabido, then a vice president with Mexican television, developed a
rigorous set of procedures for analyzing the dominant culture of a target society
and configuring fictional stories that would produce a shift from traditional pat-
terns regarding family, sex, and gender. Thus the Ethiopian soap operas were pre-
ceded by more than a year of surveys, content analysis, focus groups, and field
research. Only after the research had been completed was it possible to lay out
and script the appropriate dramas.
Similarly, Lynne Twist, in The Soul of Money (2003), describes numerous instances
of the Hunger Project (THP)4 working in a variety of cultures throughout the
world to bring an end to the chronic, persistent hunger that results in up to nine
million deaths each year. Several years ago THP established the Women’s Initia-
tive in recognition of the conclusion that world hunger could not be ended with-
out radically recasting the status of women in societies where hunger is rampant.
This conclusion was derived in part from an analysis of women’s roles in the
production and distribution of food, in sharp contrast to the support they
received for those activities (agricultural loans, for example). Thus THP has fre-
quently focused on training and organizing local women as agents of change in
their communities.
Sometimes these activities have required a fairly sophisticated understanding
of the local cultures. In Senegal, for example, Twist traveled hours through unin-
habitable desert lands to finally arrive in a remote area where seventeen villages
were about to perish as a result of years of drought. As she met with the local
people and heard their views of the situation, she discovered an ironic dilemma:
several of the women in the group were convinced it would be possible to drill for
water in an underground lake, but their culture had no place for women to make
such decisions or engage in such work. As Twist learned more about the culture,
however, she found that dreams and visions were respected no matter who had
them. The women’s conviction that there was water below was recontextualized
as a “vision,” and the women were soon at work digging wells, which, happily,
produced the needed water for irrigation and crops (Twist 2003:68–74).
As one more example, the American occupation of Iraq has produced endless
examples of failures that could have been avoided through judicious doses of the
sociological imagination. What may be less obvious are the numerous critical analy-
ses in the popular press that employ rather sophisticated understandings of Iraqi,
Arabic, and/or Islamic paradigms. While I cannot report how many of these writ-
ers majored in sociology or even took an introductory course, it is clear that socio-
logical concepts and sensibilities are being put into the public discourse every day.

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336 SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES Volume 47, Number 4, 2004

So the point I have sought to make is that sociology is, in fact, alive and active
in the world today, even when that activity is not explicitly identified as sociolog-
ical or practiced by certified, card-carrying sociologists.

AN AGENDA FOR THE AGE OF SOCIOLOGY


An aim of the 2004 conference is for participants to work together in the develop-
ment of an agenda for the Age of Sociology. Let me close with just a few contex-
tual comments about this.
First, I think we need to raise public awareness about the power of what we
might call “sociological diagnostics,” that is, analytical techniques that allow us to
identify certain social problems and explicate their causes. For example, when some-
one casually says that women earn less than men because they are more likely to
work part-time, they tend to concentrate in lower-paying occupations or indus-
tries, or that they are likely to have less seniority, we cannot let people be satisfied
with such logical possibilities unless and until they are tested. And sociological
analytical techniques allow these to be tested easily.
As many of us know, of course, the kinds of factors just listed play some part in
the income discrepancies by gender but not all. When the Census Bureau (1987)
took a couple dozen such variables into account simultaneously, they explained
about two-thirds of the income difference by gender but could not account for the
other third.
A somewhat different methodology was used by researchers at the University
of Michigan in 1971 (Levitin, Quinn, and Staines 1971). Beginning with a massive
survey of the labor force, the researchers separated the sample by gender. Then
the men were divided into two groups at random. One of the male subsamples
was used for a regression analysis that included twenty or thirty variables that
ought to relate to income. Once the complex regression equation had been gener-
ated, it was used to predict incomes of men in the other subsample. The equation
predicted incomes within an average of $30 a year. Then the equation was used to
predict the incomes of the women in the sample, and it overestimated their incomes
by an average of $3,000 a year (in 1975). Clearly, all the “reasonable” explanations
for gender difference were insufficient. The residual difference would seem to
represent discrimination by gender.
Similarly, we cannot let people be satisfied with the explanation that minorities
are less likely to get loan approvals because of group differences in “reasonable”
variables such as past bankruptcies and job history. Variables such as these are
easily controlled in a sociological analysis to determine if there are residual differ-
ences in loan successes of various ethnic groups when the impact of reasonable
variables have been taken into account and controlled for.
Second, we need to be more explicit in telling people what our findings mean in
practical, action terms. In his keynote address to the California Sociological Asso-
ciation in 1996, Jonathan Turner spoke of the need for sociologists to develop
engineering applications from our understandings of and findings about society
(Turner 1998). Recognizing that this would be criticized as “social engineering,”
he noted that social engineering is being done every day on the basis of ideological

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Sociology: An Idea Whose Time Has Come 337

agenda and without attention to scientific analyses of how society operates. The
loud and deep concern over ways to “protect the family” in contemporary Amer-
ican society is a case in point.
Third, in developing those issues that need to be addressed by sociological
analysis, we should be proactive in achieving collaboration with nonsociologists,
particularly those in decision-making positions in government and in the private
sector. In this regard, I was especially pleased to have Congresswoman Loretta
Sanchez with us at the 2004 conference, discussing ways that sociologists can fill
some of the gaps in facts and understanding that legislators face.
Fourth, we need to ensure that our “sociological” pronouncements are, in fact,
sociologically sound and not simply ideologically comfortable. (No sociologist
needs this reminder more than I do.) This means, among other things, that we
must be willing to revisit and reassess old issues and trusted conclusions in such
sensitive areas as ethnicity, poverty, economics, peace, religion, and the like. Most
of the topics we study are so infused with ideological concerns that we always
run the risk of being dismissed as ideologues rather than scientists. At the very
least, we need to ensure that such complaints are never justified.
The recursive nature of sociology in society makes this all the more vital, since
any sociological understanding of society becomes a new social fact, likely to have
an impact on that which was just understood and conceivably changing the
nature of social reality. I have always felt we should regard society as autopoietic—
as a self-creating entity. Sociology represents the Hawthorne effect with a ven-
geance. This also guarantees a never-ending need for sociological analyses. The
sociologist’s work is never done.
In summary, then, we need to begin recognizing the many ways in which socio-
logical research and reasoning is already embedded in ongoing social life, even
when it is not identified as sociological. We need to make that role more explicit,
and then we need to go farther. If we review the state of social life in the United
States and the world today, it becomes obvious that sociology is truly an idea
whose time has come, and we do not have time for anything less.

NOTES
1. http://populationmedia.org.
2. Peter Drier’s list can be found on the American Sociological Association’s Web site at
http://www.asanet.org/student/famoussocs.html.
3. There are, happily, many more examples of sociology being used and appreciated in the
life of society. For continuing examples, see the Society for Applied Sociology Web site,
http://www.appliedsoc.org/soc-news.html, which monitors “Sociologists in the News.”
4. http://www.thp.org.

REFERENCES
Coleman, James. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Govern-
ment Printing Office.
Festa, Paul. 2003. “Microsoft’s In-house Sociologist.” news.com, August 19. Retrieved from
http://news.com.com/2008-1082_3-5065298.html, May 20, 2004.

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Glock, Charles and Rodney Stark. 1966. Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism. New York:
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Johnson, Chalmers. 2000. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New
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