At Contexts’ editorial board’s annual meeting in Las Vegas last week, we had the pleasure of announcing the winners of our official/unofficial Claude S. Fischer “Excellence in Contexts” awards for the 2010 and 2011 volume years. The winners of the “Claudes,” as picked by our board from nominations determined by our graduate team here at Minnesota, included:

Best Feature: “Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women?” by Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton, and Paula England (Summer 2010).

Best Photo Essay: “Matrimony,” by Greg Scott (Winter 2011).

Best Culture Review: “Neoliberalism and the Realities of Reality Television,” by David Grazian (Spring 2010).

Best Book Review: “From The Music Man to Methland,” by Maria Kefalas (Winter 2011).

Best “One Thing I Know” Column: “Falling Upward,” by Dalton Conley (Summer 2011).

We’ve seen some wicked-good writing the past few years, so these authors faced some tough competition. Congratulations to all!

And while we’re on the subject of awards, one of the great preoccupations of any professional meeting, a word about the ASA’s award “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues,” which went this year to New York Times columnist David Brooks.

You might think this award presented an occasion to really recognize and celebrate the contributions of one of the few genuine public intellectuals who regularly reads and uses scholarly sociological research and writing. This, especially in recent months with Brooks’s courageous defense of NSF funding and the publication of the widely read The Social Animal. Yet the reception, which followed on the heels of several months of threatened protests, extensive bad-mouthing, and email attacks on members of the award committee, was underwhelming at best, even including a few scattered boos and catcalls. From our perspective, the reaction to the award was embarrassing, misguided, and deeply disconcerting.

Many in the field obviously object to Brooks’s political ideologies and affiliations–he’s simply perceived as too conservative to represent sociology. But this is troubling on several fronts. One is that anyone who has been reading Brooks lately would know that he is anything but a doctrinaire Republican mouthpiece. For another, the knee-jerk sociological opposition undermines our calls for broad-based public relevance and engaged scholarship — or, at least, recasts those calls as more narrowly partisan ideological projects.

At the root of this is the fact that Brooks–contrary to many erstwhile conservative pundits–actually believes in a real, empirical world and the importance of more or less objective social scientific facts and information. While some of us may disagree with how he uses our work, it would be tough to argue that he doesn’t take social science seriously.

But even to the extent he does represent particular ideological points of view (and who doesn’t?), we will step up and defend Brooks’s right to read, interpret, and mobilize our work. Anything less would be both elitist and a failure to appreciate our discipline’s genuinely conservative (not Republican) impulses and insights with respect to norms, solidarity, and the high ideals that support and sustain social order and democracy in the contemporary world.

The reaction of a small but vocal contingent of fellow sociologists to the presentation of Brooks’s award, we fear, not only contributes to the polarization of political discourse in this country, but compromises our ability as social scientists to play a productive role therein.

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