This episode we take a break from talking to all of these sociologists and talk to a psychologist instead: Thomas Bouchard, Director of the Minnesota Center for Twin and Adoption Research. Bouchard is a strong advocate of bridging the biological and social sciences (ahem, behavioral sciences), and is a strong critic of sociology’s traditional failure to participate in this effort. Given the recent AJS Special Issue on genetics and social structure, as well as our Summer 2009 feature on the topic, we thought it’d be fun to share some of this work with Bouchard and sit down to hear his thoughts on genetics, science and the relationship between psychology and sociology.
Also, Shannon Golden shares a discovery on the religiosity of American professors.
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listener — November 22, 2009
bio131 — November 22, 2009
As someone who takes very seriously the term "scientist" I reject entirely the notion that the "ideal scientist" should study whatever happens to come up. Ceding complete responsibility for the implications of our work is a dangerous and irresponsible course of action...
Dr. Bouchard overlooks the last bit of the term scientist: the "ist" bit. This is to say that I am a human being who studies science, rather than some sort of incarnation of pure science. I will fully admit that as a molecular biologist it is easy to fall in love with your own good ideas and, therefore, give thanks to our scientific forefathers for developing extensive methods for performing control experiments in order to throw out the most appealing, logical, divine hypotheses that happen to be wrong.
Throwing away good ideas when they are proven incorrect is the true challenge of a scientist. However, this is not the same thing as pressing on and studying things you feel humanistically that you shouldn't. The most erroneous bit of his argument was the assertion that choosing to study topic A and not topic B forever clouds your scientific judgement, rendering your results less accurate.
phronetic soc — November 27, 2009
This was a great interview and I appreciated the tension inherent in the questioning of sociology as a science. I am not of the hard-line opinion that sociology is either a "science" or not, but interrogating the matter should bring up a missing component often not considered: ethics.
Sociological inquiry often has a large ethical component, it is exactly what Bouchard was touching upon when attempting to differentiate "scientific" inquiry from sociological inquiry (or why sociology is not scientific enough for his taste because it is often interested in solutions to social problems). Rather than focusing on this point alone and defending the point of view that sociology is indeed a science, we should honestly ask ourselves what are we doing when we do sociology? What are the real outcomes and what are our intentions? If we want to make the world a better place through studying social phenomenon and social behavior then let's be honest about it and accept that much of sociology is not only scientific, but also ethical.
At that point then, sociologists, when necessary, should be more upfront about their ethical stance. This should include also becoming more familiar with the language of ethics.
Amy — December 17, 2009
I agree that the question of whether or not sociology is a "science" is not all that important, and also that we should be (and I think we are in fact) upfront about our ethical and political commitments. However, while I enjoyed the conversation and think it's a really interesting and important topic, I had a big problem with the way this particular issue was addressed. The guest said that sociologists who study inequality (usually) believe that inequality should be reduced, and that makes their work unscientific because the question of whether inequality is good or bad is not empirical but moral. That is absolutely true (that it is a moral, not empirical, question) but it is entirely irrelevant to his argument. No sociologist in the world would argue that "Is inequality good or bad?" is a sociological question. Of course it is a moral and political question. A sociological question is, for example, "What structural and institutional factors affect (generate, reproduce, exacerbate, mitigate, etc.) social inequality?" And believing that inequality should be reduced does not in any way impede one's ability to seek and find empirical answers to that question. Analogously, believing that cancer is "bad" and should be reduced, prevented, or cured does not in any way impede a biologist's ability to study the factors that promote or impede cancerous growth.
I am not arguing that our moral and political commitments--along with other aspects of our individual perspectives--do not affect our research. Of course they do, just as they do for the natural sciences as well. (In fact, one of my colleagues is studying geneticists who work on the genome project and they frankly admit that they tweak their findings based on their political commitments. That is an extreme example but of course human subjectivity affects research in the natural sciences in much more subtle ways as well, and I think the guest even acknowledged this.) But to suggest that sociological research is inherently invalid (or, in his words, "not science") simply because we have ethical beliefs about society is just absurd. It means in effect that nobody can ever study the social world or make any empirical statements about it, because everybody has some kind of ethical perspective.
I was also disturbed by the guest's claim that race can be mapped genetically. That is absolutely untrue. Yes, as he said, it is possible to trace the geographical location of one's ancestors to some degree, but as any sociologist knows, the relationship between racial categories / labels and various combinations of physiological characteristics (which are related to places of origin) is purely social and widely variable from place to place and from one historical period to another. The fact that some populations are prone to sickle-cell anemia has nothing to do with "race." Races are categories created by societies. To say that genetic variation exists (of course it does!) has no bearing on the question of what race is or how it is determined / defined. I was really surprised that the interviewer let that slide.
Sorry about the long rant! I do enjoy the podcasts - thank you!