Several people, including Doug Hartmann, Brayden King, and Jeremy Freese, have commented on the booing of David Brooks at ASA as he received the award for “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues”. I’m late to chiming in here in part because of the arrival of the new school year and partially due to a desire to reflect on the issue a bit. The consensus seems to be that booing was a poor tactic for registering discontent with Brooks as an award recipient and that the Left-wing dogmatism of sociology is troubling. On both counts, I agree. What I’ve yet to hear is an account of why people booed. While I have no systematic evidence to support this claim, I see the booing as a symptom of a clash between different worlds of sociology. Like society as a whole, sociology is profoundly stratified and, occasionally, underlying resentments manifest themselves in mundane forms (e.g., white or wheat bread, Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, giving David Brooks an award or booing him).
Though there are many divisions within sociology, one I have personally experienced is how utterly bizarre ASA is to a faculty member at a small liberal arts college. For most of us at SLACs, we’re more likely to apply Marx, Durkheim, and Weber to contemporary social problems than we are to be aware of the latest issue of ASR or AJS. We are deeply invested in the learning and lives of our students and course releases are unthinkable. Big NSF grants and the latest greatest modeling techniques using Stata or R seem like a foreign language. At ASA, as we encounter our grad school buddies who now work at research schools, we listen to their insider gossip and stories of whiz-kid grad students with a mixture of awe and self-conscious insecurity. For many SLAC faculty members, ASA is a project in sense-making. All too often, we are painfully aware of our own marginality within the discipline.
Don’t go feeling bad for us. Speaking for myself, I love that I am a teacher first and foremost. I’d rather talk with colleagues and enthusiastic young people about contemporary politics than contemplate the results of multi-level models. But life at a SLAC is a different world of sociology than life at a R1.
For many of us teachers, David Brooks is a regular figure in our brand of sociology. He’s not someone who we read merely for leisure whose columns exist quite apart from our work. He is someone who tends to misrepresent scientific findings and sociological theory to buttress often conservative opinions that would steer American society away from social justice and equality. Being disgusted with the latest David Brooks column really means something to us. So, when ASA gave him an award, it felt like one more sign of how marginal we are.
And it’s not just SLAC or community college faculty. The same holds true for many sociologists who study gender, racial, and class inequalities as well as some qualitative researchers who feel marginalized in Top Journal Sociology. The boos at the awards ceremony were not truly aimed at Brooks. They were aimed at ASA for picking him. They voiced greivance and resentment over a feeling of alienation within sociology. The boos speak not so much to the Left-leaning ideology of the discipline (which, let’s face it, is longstanding), but to the stratification within it.
Now, I personally believe in a sociology that is scientific and seeks the truth absent of political ideology (not one in which sociology courses are indoctrination sessions). But I also believe in a sociology where questions spring forth from deeply-held values and one where we use our findings to pursue a more informed, democratic, and just society. I think David Brooks believes more or less the same, even if he is less scientifically rigorous and arrives at some different conclusions. We shouldn’t have booed him, but if ASA more fully represented all sociologists, I doubt he would’ve received the award.