The American Sociologist

, Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 456–487 | Cite as

The More American Sociology Seeks to Become a Politically-Relevant Discipline, the More Irrelevant it Becomes to Solving Societal Problems

  • Jonathan H. TurnerEmail author


The long-standing divide between sociology as an activist discipline vs. sociology as a science is examined in light of the current trend for American sociology focus on a limited set of justice issues resulting from inequalities and discrimination against certain categories of persons. Increasingly, this trend is pushing sociology toward become an activist discipline and, as a result, an ideologically-oriented discipline in its teaching and research activities. The outcome of this trend is the growing marginalization of those committed to sociology as a science in departments and academic meetings, resulting in demoralization of sociology’s scientists and their escalating concern over their fate in a discipline increasingly mimicking a social movement organization. Even more damaging to sociology will be a loss of respect inside academia and a loss of relevance among publics not sharing American sociology’s political biases. Furthermore, the chance for sociology to use its vast store of knowledge to help clients of all types solve their organizational problems will be lost if sociology is defined as a political rather than scientific enterprise. Sociology will thus willingly leave the vast resource niche for applications of social science knowledge to disciplines that know little about social organization (i.e., economics and psychology). Sociology will endure, of course, but it will not realize its enormous potential for reshaping societies.


Activism Justice Inequality Science Sociology’s Future Social Engineering 



My thanks to Stephen F. Steele for making many useful suggestions for the manuscript as well as for providing me with information on existing applied sociology programs and efforts to certify sociologists engaged in various forms of sociological practice. See his and coauthors useful books. Also, thanks to my academic daughter, Patricia Turner, for making suggestions to tone down my polemics.


  1. Bell, D. (1973). The coming of post-industrial society. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  2. Burawoy, M. (2004a). Manifesto for public sociologies. Social Problems, 51, 124–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Burawoy, M. (2004b). Introduction. Social Problems, 51, 103–106.Google Scholar
  4. Burawoy, Michael.2004c. “Public sociologies: Contradictions, dilemmas, and possibilities,” Unpulished paper.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burawoy, M. (2005). For Public Sociology. American Sociological Review, 70, 4–28.Google Scholar
  6. Comte, Auguste. 1830–42 [1875]. Course in Positive Philosophy. London: Bell and sons.Google Scholar
  7. Cooley, Charles Horton (1902). Human Nature and Social Order. New York: Charles Scribner’s.Google Scholar
  8. Massey, Douglas. (2005). “Assessing Scientific Basis of American Sociology.” Presentation in Centennial Session, American Sociological Association Meetings, August, Philadelphia PA.Google Scholar
  9. Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  10. Merton, R. K. (1947 [1968]). On Sociological Theories of the Middle Range. In Social theory and social structure. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  11. Morgan, J. G. (1982). Preparation for the advent: The establishment of sociology as a discipline in American Universities in the late nineteenth century. Minerva, 20, 25–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Myrdal, G. (1944). An American Dilemma: The Negro problem and American democracy. New York: Harper and Brothers.Google Scholar
  13. Nisbet, R. (1952). The quest for community. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  14. Riesman, D., Glazer, N., & Denney, R. (1950). The lonely crowd. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Smelser, N. J., & Reed, J. S. (2012). Usable social science. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  16. Smith, C. (2010). What is a person? Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  17. Smith, C. (2014). The sacred project of American sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Spencer, Herbert. 1874–94 [1898]. The principles of sociology. New York: Appleton Century.Google Scholar
  19. Steele, S. F., & Price, J. (2008). Applied sociology: Terms, topics, tools, and tasks. Belmond: Thomson.Google Scholar
  20. Steele, S. F., Scarsbrick-Hauser, A., & Hauser, W. J. (1998). Solution-centered sociology: Addressing problems through applied sociology. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  21. Stouffer, S., et al. (1949 [1950]). The American soldier. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.Google Scholar
  22. Turner, J. H. (1998). Must sociological theory and practice be so far apart? Sociological Perspectives, 41, 133–162.Google Scholar
  23. Turner, J. H. (2001). Social engineering: Is this really as bad as it sounds? Sociological Practice, 3, 99–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Turner, J. H. (2006). American sociology in chaos: Differentiation without integration. The American Sociologist, 37, 15–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Turner, J. H. (2008). The practice of scientific theorizing in sociology, and the use of scientific theory in practice. Sociological Focus, 41, 281–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Turner, J. H. (2014). The ecology of decline and revitalization of PSA. The American Sociologist, 45, 219–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Turner, J. H. (2016). American journals and sociology’s big divide: A modest but radical proposal. American Sociologist, 47, 289–301.Google Scholar
  28. Turner, S. P., & Turner, J. H. (1990). The impossible science: An institutional analysis of American sociology. Newbury Park: Sage.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Theoretical Social SciencesSanta BarbaraUSA
  2. 2.University of CaliforniaRiverside and Santa BarbaraUSA

Personalised recommendations