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Jewish World Review August 18, 2000 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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Committing Sociology -- MEANWHILE, at the other convention this week, that of the American Sociological Association held in Washington, D.C., another president gave a speech with a vision of the future. It was -- incredibly! -- well-received. Duck! The audience were professors who are teaching your children what was once regarded as social science. (So far, few students seem to be buying.)

The ASA presidential address was delivered by Joe R. Feagin of the University of Florida, who won his job in a closely contested election last year. The official theme of the meetings was "Oppression, Domination and Liberation." Reviewing the text of his speech, two questions come to mind: "Can a person be a sociologist and a capitalist/globalist?" Feagin's answer is pretty clearly no. But second: "Can a sociologist even study capitalism and globalism with an open mind?" Again, Feagin indicates, "No."

Such a view, alas, can go a long way toward pulling down the temple of social science, which still has much to offer. After all, the discipline is largely funded through votes of politicians of two major parties, each now endorsing the wonders of modern capitalism and global trade. If challenged, Feagin, and Feaginites, will no doubt demand academic freedom to promulgate their views against academic freedom.

Leaning heavily on quotations from Karl Marx, Feagin sketches in "troubling conditions created or aggravated by modern capitalism." He notes: "The real effects of expanding capitalism for a large proportion of the globe's inhabitants, are not only greater inequality, but also job restructuring, loss of land and/or forced migration."

Assume for a tortured moment that Feagin makes sense. Unasked is the obvious question, "Can growing inequality occur simultaneously with greater wealth and income across class lines?" Consider: A multinational plant comes into a poor country, makes multimillionaires of the investors and brings workers up to the lower-middle class. U.N. data clearly show just such a pattern across much of the world. Feagin says don't ask. Literally, don't ask.

Feagin announces: "The capitalist economy now girdles the globe, generating profits at the huge cost of increasing environmental degradation." But hold on, weren't the capitalist economies of Western Europe far cleaner than the non-capitalist economies of Eastern Europe? Don't ask. (There are no verifiable facts for sociological deconstructionists.)

Could it be that capitalism and globalism have helped create a system in America where unemployment is almost nonexistent, wages are rising, consumers at the mall get lower prices and greater variety, all while American workers climb the skill curve to retain the highest median income in history, anywhere? Don't ask.(Feagin also thinks that "self-replicating robots ... may well threaten the survival of the human species by the end of this century.")

Why not ask? Because, says Feagin, social science has a long tradition, going back to 1906, when Albion Small addressed the first meeting of what was then called the American Sociological Society (is the old acronym appropriate again?) and "argued vigorously that social research was not an end in itself but should serve to improve society." Not just serve in any old way, says Feagin, but by promoting views that would reduce or eliminate "social injustice," which he will be happy to define. He salutes turn-of-the-century social science pioneers -- white women, black men and black women, he stresses -- who used sociology to promote causes, including tenement reform, child labor legislation, public health programs, feminism and the anti-war (WWI) movement. Actually, their causes were mostly sound, and they did good work. They were splendid propagandists, too.

So were other social scientists of the time, who were promulgating "scientific racism," which stressed that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were lesser breeds than other Americans. The immigrants had smaller skull sizes and less intellect, all scientifically proven by detailed tests, showing their disproportionate stupidity, ranked from "idiot," to "imbecile," to "moron." The latter were most dangerous because they could pass as normal. Activism unchecked by science can cut two ways.

Feagin denounces other prominent sociologists, like Robert Park and William Ogburn, who in the 1920s and 1930s said the discipline would lose credibility if it went from objective research toward passion and propaganda. It's been a long fight.

What does it mean? Seymour Martin Lipset, 78, a past president of the ASA, says that for the most part modern American sociology has abandoned science for politics. As it happens, Marty Lipset received, long overdue, the ASA Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, and chooses not to publicly dump on his hosts. He does call attention to the existence of independent, professionally oriented organizations in other disciplines seeking to redress the balance against politicization.

Switching to the other convention, we hear "Leave no child behind." Feaginism leaves them all behind, ignorant of the world around them. Marty Lipset and like-minded sociologists should start an alternative organization. And because social scientists have proved that longevity is linked to meaningful activity, I believe that if Lipset leads the way, he will live to be 120.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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