I am at the annual meeting of the American Sociology Association in New York City.
Sociologists have been on a downhill slope ever since the Reagan administration undertook a covert war on social scientists. As experts on social problems — crime, poverty, inequality, immigration, social mobility, race, ethnicity, marriage and the family — sociologists had been the prime go-to experts for building the “great society.” Sociologists such as David Reisman (“The Lonely Crowd”), Daniel Bell (“The End of Ideology”) , Daniel Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Herbert Gans and others were well-known public intellectuals who painted a picture of how society was changing or needed changing.
But since the early 1980s, people == especially Republicans — did not want to hear about social problems. Dismissed as Marxists, lefties, ideologues, and bleeding hearts, academic sociologists turned to more narrow, often quantitative research. They pulled back from grand theories of social change and prescriptions for how to change/save the world.
Enter the market wave and economists — who were happy to present formal models that often mirrored reality moderately well and allowed firms and financial enterprises to make useful calculations, estimates, ands simulations to guide their investments. Add to this the Ayn Rand brand belief that inequality doesn’t matter, and that all social problems should be left to the logic of the market and sociologists start to look irrelevant in a social-science landscape thoroughly dominated by economists (and those political scientists that adopted economic-style formal models and data analysis).
This is all a bit too harsh and oversimplified, of course, but still is about 85% right.
So here we are in the midst of the greatest social and economic crisis in our lifetimes. Inequality is shooting up, social mobility is down, global economic growth has slowed to a crawl, the Eurozone is becoming undone, traditional families are becoming obsolete — but does anyone really care?
The book exhibit at the American Sociological Assn. meetings offers one way to get a quick look at what sociologists have been writing. The book titles scream about the ongoing changes : “The Marriage go-round,” “How the 99% live in the Great Recession,” “The New Plutocrats,” “Outrage,” “The New Inequality,” and dozens of others proclaiming alarming levels of inequality, public debt, marriage dissolution, and a few more on the perils of climate change, immigration, and polarized politics.
Yet what is striking when you step outside the meeting hall is how irrelevant these pleas for outrage seem. On the streets of Manhattan, the shops and restaurants are full, Broadway shows are going strong, Halal stands and cafes are jammed. The 1% and those who cater to them are clearing doing fine.
And that is the problem — those who are really suffering are largely out of sight. Those with foreclosed or underwater homes are mainly in the suburbs; the truly poor are in the countryside or in coal country or in areas well outside the major metropolitan centers. So for the major business, government, and media actors, this remains a prosperous country — never mind the nearly one-in-five who are out of work or no longer looking, or employed for fewer hours and lower wages than they sought. Those one-in-five, and the other three in-five who have good reason to be concerned about joining them just have no impact (so far) on American politics.
Is this just lethargy and resignation, or a full embrace of rising inequality by the general public? Or is it all just too complicated, with eroding middle class conditions produced by everything from offshoring and outsourcing to technology, higher education levels for some, family pathologies, the zigs and zags of housing markets, stock markets, and interest rates?
One has to hope that sociologists can do three things–come up with a clear, widely understood portrait of the changes we are experiencing, develop a persuasive analysis of the causes, and formulate appealing prescriptions for change.
If not, we will continue to drag along with little or no change to the great divergence in American incomes and the erosion of middle class aspirations and upward progress. We only can shape the changes we understand; otherwise we get the changes (or lack of changes) we deserve.