The Problems of Sociology. The Reflexivity of Social Scientists

There are many problems associated with applying sociology and this is an issue that has garnered attention in the last several years because they are clearly affecting the discipline. But what are the real causes of these problems and criticisms? And how much are the attitude, actions and values of sociologists to blame? To hold sociologists responsible for these problems is unreasonable. The best explanation is to be found in the intrinsic characteristics of the field where knowledge and researcher are currently found.

The discipline has been regarded by many as a social problem. It has been affected by a myriad of criticism that clearly is affecting its future and its reputation. These issues clearly have effects on the objectives of the subject, as well as its sustainability, i.e. number of students enrolled, the number of university teaching the subject and so on. As a result of that sociologists feel constrained and motivated to find clear solutions


So what are the causes of these problems and what can do sociologists to solve these issues?

A preliminary account might be given in terms of a lack of agreement existent internally within the discipline about the role of values, as a result of that Sociology is being regarded by non sociologists as not being objective. Some argue that social scientists should aim for objectivity. This is to be achieved only if social researchers do not allow their values to interfere within the research process, thus, adopting a value free position. On the other hand, others claim that knowledge is not neutral instead is a social product since we have values and they are reflected in our truth therefore social research should be value laden. This disagreement has created a lack of trust from external agents towards the discipline. Therefore the issue of objectivity within the social sciences is constantly questioned.

Policy makers and its supporters also criticize sociologists because the knowledge that they produce is not useful to them and does not support policy making …too many social scientists are not focused on the important issues of policy and have little idea how to communicate work in a way which will engage policymakers’ (Johnson 2004: 28 in Lauder et al, 2004).

Many non sociologists and sociologists in a similar vein believe that within the discipline too much jargon is used that is very difficult to understand and make things complicated.

There is also the issue of ideology with some sociologists perceived as defending a particular ideology, conservative or pawns or in many cases as reactionaries and left Marxists.

Best (2003) explored some of these constructions of sociology as a social problem. (ibid p.8), sociologists are attacked because they are messengers bearing bad news (ibid, p.8). [These problems] arise in arenas where internal and external criticism regards the discipline as insubstantial, incomprehensible and ideological driven.

As a result of that the discipline can not avoid being labeled as a social problem and is currently evaluated in term of the record of failures it has accumulated.

These explanations described above have very different implications. Some internal voices have suggested that claims must compete for public attention by conquering the media, writing what people want to read, making it sensible and interesting, using humour while sending short and simple messages to different audiences that answer straightforward questions (Best, 2004). Other solutions presented are to watch their own language, to take into account the issue of evidence as well to acknowledge the complexity of the subject (Best 2003). Others might believe that increased significance and enhanced vitality of sociology can be achieved if its tools, techniques and theories are made applicable, useable and assessable to those most in need of liberation (Coates, 2002). While on the other hand some seem to be more political partisan encouraging colleagues to support the policy process by producing knowledge that will appeal to them …researchers need to be accountable to the policy process and sociologists should focus on the social problems of the 21st century (Lauder, et al 2004). The use of sociology, in other words, should be responsive to the peculiar types of knowledge needed for policy, and to the peculiar ways of how the policy-makers utilize knowledge for policy-making (Shahidullah, 1998).


But is it reasonable to attribute these problems to the attitudes, actions and values of Sociologists?

The problem with this view is that it does not take into account the abstraction of knowledge as existent “out there” after its production, a knowledge embedded in a field along with researchers where competition takes place. It does not fully take into account the differences in power currently existent in modern society as well as the totality of players affected intentionally or unintentionally. This conclusion suggests that there must be something else involved.

Knowledge has become a commodity on its own, and the producers, the researchers depend on wages and funding for their subsistence and production. There are also new political structural constrains embedded in new regulations that encourage and protect this market. Sociologists are seen as workers forced to improve their productivity, their performance and the quality of products (knowledge) they produce as part of a modernisation programme that is more responsive to customer needs.

Once knowledge is produced by the social scientists it exists “out there” in a dormant state until is activated or perceived by any agent intentionally or unintentionally. As soon as any agent perceive it, knowledge and the researcher seem to be immersed, trapped in interrelated fields with many agents where competition and struggle takes place. The field constrain and motivate producers (researchers) to produce a commodity adequate to their needs. These particular agents are seen as struggling for attention, legitimacy and distinction while at the same time employing and deploying a range of strategies and special techniques (criticisms) in order to defend themselves against other agents who they perceive them as a threat. The field of sociology is at the same time interrelated by many fields such as the field of politics, economics and consumption among others. This abstraction, the (interrelated fields) also constrain the reflexivity of social scientists while blocking their awareness of their unintentional actions. To give an illustration of this explanation we can draw on the work of Macdonald (2005).

This group of sociologists produced some knowledge through qualitative methods funded by two different sponsors. They used this methodology because they believed it will provide them with the real truth. As soon as knowledge was produced it existed “out there” where criticisms did arise particularly because of their methodology. However, this field where they and the knowledge produced were immersed also constrained its reflexivity and blocked their awareness of their unintentional actions because although they were aiming to be critical sociologists, taking sides with the marginalised, they ended up acting as policy sociologists, perceived as employed to identify a problem, observing and reporting back. They observed people being trapped, affected emotionally and with different problems, however, no evidence was found in their research that they empowered the group facing the problem. Without knowing they denied the opportunity to the group facing the problem to improve themselves through the knowledge produced although they were on their side. Thus, it seems that some kind of force affected their reflexivity, and unintentionally, they ended up acting as consultants. Paradoxically at the same time, instead of producing rational, theoretical knowledge to be used for the improvement of society in the interest of all, through deliberate intervention, piecemeal or radical, the knowledge produced will exist “out there”, “lost” because even political structures are very unlikely to use it because they prefer hard data and …research that is free of theoretical baggage because it enables them to model policies according to their own political and ideological constraint (Lauder, et al., 2004). The intrinsic characteristics of the field where the knowledge produced and this group of researchers were found not only stimulated a range of criticism that are the root of the problem facing the discipline, but also at the same time blocked their reflexivity since they did not take into account the unintentional consequences of their actions.

Sociologists should not be blamed totally and in fully for these problems. These criticism will be always “out there” affecting the discipline as long as knowledge continue behaving as a commodity and social scientists continue being trapped in this field of competition that affects their reflexivity.

The problems and criticism that currently is affecting sociology might arise due to the intrinsic characteristics of the field where knowledge and the researcher seem to be found, a field where powerful structures constrain and motivate researchers to produce a commodity of knowledge in the interest of key powerful agents.

Social scientists should pay more attention to the issue of reflexivity. This entails that researchers should have internal conversations that allow them to evaluate hypothetical future scenarios of the unintentional consequences of their actions. Researchers should also be subject to periodic self-evaluations about their role as social scientists and their contributions to the objectives of the discipline.

Currently, much sociological knowledge is just produced and is left “out there” in interrelated fields where only the powerful can access it instead of making it accessible to all, thus contributing to the improvement of all humanity. The production of knowledge in the interests of all requires an acknowledgement of the differences in power currently existent in modern society.



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