The United States, like other modern economies, is experiencing a new and possibly long-lasting era of rising economic inequality, which may result in further political and class inequality. Consequently, sociologists should be asking themselves what roles they and their discipline can play in understanding these inequalities, particularly the societal changes and social costs they are likely to bring.
However, the discipline as a whole also needs to become more relevant to the country, and thereby also make itself more visible and valued. Although the current rise in inequalities is global, the differences in national political economies, and in national sociologies suggest that every country must find its own answers – as long as global implications and consequences are also considered. What follows is my attempt to suggest a more detailed scenario, or a vision of where American sociology should be headed.
Finding a Direction
A good deal of work in measuring inequalities is already taking place, but sociology needs to take a greater interest in its effects on America’s institutions and peoples. The micro-sociological aspects of economic, political, and social aspects of inequality require more exploration than they have so far received. Whenever possible, sociological research should be policy oriented. It cannot be expected to engage in actual public policy making, which is beyond the expertise of many sociologists. However, they can conduct research that helps answer questions raised by policy advocates, policy makers, analysts and critics of public policy dealing with inequality.
Since economists and political scientists still tend to deal with issues that concern the country’s elite, sociology must intensify its attention on the non-elite. Further research must be undertaken particularly with and about the most vulnerable Americans, notably the below median income population that will undoubtedly suffer more from rising inequalities than anyone else. Among them, those who are least well represented in and by the polity and most often left out of the public discourse should come first.
Sociology cannot speak for these populations but it can focus more research attention on their problems. The studies should focus particularly on the social, emotional, and other costs of the most important inequalities. For example, the last several decades, especially the last few years, have seen a dramatic increase in downward mobility, the frustrations of aborted upward mobility, and lowered expectations. Sociologists long ago should have begun to make the processes and effects of downward mobility a major research area.
In addition, sociologists need to pay more attention to the long-range effects of extreme poverty, such as hypotheses that suggest it can result in post-traumatic stress disorders that can last for several generations. At the same time, researchers should understand how people cope with, struggle against and try to resist downward mobility at the various levels of poverty. Properly designed, such studies may provide clues to policies and politics that can offer help.
Even more important, sociology’s concern with the below median income populations must also extend to the forces, institutions, and agents that play major roles in keeping them in place and impoverishing them further. Studying the makers of increased inequality is as important a research topic as learning more about its victims.
Concurrently, sociologists should do more to demonstrate the social usefulness of the discipline. This is best done by providing new research findings and ideas relevant to currently topical subjects, issues and controversies. Although easier said than done, sociologists should place less emphasis on contributing to “the literature” and other disciplinary concerns. Fewer studies that unnecessarily elaborate the already known would also help.
Sociologists must also continue to explore topics that the rest of the social sciences are ignoring or do not even see. They should be undertaking more research on and in the backstages of society that do not interest or are hidden to other researchers.
Whenever possible, sociology should prioritize empirical work, quantitative and qualitative. Despite the increasing availability of Big Data, the discipline must continue to concentrate on the gathering and analysis of small data, particularly through ethnographic fieldwork. Understanding society by being with the people and in the groups and organizations that sociology studies is our distinctive contribution to Americans’ knowledge about their country.
The discipline ought also aim for innovative and adventurous theorizing, with frames and perspectives that question conventional wisdoms, such as labeling theory in the past and relational and constructionist theorizing more recently. The changes in the country generated by the currently rising inequalities may encourage and even require novel ways of looking at American society.
Above all, sociology must strive harder to reach the general public, by presenting new sociological ideas and findings that should be of interest to this public in clear, non-technical English. Teaching undergraduates and high school students remains the most important obligation of what is now known as public sociology, but relevant research should also be accessible to the general public. Researchers must not only know how to write but they have to be trained in the language of public sociology even as they learn that of basic and professional sociology. At the same time, sociologists producing public sociology must be eligible for the same positions, statuses and other rewards as those working solely as basic researchers.
Needless to say, the above is only one person’s scenario for the future, but it is written with the hope that others will suggest additional ones. The discipline needs to do more thinking about its future now, so that it will be able to deal with that future more intelligently when it becomes the present.
Herbert Gans is Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus and Special Lecturer, Columbia University, Department of Sociology.