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Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson recently had an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on “How sociologists made themselves irrelevant.” He discusses how sociologists have had almost no influence on the design of policies dealing with poverty among black youth and related problems such as unemployment, gangs and incarceration, despite the fact that these topics have been core topics of sociological research for decades. He argues that the main problem is that “In the effort to keep ourselves academically pure, we’ve also become largely irrelevant in molding the most important social enterprises of our era.”

As a result, sociologists have been reticent to engage in public discourse. The main shapers of policy have been economists, who often come to radically different conclusions than sociologists, based on differing theoretical assumptions, which affect research design. For instance, sociologists find that moving people out of ghettos has strong positive effects on outcomes for black youth, while economists find that such an effect does not exist. Patterson wryly quips that the rational response to the finding that neighborhoods have no effect on youth outcomes means that scholars should advise their children move to the inner city to take advantage of low rents!