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ASA Forum

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On the Interpretation of Polls Sociologists can do a major public service by helping our fellow citizens to understand the findings of public opinion polls. An example follows, in the hope of triggering a dialogue whether or not this is a public service sociologists should perform more often.

To those of us for whom the claim that the Israel lobby is all-powerful is neither a well established truism nor an ugly piece of anti-Semitism, the evidence presented in support of this claim matters a great deal. Surely Washington has more lobbies than a derelict dog has fleas. And, lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity. Hence, a pivotal question is whether the Israel lobby is significantly more powerful than the others.

A new book making this case has been written by two highly regarded scholars; John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, respectively. The authors write:

    In 1997, Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired Persons, but ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. A National Journal study in March of 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington ‘muscle rankings.’

In fact, Fortune’s survey was not made of Congress members and their staffs, but of 2,165 “Washington insiders” (chosen by two panels whose membership has not been disclosed), which includes an unknown number of congressional members and staffers, among an unknown number of others. In both surveys roughly six out of every seven persons asked did not respond. The authors’ claim that members of Congress and their staffs ranked the Israel lobby more powerful than many others is based on the responses of 15% of those who were surveyed. I wonder if most of my colleagues would agree that this is not a proper generalization. (Also note that none of the numerous social science procedures to correct for such a deficit of responses were employed).

The number of people who responded is so small that an additional vote or two, or a change of mind by one or two respondents, would have significantly altered the findings. The total number of the National Journal responses—which surveyed only law makers—is 73. The National Federation of Independent Business was ranked first and the National Rifle Association second—with nine and eight votes, respectively. In third place, ranked as the most powerful by seven members, was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The AARP and AIPAC were each given the nod by five members. The oil companies and the arms manufacturers were not on the list of those to be ranked.

What role should sociologists play in clarifying statistical procedures for those without social science training? What are the limits and value of such data?

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at The George Washington University and author of Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2007).

Another Take on AP or Not AP

In the December 2007 issue of Footnotes, Michael DeCesare details his findings on the inadequacy of regular sociology courses in high schools nationwide. He urgently recommends that high schools obtain local boards’ authorization for a regular sociology course taught by competent teachers in all high schools.

This first step would contribute toward increasing the number of students taking sociology in high schools and, to the benefit of sociology departments at many colleges and universities, an increase in the number of students majoring in sociology. To provide all high school students a regular sociology course designed to meet their interests and taught by well trained teachers is a worthy goal. Not only is the ASA vision of sociology for high school realized, sociology departments nationwide will be welcoming a larger pool of sociology majors.

Because of the tight high school curriculum, it is not guaranteed that a high school student will choose sociology. Additionally, in a society inspired by Protestant Ethics and its liberty and individualism, a larger number of students prefer psychology to sociology in both high schools and college. The stake is too high for students and society to not provide opportunities for students to develop their sociological imagination, to see the structures behind the façade or beneath the surface in their social world. Believing in equality and valuing fairness and social justice are very much contingent on developing one’s sociological imagination and one’s critical thinking, which is one of the main purposes of an introductory sociology course. From this perspective, priority should be given to a regular sociology course in all high schools.

The ability to attract not only a larger number students, but high-achieving high school students is a worthy goal, too. One significant reason to institute a sociology AP in high school is to attract high-achieving students to the discipline and thus increase the probability that more high school students would major in sociology when they go to college. Not only would our sociology departments benefit from a large pool of majors, but they would also benefit from high-achieving students who would be more likely to pursue graduate studies in sociology.

Having a regular sociology course in all high schools would prepare a solid base for establishing a sociology AP. The latter would promote the relevance of sociology in today’s society in the eyes of high school students, their teachers, and their parents. Having both a regular sociology and a sociology AP in high schools would enhance the effectiveness of developing the sociological imagination in high school students and ensure the greater probability of an increase in sociology majors.

Tri V. Nguyen, La Salle University

More on the Sociology of Human Rights

While it is admirable to see the topic of sociology and human rights discussed in Footnotes, the article “The Sociology of Human Rights” (November 2007, p. 4) presents a rather truncated and ideologically tendentious cartography of this emergent field. In the first place, sociologists have been extremely active in The Journal of Human Rights, which I founded in 2001 and is published by Routledge.

In addition to being the first major journal in the field edited by a sociologist, fully one-fourth of the editorial staff are sociologists, which is remarkable in a field usually dominated by legal scholars and political scientists. Interdisciplinary research by sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, political scientists, and others have built a broad new field with a distinctly sociological thrust, and it has been growing by leaps and bounds.

More important, the article indicates the explicit dangers of linking the emergent sociology of human rights to the ideological program of “public sociology.” Obviously, most scholars who study human rights would like to expand universal human rights. Yet, I see a drift in this emergent sociology of human rights to assume that (1) The preferred conception of universal human rights is social and economic rights, and (2) Somehow the United States is lagging behind other countries in regard to human rights or is “against” human rights.

In the first case, in a Weberian sense, there is no possibility of generating a value preference for social and economic rights (the positive rights of welfare state democracies) over individual rights (the negative rights of the American Bill of Rights). Such rights might lead to more social stability, less crime, etc., but it cannot be argued that they are somehow “better” than other kinds of rights or lead to more “freedom.”

In the second case, many assume that the United States is not interested in human rights. There would be good reason to assume this, given some past relationships with American administrations toward dictators and tyrants. Yet, to give one counterexample to this assumption, there are millions of Iraqis who have been at war for several years now with avowed enemies of human rights, with the United States as their ally. The United States is supporting the nascent Iraqi democracy, which has had free and fair elections and whose parliament is 25% female as opposed to 16% in the U.S. Congress. A large part of the American left—and American sociologists, in particular— are prepared to abandon those in Iraq who have suffered to claim the human rights that they are entitled to. So who is, “for” or “against” human rights depends to a great extent on how human rights are defined and who is considered worthy or unworthy of them. Why, for instance, are Darfuris entitled to our moral solidarity, while the Iraqis are to be abandoned?

Like any other moral politics, we need to dig deeper into the understanding of why we sociologists have the right to determine not only what rights are, but who should have them and who should not. As with all emergent areas of study, the theoretical and conceptual parameters of the newly emergent sociology of human rights must be set as widely as possible. It should be protected from the hegemony of any ideological constructions of human rights and the avoidance of the very kinds of essentialisms that are, ironically, so anathema to many sociologists.

Thomas Cushman, Professor of Sociology, Wellesley College and Founding Editor and Editor-at-Large Journal of Human Rights

Concerning the W.E.B. DuBois Career Award for Distinguished Scholarship

In 2007, the ASA made history. It awarded the first W.E.B. DuBois Career Award for Distinguished Scholarship to Joseph Berger of Stanford University, thus associating him with one of the towering intellectuals in world history. The award was a consequence of a two-year campaign culminating in a petition signed by over 600 members (including two-thirds of the ASA Council and 13 former ASA presidents), followed by an overwhelming vote of the ASA membership.

The awards ceremony at the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting, however, degraded this beautiful moment by failing to acknowledge it.

The name change reflected the membership’s view that DuBois is the exemplar that sociologists hope to emulate, not only because he was a founder of American sociology who developed now-standard methods, published many landmark studies, and developed intellectual perspectives that guide our thought today; but also because he was a public intellectual who successfully applied the best sociological thought to the cause of human progress and social justice.

The fact that DuBois was black is not irrelevant to his achievements or to the long delay in his acknowledgment as a founding eminence in sociology. Because of his race, he was sensitized to the major challenges facing our discipline, and strongly motivated to address them. Because of racism within the discipline, he was largely uncredited in his lifetime, even as more and more sociologists worked with methods he pioneered and built upon his great insights. While his work impacted intellectual currents around the world, DuBois was an invisible man within sociology, exiled from an intellectual house that he did so much to build.

Beginning in the 1980s there was a resurgence of explicitly DuBoisian scholarship. In 2003 there was a plenary session devoted to his work. All this culminated when the membership voted to place his name on the career achievement award. The new award set an inspiring standard for our own work, by linking it to DuBois’s inspiring career as a sociological pioneer.

As Robert Newby pointed out in the November 2007 Footnotes Public Forum article, a curious and sad thing happened at the 2007 ASA award ceremony: DuBois was rendered invisible once again. The award ceremony neglected to acknowledge that the recipient was receiving the inaugural W.E.B. DuBois Career Award, or to mention the significance of the name change. In fact, everyone involved acted as though there was no change at all.

Those of us who came to the ceremony to witness the history we had made sat in stunned silence, outraged by the omissions that cheapened the ceremony and replicated the insulting invisibility of the past. We did not speak out in protest because that would have further eroded the dignity of the ceremony.

Now the time for silence has passed. We want to register our protest over the failures of the 2007 ceremony and demand a more appropriate one next year.

For the 2008 meeting we request that the ASA acknowledge the new award with an appropriate ceremony, perhaps seeking the participation of people with a special relationship to DuBois. The occasion should include an explanation for the change and why it is a momentous one for the Association. The presenter should be invited to comment on the relationship of the winner to the scholarship and values exemplified by DuBois, and the winner should be invited to comment on the honor that he or she feels to be associated with one of the most important intellectuals in history.

As sociologists we should understand and embrace the meaning of symbols and ceremonies. As the intellectual descendents of W.E.B. DuBois, we should use this symbol and the ceremony associated with it to understand and cherish his legacy.

Dan Clawson, University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Cedric Herring, University of Illinois-Chicago; Aldon Morris, Northwestern University; Michael Schwartz, Stony Brook State University; Howard Winant, University of California- Santa Barbara