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Politics and the ASA

In the September/October Footnotes, Stephen Balch describes his initial reaction to a letter penned by two ASA members that appeared in the May/June issue: This can't be for real. It must be "a caricature of academic political correctness, a bit of light-hearted satire" (p.13). I understand why Balch might be confused. Much of what goes on in the name of sociology these days is easily mistaken for parody. In fact, one need look no further than the September/October Footnotes.

We learn that the current ASA President "proposes the teaching and practice of a sociology that would serve those people struggling for their own liberation" (p. 4). His credentials include having been "educated" by "leading black, Latino, and white feminist scholars and activists on the importance of civil rights laws and protest strategies" (p.4). Of course, it is unclear how a background in "progressive" politics prepared him to lead an organization dedicated to the "advancement of sociology as a scientific discipline" (ASA mission statement).

We also read about the trials and tribulations of the ASA President-elect who was called a "racist" after failing to support the appointment of an ASR editor sufficiently committed to "diversity." He is ultimately compelled to a make public confession to the Association of Black Sociologists: "If some of you choose to see my actions as racist, then I must live with that. I can only say that I have examined my thoughts and actions closely, and believe I acted without racism and in the best interests of the ASA. Since I am human, I must acknowledge that my judgments may be flawed, but I can assure you they are not malevolent" (p. 13). We are left to wonder whether the President-elect will face further sanctions for his thought crime.

An article outlining the new guidelines on policymaking contains more evidence of ASA political orthodoxy: "As necessary or helpful [ASA] Council should be free to make pronouncements or clarify policy about how the Association should conduct its business. Resolutions of this sort might include refusing to hold meetings in states or localities with anti-choice laws [or] not investing in or doing business with firms known to have anti-union policies" (p. 3). The "principles of diversity and inclusiveness" (p. 3) apparently exclude anyone who might not endorse the party line on abortion and organized labor or who believes that in our professional capacity as sociologists we have no business taking a position on these matters.

ASA members have every right as citizens to pursue their political agendas. Why, however, do they insist on doing so in the name of sociology? Apparently, many believe that their political views follow logically from the findings of sociology. But political views - whether liberal, conservative, or something else - cannot be derived from sociology itself. Sociological research cannot tell us whether any political system or any particular social policy is desirable or undesirable. The defenders of sociology-as-activism do not seem to understand this elementary point. Instead, they defend their activism by denying a distinction between description and prescription. "Everything is political" they claim, assuming incorrectly that scientific statements, because they are influenced by values, are no different from value statements.

Thankfully, not all sociologists have abandoned science and become political activists. Yet, many have given up hope on the ASA to defend the discipline, and there is growing interest in forming a new association: The Society for Scientific Sociology. This is unfortunate, but, if the ASA continues on its current course, those committed to a genuine sociological science will be left with no other alternative.

James Tucker, University of New Hampshire