November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

to print a pagePrint This Page

NSF Interdisciplinary Workshop
on Sociological Approaches to Studying Morality

by Steven Hitlin and Chad Michael McPherson, University of Iowa

nsfA targeted set of interdisciplinary scholars interested in research on morality—representing psychology, anthropology, neurology, philosophy, economics, religion, and legal studies—joined a cross-section of sociologists for a workshop on "The Sociology of Morality" funded by the National Science Foundation and held in Arlington, VA, June 15-16.

The purpose of the workshop, which was organized and co-chaired by Steven Hitlin of the University of Iowa and Jan Stets, NSF Sociology Program Director and Professor at UC-Riverside, was to catalyze sociology’s participation in the social scientific examination of a core human concern: morality. Debates over right and wrong, justice, values, propriety, deviance, and so on are at the core of organized social life. The study of morality has recently received a number of prominent treatments within popular discourse, including articles in Time, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, and three recent feature stories in Newsweek. These stories tend to focus on evolutionary and psychological aspects of moral judgment.

Morality and Sociology

Sociological understandings and perspectives on morality are largely omitted from this coverage. There is little to no discussion of the structural, cultural, and interactional bases for moral judgment, feeling, and action. Scarce attention is paid to how people handle the existence of conflicting moral perspectives evoked through their multiple social positions and across valued social roles and memberships, the ways that moral claims motivate political and social movements, or the importance of the moral dimension for understanding the self. Sociologists have much to offer academic and public conversations about morality, but they also have much to gain from other disciplines. Thus, popular interest, coupled with revitalized academic attention, warrants interdisciplinary dialogue on morality in hopes of contributing to present and future sociological inquiry.

There were several goals for the workshop. First, it expanded sociologists’ understanding of interdisciplinary work on moral functioning, development, and action. Second, it attempted to begin an interdisciplinary dialogue between sociology and cognate disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, religion, law, political science, and economics. Many sociologists study processes and domains that would be improved by knowing more about individual moral functioning, while other social sciences would be well-served to employ sociological insights and concepts in the expansion of their models and theories. Finally, the workshop was designed to engage discussion of potential interdisciplinary research programs on morality among sociologists and researchers in other disciplines. Because dialogue across disciplines can be difficult, the workshop attempted to breech some of these barriers, discuss focal areas ripe for collaboration, and bridge perceived differences (where possible) that restrict collaborative projects and the building of models across disciplines.

The Workshop

The first day of the two-day workshop was informational. Workshop participants presented brief overviews of their particular research interests and theories about moral processes. Non-sociological presentations ranged from neurological work on brain functioning in moral dilemmas to cross-cultural comparisons of moral schemes to game-theoretic models of human behavior. Sociological presentations ranged from ethnographic studies of exchange markets to experimental designs exploring the nature of altruism to discussions of the legal and criminological contexts for behavior. Feedback from a number of workshop participants indicated that this method of exchange was extremely productive and interesting to sociologists and non-sociologists alike. Many of the presentations suggested areas of common understanding or made useful distinctions among competing approaches. Although this dialogue is challenging and rare across social sciences, non-sociologists gained new appreciation for potential sociological contributions to studying morality, while sociologists were exposed to a variety of models of different aspects of morality.

The second day began with breakout sessions intended to foster smaller-group discussions about areas of agreement and disagreement across the social sciences in terms of understandings of morality at micro- and macro-levels. The panels were entitled "Big Questions, Gaps, and Things We Still Need to Know." Graduate student participants then reported on the themes that emerged from each group’s study. The latter part of the second day involved the entire group discussing how interdisciplinary work might benefit both academic and public understandings of human morality.

Participants prepared short topical overviews (available at that will be compiled for a workshop report. The workshop co-chairs will prepare a final report that includes participants’ topical reports, suggested bibliographies, and extensive notes taken of the presentations and discussions. The National Science Foundation’s support of the workshop reflects the foundation’s interest in assisting in the development of interdisciplinary approaches to understanding human behavior across substantive domains and analytical levels. Sociologists interested in engaging in such issues and who seek possible funding should contact Sociology Program Directors Jan Stets ( or Patricia White ( More information on the study of morality can be obtained from Steve Hitlin ( logo


Back to Front Page of Footnotes