Notes on : Denzin, N. (1997). Commentary and Debate: Whose Sociology Is It? Comment on Huber. American Journal of Sociology, 102 (5): 1416 – 23. DOI: 10.1086/231088.

Dave Harris

Huber had apparently identified problems with sociology as a discipline, in an article in AJS 101, and isolated 'certain self-destructive characteristics' including 'some "affinity for anti-rationalist ideas"' (1416). They should not be tolerated any more and we should develop a central core of knowledge and solid facts about society that will make us useful, to show that sociology is useful. [Note 3 says that Huber wrongly identifies irrationalist ideas as post-modern ones, but this conflates the meaning of post-modernism, and ignores earlier constructionist and interpretive approaches].

She particularly says that people like constructionists offer '"aggressive efforts to undermine everyone else"' (1417), and alleges that these people have no '"standards of rationality objectivity or truth"'. This is caricature. No one is named inthis position because 'no one holds it'. A comparison is then made with another sociological group who support the idea of sociology as science and think there is a disciplinary core — 'demography, social organisation, and stratification'. They produce replicable data and supply knowledge needed to run welfare states, especially if they include statistics. Critics should not be tolerated if they challenge the idea of disinterested observers.

Methodological controversies about positivism were ignored in 1980s mainstream American sociology, and were found best developed in anthropology and economics. There were challenges to the notion of objective social science and traditional forms of authority including reliability and validity. There was much criticism of ontological and epistemological and methodological presuppositions. Guba and Lincoln (1994) can be cited as developing 'a more relative, constructionist position' (1418). However there were still complex criteria for evaluating interpretive work, including 'credibility, plausibility, context embeddedness, dependability, confirm ability, authenticity, dialogue, narrative truth, emotional verisimilitude and so on' (1419) — but all this is rejected as relativistic [and so internally contradictory as tobe meaningless]. Huber does not even address methodological biases in positivism, especially 'who is to police those who claim they have the correct view of knowledge, truth, or science, and knowledge for whom?' [Old very general challenge that crops up even in the later work — exaggerated term like policing, and an assumption that there can be no one who has anything other than their own interests at heart. Equally applicable to his judgements,of course]. Huber does not suggest how we determine objective truth. Her methods 'carries political and social biases, and she has no strategy, other than rhetoric, for guarding against them'.

Democracy is not the same as value freedom. Her model is ecological, with 'Darwinian overtones', where administrators have the right to choose the strongest options. Those who advocate intellectual relativism 'and the inclusion of students on administrative committees' have only brought unclear standards and inappropriate participation. They have given sociology a partisan image.

They are actually asking for a pluralistic field beyond the core subjects. They suggest that science is a social institution with values and these are often exclusionary and distorting. They suggest that science must reflect 'multiple, interpretive perspectives, even, perhaps, a successor feminist science [referring to Harding] or a science that embodies the interpretive and epistemological standpoints of different racial and ethnic groups'. These would be democratic communities. They are calling for more ASA sections to reflect standpoint interests and suggest that graduate students should contribute to departmental politics. These are partisan values and they may have made the field vulnerable to attack by administrators. 'But when have we ever been value free?' (1420). How can we encourage new people? [edbiz?] Is Huber proposing some test for admission? [Heaven forbid!] She wants to go back to some orthodoxy with one view of sociology and its interests. 'This is nostalgia, for when did this state ever exist?'.

She still needs to show how she would address core problems of the kind she identifies, how to develop consistent standards of teaching and research, norms of civility, rigour. Not everyone agrees these are problems in the discipline — Stinchcombe advocates a disintegrated discipline in order to advance knowledge and expand students minds. Pluralism is nothing new, and has characterised fruitful moments in the 50s and 60s. Even within Huber's core, there has been pluralism, for example trying to connect Weber's methodology with Marx's reflexivity [an example she mentions]. It is the narrowness and traditionalism that is new.

This orthodoxy 'got us into this mess in the first place' (1421), when good old 'mainstream empirical middle range sociology held sway '. The discipline fragmented into subspecialisms, and it's that that drew negative attention. It is 'scapegoating' that leads to blaming constructionists. Even her own examples of trivial research are mainstream. In her orthodox period, departments and disciplines were oriented to either specific missions or something more generalist, which somehow involved 'the needs of society'. Over time, the orientation shifted towards domains, [professionalisation and scholasticisation of the discipline in my view] and this is also partly because societies are more complex, so that the single discipline approach was no longer adequate. Diverse interests and interdisciplinary programs arose as a result.

This development in turn provides diverse materials and requires no longer a single discipline or a single paradigms. Instead we need 'social problems–based, interdisciplinary research' and this has been accepted in mainstream sociology as better describing the field [quoting Stinchcombe again]. Dichotomous and stereotypical thinking will not solve sociology's problems. The demands of radical democracy are long established and cannot 'be quieted. There is too much at stake' (1422).

We should focus again on the sociological imagination in order to preserve the entire discipline rather than getting bogged down into disputes. Consider shutting down conversations we should develop 'a common ground for reasoned, civil discourse'

Huber, J.  & Mirowsky, J. Of Facts and Fables: Reply to Denzin [as above]: 1424 -- 8

Denzin apparently thinks that 'fables are superior to facts because appropriate interpretation enables one to make anything of the facts that one chooses'. This is what drives anti-rational thought and threatens lots of sciences. The ASA's task group originally raised it as a problem [and apparently their report led to her article].

There are fallacies in his argument. His 'narrative strategy (1423) has implications. His own dictum is 'if you want to change how things are, change how they are seen' [citing Denzin 1992 — the article on Cornerville]. He has mastered 'post-modern methods', via 'specious innuendo… Derogatory implications… Patently false' (1424).

He suggests that quantitative mainstream methods 'are an exercise in immoral repression of free thought'. People who reject measurement or reproducible methods are 'moral heroes' while those who practice it are 'repressive villains'. This ignores the 'deep moral commitment' of sociologists who do science, such as demographers worried about population growth, stratification researchers who 'feel anguish at the thought of racism, sexism and poverty'. These people have spent decades acquiring the relevant skills and knowledge, and are often driven by moral concern. The difference is that their method is based on 'the assumption that their personal beliefs may be false and must be tested'. It is a strange morality to demand the right that ideas are accepted as valid 'regardless of how vague, contradictory, or unsupportable they may be'. The only people who benefit are 'ideologues, spin doctors, charlatans, and the cognitively diffuse… who fail when their ideas are put to the test'.

Denzin sees quantitative mainstream methods as 'thoughtless traditions'. In fact they have been produced by at least a century of thought and experimentation. The whole point was to aggregate insights and discoveries. Quantitative research was a solution to the weakness of earlier forms that could not be reproduced or compared, and this led to representative sampling. Those who really dodged methodological criticism are those who claim their cases are special and their insights unique. 'It is arrogance to see one's own impromptu methods as more thoughtful than standard methods' (1425).

Positivist do not ignore methodological criticism. Anti-positivists need to hear more. Denzin's complex criteria for evaluation only 'treat an artful fiction as if it were true. They define an effective gloss'.

Objective and value free social science is not 'undemocratic or antidemocratic'. Denzin seems to think that everyone has a right to think and do anything they choose, including graduate students who can 'come to any conclusion that suits them without fear of being treated as lost or incorrect'. Objective social science has a role in a democratic society and is 'essential to effective democracy' because it stops people asserting anything at all about what the public does, believes or wants, 'and fear no test of truth'.

Where is the public to get information to make informed decisions, cutting out 'interpretive handlers'? People need information that they cannot produce themselves and our job is to provide it. Therefore we must 'strive for relevance, clarity, honesty, and balance. It is not our job to displace their preferences or attitudes with our own'. In particular if ideas find 'little or no confirmation in empirical fact, we are obliged to say so'. We have to be polite but we must be candid. We will not be trusted by the public if our information is not worthy, and if we are 'nothing more than manipulative partisans of various causes'. [Dead relevant to the UK crisis post-Brexit where unis were almost entirely pro-Remain]

Denzin thinks that standard research undermines the interests of minorities, women and the poor, and that quantitative skill oppresses those who identify with the abused and downtrodden. 'This is the sorriest falsehood of all'. Interpretive communities may speak of racism sexism or inequality, but lack 'the effectiveness and power of facts'. There is also the danger of 'elective incapacity' on the part of those students who struggled against a disadvantaged background. So 'nothing is more unscrupulous than a professor who works students' insecurities, beguiling them into the trap', as do Denzin and  others like him who fight against any attack on the falseness of their product. Instead they are advocating developing 'a flood of quantitatively disabled sociologists primed with resentment and hostility' (1426) [cracking stuff!].

The fundamental issue is what part does the external world plane confirming findings? Can we develop reliable knowledge by following the methods of science, even if it is 'imperfect and tentative'?. Or is science impossible because our accounts are only 'social and linguistic constructs'? Is debate fruitless, especially over the facts? Is any version of the event as valid as any other? — If so, obviously any attempt to confirmation replication is pointless. These questions point to the real division rather than distinguishing positivists and non-positivists [and these words were already abandoned in the original essay, to reflect 'a more sophisticated version of realism'].

We have two sociologies of science we might draw on — Merton who sees external reality as the most important in determining the content science, while newer ones see content as more negotiated, influenced by power, ideology and other social factors. Of course social factors are important, as even Merton demonstrated, although external reality was ultimately responsible. Some British sociologists, like Latour and Woolgar decided that negotiation was the crucial factor. This is 'consonant with post-modernist thought', but it tends to be more popular in the humanities, while people in physics or biology see the notion as 'incomprehensible, alien to their experience'. Seeing negotiation as essential fails to explain the obvious success of science and science-based technology.

Are we saying that gravity is 'only a social construction', or that a physicist's discussion of gravity is 'just a text'? (1427). Are observational accounts in sociology just the 'observer's construction of reality'? Can social scientist produce 'reliable (if tentative) knowledge by using certain procedures'? Some sociologists feel there are no standards here. Denzin argues that no one actually holds such a position — but this 'answer is disingenuous'.

We see this if we look at the controversy about Street Corner Society in the special issue of Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. [see for example this]  An article had called into question the data, and the author had gone back and got some more data. Whyte was allowed to write a rejoinder, but other critics had to be recruited as well, and one of them was Denzin.

Whyte's response pointed to factual errors, quotations out of context and 'other misrepresentations' in the accusation that he had falsified the data. Denzin never bothered to address those, because, as the editors explained, he 'found the broad question of validity neither important nor answerable' thanks to his allegiance to 'existential sociology and the post-modern creed of multiple realities' [I must agree — Denzin's response is a terrible weasel, possibly intended to placate the warring participants] [A note mentions the Sokal hoax] [In another note, the author says that 'in our view all charges against Whyte's scholarship lacked merit']

Denzin began by criticising Whyte for assuming that the social world exists and that events can be accurately recorded, then he raises '" troubling alternatives"' (1428), which include the possibility that 'the ethnographer's text creates the subject', that subjects appear only in written texts. Since any 'inscription on the memory disc is but another version of the event… one multiple inscription has as much validity as another' so debates about who got the facts right are fruitless. He ended by asking if we want this kind social science any more anyway.

Whyte responded by saying that if his own social realist approach is only one of several possible strategies for telling stories, then everything will depend only on the author's persuasive power, and 'scientific arguments are thus transformed into literary criticism'. This would stop behavioural sciences altogether, because 'credible interpretation depends on getting the facts straight'. Indeed, if social research is only one of several narratives, there is no point in attempting to gather valid data [which is what Denzin really is arguing, I think -- politics is all]

back to Denzin page