July 19, 2007

· Economics · orgtheory · Sociology

Fabio says

By emphasizing social dysfunction, we become associated with dysfunction. A basic finding in the study of the professions is that the prestige of your clients is a big predictor of your prestige. Also, if that’s what the average college student takes away from sociology – that it’s the field of social problems – then that’s the image they’ll have about us for the rest of our lives.

Quick, which is the dismal science? Of course you know: it’s economics. Economics is of the home of the soulless bean-counters, the people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the world of the rationers, the people who pull back the veil of everyday life revealing beyond doubt the cold, calculative, dog-eat-dog world underneath, the people whose methods help deny you health coverage, rent control and a living wage—the people, moreover, who have a bizarre picture of human nature and the place of rational calculation within it, who are willing to instrumentalize each an every social relationship into some Benthamite nightmare, turn your marriage into a simple bargain between sex, housework and money, insist that you treat your children as capital goods providing utility now and retirement security later, and wish only that you could buy or sell them for money because it would be more efficient. Depressing.

But wait! That can’t be right, because everyone knows that sociology is the field that’s all about unhappiness, dysfunction, conflict, and failure. Sociology is home to the people who see exploitation in every transaction, who lovingly document every obstacle to mobility and every impediment to equality on every dimension you can imagine, the people who pull back the veil of everyday life revealing beyond doubt the appalling structures of oppression underneath, where a tiny minority to exist in obscene privilege while millions eke out a living in empty jobs if they are lucky or are consigned to some institutional cage if they are not—the people, moreover, who have a bizarre picture of human nature and claim that your ordinary beliefs and choices are alienated, anomic, overdetermined, falsely conscious, the product of patriarchy, a manifestation of the conscience collective (whatever that is), mere cogs in a giant rationalized system, or ritual nonsense disconnected from any sensible justification. Depressing.

Thank God, then, for economics—the science not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization, discoverer of the capitalist market, the social device responsible for the greatest increase in material well-being, good health, prosperity and cultural richness ever experienced in the history of humanity, harbinger of continued and expanded future prosperity, clarion of personal liberty against the Orwellian tendencies of bureaucracies and the state, bastion of freedom and autonomy, handmaiden of liberation from drudgery both domestic and industrial, promoter of peace and mutual understanding through trade and industry, and tireless designer and defender of sensible policies for the rapid promotion and diffusion of all of these goods for the benefit all humankind. Fantastic!

But wait! That can’t be right, either, because everyone knows that sociology is the field that’s all about liberation from oppression, the destruction of exploitation, the end of want and the transcendence of needs, whose practitioners intoxicate the minds of undergraduates with the possibility of freedom for all, the end of want, and the elimination of invidious distinctions, who hold out the prospect of real equality, meaningful work, harmony with nature and a world without conflict, and whose theorists are saturated with the language of emancipatory social change and utopian visions of future paradises and whose practitioners strive to put the tools to effect such revolutionary change into the hands of their students for the benefit of all humankind. Fantastic!

Wait, now I’m confused. Which field is which again?

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I am Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m also affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Read a brief overview of my work or my Curriculum Vitae.

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