Sociology and the Sociologist
The role of sociologists in relation to theory and practice
What’s the role of sociologists in relation to theory and practice, and what is their interaction with the broader societal context, Ralf Dahrendorf asks. Sociologists are not commonly employed as advisors to tyrants or in other influential positions, and this can be seen as both a relief and a challenge for the field of sociology. We can distinguish between problems which can be solved through agreed-upon rules, and questions which are an inherent part of human existence and must be answered. Actions can blur the lines between problems and questions and between theory and practice.
Project Camelot and its Aftermath
In a significant sociological research project called Project Camelot, the causes of internal unrest and revolutions in developing countries were studied, particularly in Latin America. The project had both insights and intentions, including a desire to determine actions that could prevent internal conflicts. But it faced controversy and opposition, and there’s a complex relationship between sociological theory and practical outcomes. This shows the importance of sociologists' roles and ethical considerations in their work.
After President Johnson's directive to review all government-funded research abroad for its impact on America's relations with other countries, the Department of Defense terminated the project during a congressional hearing in July 1965. While this marked the end of the research project, it did not bring an end to the controversy. The American sociological community remained engaged in a discussion about the merits and drawbacks of the project and its sudden termination. Several authors wrote critical articles about it, and the letters sections of academic journals like The American Sociologist and Trans-Action were filled with mostly outraged correspondence. Some sociologists argued that their scientific integrity had been compromised, and they felt a need to restore it. Many Latin American scholars expressed their distaste for projects like Camelot, associating them with espionage and a lack of dignity. Within American sociology, some sociologists were collecting arguments to support the view that Project Camelot was both scientifically and ethically irresponsible, while others questioned the practicality of applying sociological knowledge. It suggests that sociologists grappled with the complex relationship between theory and practice, especially in the context of government-funded research.
The changing role of sociology in a scientifically-oriented civilization
There was a divide between theory and practice in contemporary sociological research. Empirical and analytical sociology are used as tools for social stability control rather than for addressing fundamental social issues. What’s the value of sociological research in practical applications, and what’s the role of sociologists in bridging the gap between theory and practice? Scholars like Helmut Schelsky and Jürgen Habermas had differing views on the impact of modernity on the relationship between theory and practice in sociology. The debate over the role and purpose of sociology in contemporary society was ongoing and complex.
The scientified civilization
There are two main ideas that often get confused but should be examined separately.
- The vision of a world governed by technical rationality, a self-regulating world of decision-making machines, which can be seen as a technocratic utopia. This perspective is a fantasy, the wishful or fearful dream of those who are not politically engaged. The notion that decisions ultimately happen within self-regulating processes, following the laws of rational behavior - this notion of a computer-controlled world - is a misconception.
- The realization that solving practical problems can help answer questions. In this view, practice can benefit from theory, even in fields like nuclear processes or politics. Theory can shape and create practical questions. For example, the American president seeks experts and research to understand the causes of revolutions rather than using military force to crush them.
The role of sociologists and social scientists
Some argue that social science theories should primarily be applied to practical problems and that the role of sociologists is to provide solutions to these problems.
Others suggest that sociologists should detach themselves from the direct application of their theories and instead focus on observing and understanding societal processes.
Critical theory suggests that sociologists should seek to bridge the gap between theory and practice, with the goal of transforming society based on rational decision-making.
In a world where questions and problems are interconnected, it’s essential to combine both theory and practice effectively. The separation of knowledge and action is an outdated approach, and a more holistic perspective is encouraged for sociologists and social scientists.
Bridging the gap between theory and practice in society
Sociology is primarily a theoretical discipline, but sociologists can and should play a critical role in practical decision-making processes. Sociological knowledge is generated through empirical research and the formulation of theories. Sociologists analyze social phenomena and formulate general principles, laws, and theories that help us understand society. Sociologists should not limit themselves to the role of detached observers but should actively engage in addressing social issues and shaping policy decisions. Sociologists can provide valuable insights and expertise to policymakers, contributing to more informed and effective decision-making processes.
The boundaries between theory and practice, as well as between sociologists and practitioners, have become increasingly blurred. Sociologists can engage with practical problems and contribute to finding solutions, while practitioners can benefit from sociological insights in their decision-making processes.
In a society that is modern, open, and civilized, sociologists can play a role in shaping social change and contributing to the realization of a more just and equitable society. Universities have a responsibility to prepare sociologists for this expanded role and to help facilitate the transformation of society into a better, more enlightened form.
Dahrendorf, R. (1967), Die Soziologie und der Soziologe - Zur Frage von Theorie und Praxis, Konstanz: Universitätsverlag GmbH.