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When Sociology Was Great

Busing, selfhood, and Catholics--a guide to seminal works of sociology

Having pronounced on the all too miserable state of contemporary sociology in my review of Jeffrey Alexander's The Civil Sphere, perhaps I can make some amends by reminding readers of the days when sociology was great. These seminal contributions to the field helped Americans understand their world:

    •  Robert K. Merton, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action," American Sociological Review, 1 (December 1936), 894-904. Merton was a master of words: "dysfunctional," "focus group," "middle range theory," "the Matthew effect" were all his. But the most famous of them all was the idea of "unanticipated consequences." With those two words, Merton cautioned us that what we intend is not always what we get. Without Merton, the skepticism of his Columbia colleagues Lionel Trilling and Richard Hofstadter becomes harder to appreciate.
    •  James S. Coleman, Equality of Educational Opportunity (U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1966). Coleman published his study showing that black students would do better in school if the majority of their classmates were white. The Coleman Report would lead to busing, and Coleman would later prove that busing was of no help because it encouraged white flight. Coleman's conclusions were resisted, and an effort was at one time launched to strip him of his membership in the American Sociological Association (of which he later became president). His work demonstrates that empirical evidence really can be relevant to hot-botton issues, even if that evidence is politically uncomfortable.
    •  Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1956). Goffman was a genius--that's all. No one can do justice to his eye for how we manage the impressions others have of us. This is the sociology of the underground at its best.
    •  Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955). OK, so he was not really a sociologist, but a self-taught Jewish theologian (and, later in life, a writer for National Review). But he left behind a classic that helped explain America's unusual religious landscape at a time when not many people were taking religion seriously. His title suggests that his book could not possibly be relevant at a time when immigrants from beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition are populating our cities. It is.

By Alan Wolfe