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Getting Sociology Right

Getting Sociology Right: A Half-Century of Reflections

Neil J. Smelser
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 329
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  • Book Info
    Getting Sociology Right
    Book Description:

    Neil J. Smelser, one of the most important and influential American sociologists, traces the discipline of sociology from 1969 to the early twenty-first century in Getting Sociology Right: A Half-Century of Reflections. Examining sociology as a vocation and building on the work of Talcott Parsons, Smelser discusses his views on the discipline of sociology and shows how his perspective of the field evolved in the postwar era.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95848-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction (2013)
    (pp. 1-12)

    Over a period of nearly four decades covering most of my professional career (1967–2005) I wrote a dozen-plus essays on the nature, status, methodology, problems, current situation, and future of the academic discipline of sociology. The topics of these essays were very different from one another and they were published in the greatest mix of accessible and inaccessible places. Yet they all had one characteristic in common: I initiated none of them. Every essay was written at the behest of an organizing committee of a scholarly meeting, an editor of a journal, or the reigning president of the American...


    • 1 The Optimum Scope of Sociology (1969)
      (pp. 15-34)

      The wordoptimumin the title of this communication to my colleagues suggests two guidelines that I shall follow.

      First, the word implies that sociologists have a number of different ways to define the scope of the field and that some ways are better than others. It suggests, therefore, that I should strike an evaluative note in this essay. My account of sociology’s scope should not be only inductive; it should be neither a distillation of definitions from textbooks, nor a recapitulation of the giants of the sociological tradition, nor a descriptive survey of what sociologists do. Rather, my account...

    • 2 Sociology and the Other Social Sciences (1967)
      (pp. 35-81)

      An inquisitive layman will often ask a sociologist, “What is sociology, anyway?” The question is not an easy one. Moreover, after the sociologist replies—usually haltingly and in general terms—the layman may pose a second question, such as “Well, how is that different from social psychology?” or “Isn’t that what anthropologists do?” These, too, are likely to yield vague, unsatisfactory answers. Sociology seems to defy simple definition of itself and clear demarcation of itself from related endeavors.

      Somehow it seems more appropriate to ask the question of sociology than it does of some her sister social sciences.What Is...

    • 3 Some Personal Thoughts on the Pursuit of Sociological Problems (1969)
      (pp. 82-102)

      The editors have invited us to try our hands in the search for that elusive phantom, “The Craft of Sociology.” Even worse, they have given us complete freedom, except for suggesting that we might wish to venture both some biographical observations and some reflections on the state of the discipline. The invitation has proved both gratifying and frustrating. It is gratifying because it has provided the occasion for stepping back and reflecting calmly on the intellectual activity that has been so important a part of my professional life—an occasion that rarely presents itself in the rush of daily affairs....


    • 4 Biography, the Structure of Explanation, and the Evaluation of Research in Sociology (1980)
      (pp. 105-115)

      One of the maxims that my teacher and friend Talcott Parsons was fond of repeating was this: in dealing with any theoretical topic, it never fails to repay one’s efforts to go first to the great classical thinkers on that topic. Parsons himself observed that principle repeatedly, revisiting and recasting the original insights of Durkheim, Weber, or Freud as he continued his lifelong struggle to conquer the mountainous obstacles to systematic sociological theory.

      In considering once again—at the request of Tad Blalock—the relation between theory and research in sociology, I decided to attend to this principle as well....

    • 5 External Influences on Sociology (1990)
      (pp. 116-130)

      It is common—and helpful—to distinguish between internal or autonomous forces that shape the development of scientific inquiry on the one hand and those that arise externally in the cultural and social milieus of that scientific enterprise on the other. By the former we refer to the power of unsolved paradigmatic puzzles and implications to drive scientific thought. The readiest of examples come from the “pure” sciences of mathematics, logic, and philosophy. Efforts to solve Zeno’s paradox, efforts to fathom the nature of infinity and the logic of negative numbers, and (perhaps) efforts to divine the existential characteristics of...

    • 6 Sociology’s Next Decades: CENTRIFUGALITY, CONFLICT, ACCOMMODATION (1990)
      (pp. 131-147)

      Within the past two years, a book bearing the title ofThe Future of Sociology(Borgatta and Cook 1988a) made its appearance. In that volume, some thirty sociologists surveyed the present and gazed into the future. Some commented on the field as a whole; some on institutionbased subfields such as historical sociology; some on subfields dealing with social control and social change; and some on subfields dealing with stratification (for example, race relations).

      Not surprisingly, sociology’s future looks like the proverbial elephant being described by several people touching its various parts. In another way it is like a Rorschach ink...

    • 7 Sociology as Science, Humanism, and Art (1994)
      (pp. 148-162)

      It was about 150 years ago that William Graham Sumner was born, the son of an English machinist who endowed him with a work ethic, a sense of personal integrity, and a stubborn independence from the world—qualities that were cloned on the son in such a way that they were never shaken. Later in his life, Sumner developed a love for what he called the “forgotten man”—the independent citizen who worked hard, paid his debts and taxes, dutifully raised his family, and perpetuated community values. Sumner might have been reviving the ghost of his father.

      It was about...

    • 8 Problematics in the Internationalization of Social Science Knowledge (1991)
      (pp. 163-190)

      My objective in this essay is to develop a statement of those conditions that facilitate and those that obstruct the internationalization of social science knowledge. The topic merits investigation, if for no other reason than that the internationalization of culture of all forms is an increasingly visible and salient phenomenon in our time. The process is evident at many levels:

      The spread of science and technology, fueled by the intensity of international economic competition

      The diffusion of ideologies, notably those of democracy and modernization

      The growth of common norms associated with growing economic and political interdependence

      The growing flow of...

    • 9 Social Sciences and Social Problems: THE NEXT CENTURY (1995)
      (pp. 191-209)

      Those with memory inform me that Vannevar Bush was not fond of the social sciences. To quote a historian of science writing on the fortieth anniversary of his famous report to President Truman, “[Bush] disrespected the social sciences intellectually and regarded them for the most part as just so much political propaganda masquerading as science” (Kevles 1990, xiii). In light of this, I am especially honored to be present, as a social scientist, at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of that report. I suppose a moral is to be found in the advice that French parents give their impatient children: “Avec...

    • 10 The Questionable Logic of “Mistakes” in the Dynamics of Knowledge Growth in the Social Sciences (2005)
      (pp. 210-232)

      Upon receiving an invitation to contribute to this special issue on errors in science, I immediately responded to the editors that I did not wish to do so because it was a big mistake to think that the logic of “big mistakes” applies to the history and dynamics of the behavioral and social sciences.* I gave them a few reasons why I thought that my reasoning was correct. The editors promptly came back to me and said what a great contribution it would be if I developed a case for my point of view. The editors turned out to be...


    • 11 Looking Back at Twenty-Five Years of Sociology and the Annual Review of Sociology (1999)
      (pp. 235-257)

      In accepting the assignment for this essay I did not realize how complex it would turn out to be. If I had been given two or three times the space allotted, it would not have sufficed. Accordingly, I have had to be schematic in preparing my remarks. I will limit my comments to six topics:

      An autobiographical note, as it relates to theAnnual Review of Sociology(hereafterARS)

      A brief overview of trends in sociological theory and research in the past quarter century

      Some descriptive data about theARS

      The theme of unity and diversity of sociology

      The dynamics...

    • 12 Sociological and Interdisciplinary Adventures: A PERSONAL ODYSSEY (2000)
      (pp. 258-298)

      Every academic discipline, including those in the behavioral and social sciences,* presents a number of tensions that its practitioners must resolve, if only implicitly and by indecision. Three of these tensions are particularly salient for this essay:

      What should be the disciplinary scope of one’s work—narrow, if one carves out a specialization or subdiscipline, or broad, if one takes an interest in a wide range of subject matters or general issues facing the discipline?

      How should one shift—or not shift—the focus and scope of one’s line of substantive research interests over a professional career?

      How much, and...

  7. Afterword (2013)
    (pp. 299-314)

    A dozen years have elapsed since the publication, in 2000, of chapter 12 on disciplinarity-interdisciplinarity. That passage of time alone calls for some reflection, updating, and revision of observations made in the accumulated essays on sociology and the social sciences.

    In 2001 I retired as director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. At that time I moved from Stanford back to Berkeley, where I have taught one course a year (jointly with an economist and a political scientist) to postdoctoral candidates carrying out research on health and health policy; have participated to a limited degree in...

  8. Index
    (pp. 315-325)