If You Don’t Have Thirty Years: Case Studies in Applied Sociology

In the near-half-century of my career, I have had the opportunity to research, reflect upon and write about a very wide range of social issues and problems, many of which matter to the general population and about which political controversy often rages.  My usual slant has been towards professional and scientific audiences – audiences where the expression of political opinions is looked upon with disfavor. I was taught in graduate school that scientific writing was  dispassionate, objective, and oriented towards establishing the facts. But it is impossible to write about guns, violence, crime, poverty, homelessness, hunger, social class, or even the American family without becoming aware of the polemical commentary that exists on these topics and without forming firm opinions about them. The conditions of the urban poor have occupied social scientists since Charles Booth wrote about them at the end of the 19th century. But whether the poor are poor because they are lazy or otherwise deficient, or because they are victims of larger social-structural forces, is a question that has occupied politicians and political commentators for at least as long. And on such matters, applied research can and should have relevant things to say.

Much of the science of social problems is intentionally indifferent to politics. Our job  is to get the facts straight and let others debate the implications. But much political commentary is apparently indifferent to the facts as social science has come to know them – and poorer as a result. Even granting that political and ideological biases are the death of social science, political debate that proceeds in ignorance of the facts can hardly prove beneficial either. Is there no room in the arena of political discourse for a middle way? For a polemic that is based in fact but considers larger consequences and implications? Can political opinions be challenged empirically? Is there any point to so doing?

The overarching framework that ties the various chapters of this book into a coherent whole is that public policy is well served when it is informed by the best research the social sciences have to offer. Ronald Reagan famously said that “we don’t need a bunch of sociology majors on the bench,” but the fact is, the Supreme Court makes reference to social science research in many of its decisions, and the same can be said about many Acts of Congress. More than many realize, the language of political discourse is suffused and enriched by the products of contemporary social science. Alas, in many cases, the results of social science are treated less as nuggets of insight than as stones to throw at one’s political opponents. In these pages, I indulge myself in a little throwing back.

The title is taken from a quotation by Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “If you don’t have 30 years to devote to social policy, don’t get involved.”

Current Status: Complete to first draft; completely revised once. Pp. 259 (double-spaced); 77,000 words.