Monday, August 28, 2017

Confronting the Past to Change the Future: Guidance from our Colleagues in Sociology

Kimberley A. Reyes, PhD Candidate
Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education
University of Michigan 

A few months ago, my Facebook newsfeed was full of references to a special section of the May issue of Social Problems entitled, “Essays on Voices from the Margins: Inequalities in the Sociological House.” I’m not a regular reader of this journal, but as someone who studies contention within academic disciplines, I was intrigued by all of the buzz. This special section is a collection of essays from six noted sociologists of color—Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, David Embrick, Julian Go, Mignon Moore, Aldon Morris, and Mary Romero—each of whom offered candid reflections on the current state of sociology as it relates to racial inequality and the issues faced by scholars of color in the discipline. Their reflections were generated by a town hall discussion at the 2016 meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), during which frank conversations were had about the ways in which social inequalities are reproduced within a discipline that claims social inequality as its core concern. Taken together, the essays issue a forceful call “to build a better sociology” (Morris, 2017, p. 210)—one that that supports diversity and inclusion in practice as much as in rhetoric.

I offer three key themes from across the essays that I believe are broadly relevant to and instructive for our own field of higher education:

1) Confronting a historical foundation of racism

First, these scholars insist that the discipline must admit to itself that sociological knowledge is deeply intertwined with racism and colonialism. The "historical heroes" (Bonilla-Silva, 2017, p.181) credited with founding sociology were not only overwhelmingly white and male, but they often rationalized racial prejudice as a biological and innate tendency. Early elite sociologists’ beliefs in white superiority silenced and suppressed the minority of sociologists of color who dared to think differently—ousting brilliant thinkers such as W E. B. Du Bois and Oliver Cromwell Cox from the sociological canon. Accordingly, these historical ties to a white western point of view must be understood as sociology’s greatest intellectual constraint (Morris, 2017). Confronting that constraint requires an epistemic insurgency—a fight to include worldviews that expand sociological knowledge beyond the “imperial standpoint” (Go, 2017). Higher education researchers must critically examine the origins of our own foundational concepts (some of which are based on sociological frameworks), much in the way that student persistence theory has been critiqued for its assimilationist bias (Guiffrida, 2006).

2) Rejecting adherence to objectivity/value neutrality

Second, these scholars maintain that the discipline’s adherence to objectivity and value neutrality greatly hinder its potential for societal transformation (Bonilla-Silva, 2017; Embrick, 2017, Morris, 2017). Bonilla-Silva (2017) and Embrick (2017) argue that when white sociologists “made a pact with the devil of objectivity” in the 1920s, they created a sociology that is more concerned with gathering data than changing lives for the better (Bonilla-Silva, 2017, p. 183). The expectation that the scientific must be kept separate from the political is an enduring hallmark of white sociology, leaving many contemporary sociologists in a state of paralysis when it comes to doing work that is intentionally geared towards social change (Embrick, 2017, p. 190). Constructing a public sociology that is grounded in human emancipation is possible, but the discipline will need to replace the myth of value neutrality with the belief that activism and scientific work can and must go together (Morris, 2017). In the field of higher education, cultural norms of objectivity and neutrality may explain why, for example, race-related studies published in our top journals commonly avoid critical discussions of racism (Harper, 2012).

3) Having the courage to look within

Lastly, these scholars turn the sociological gaze inward by describing the inequalities that are reproduced across multiple levels of the discipline—in scholarly/professional organizations, in departments and programs, and in universities (Embrick, 2017). Bonilla-Silva (2017) argues that relentless racial microaggressions and the other every day ways in which sociologists of color are made to feel marginal are central mechanisms of organizational whiteness in the discipline. Moore (2017) contends that both race and gender dynamics create an environment where women of color must constantly justify their existence within the discipline. Reflecting on what has changed since her well-known study of graduate students in sociology from two decades ago, Romero (2017) laments that the representation of graduate students and faculty of color remains abysmally low, and that mainstream sociology refuses to include important sociologists of color in its theories, methods, and curricula. Although the discipline is dedicated to studying inequality “out there” in society, it must address the persistent structural hostility to diversity within. Higher education scholars, then, must collectively reflect on everyday practices within our own profession. Do we put too much emphasis on institutional affiliation at our scholarly meetings? Do we place departmental diversity work primarily onto the shoulders of our students and faculty of color? Do we privilege certain epistemologies in our higher education degree programs?

The parallels between sociology and the field of higher education are clear.  Scholars in our own field are committed to addressing social inequality, but the field itself is based on similar historical legacies of exclusion, myths of value neutrality, and continues to lack compositional diversity across faculty and graduate students. Many of us in higher education consider ourselves scholar-activists. Part of this role involves examining and challenging the biases embedded in our own dominant knowledge paradigms. We cannot effectively address social inequality across higher education until we have come to terms with how inequality is reproduced within our own field.


Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). What we were, what we are, and what we should be: The racial problem of American sociology. Social Problems, 64(2), 179-187.

Embrick, D. G. (2017). Discontents within the discipline: Sociological hypnagogia, negligence,      and denial. Social Problems, 64(2), 188-193.

Go, J. (2017). Decolonizing sociology: Epistemic inequality and sociological thought. Social           Problems, 64(2), 194-199.

Guiffrida, D. A. (2006). Toward a cultural advancement of Tinto's theory. The Review of Higher    Education29(4), 451-472.

Harper, S. R. (2012). Race without racism: How higher education researchers minimize racist         institutional norms. The Review of Higher Education36(1), 9-29.

Moore, M. R. (2017). Women of color in the academy: Navigating multiple intersections and          multiple hierarchies. Social Problems, 64(2), 200-205.

Morris, A. D. (2017). The state of sociology: The case for systemic change. Social Problems,         64(2), 206-211.

Romero, M. (2017). Reflections on “The department is very male, very white, very old, and very    conservative”: The functioning of the hidden curriculum in graduate sociology departments. Social Problems, 64(2), 212-218.

No comments:

Post a Comment