Beyond Family Sociology but More of the Same

As I watched the sociology of the family turn away in important degree from what had been earlier focal concerns in family interactions and relationships, I came to think that I was at the same time witnessing comparable developments in other sociological specialty areas. The cases of criminology and delinquency seem to repeat a particularly important feature of the case of family sociology: fewer departments of sociology are teaching courses in criminology and delinquency, even at the undergraduate level, and fewer have graduate programs featuring these topics. Rather, these topics and both undergraduate and graduate curricula dealing with them have transferred to schools or departments of criminal justice or their equivalents. To be sure, in some degree these topics are incorporated into the newer specialty area of the sociology of law, but the very emergence of that specialty makes a relevant point: my sense is that the willingness of departments of sociology to accept without strong demurrer the transfer of crime and delinquency to criminal justice reflects the attitudes of mainstream sociology with respect to these topics, which attitudes are not unlike those relating the mainstream to work on family interactional processes and relationships. Again, this is a matter to which the discussion will return shortly.

Mainstream responses to the emergence of yet another sociological specialty, namely, sociological practice, seem to me to have much in common with those relating mainstream to family interaction and to crime and delinquency work. Sometime in the early 1970's, I participated in a conference devoted to (whatever its formal title may have been) the deprecation of the social policy and practice efforts of some sociologists and what might be done to overcome that response from mainstream sociology (see Demerath, Larsen, & Schuessler, 1975, reporting papers and discussion from that conference). Despite the American Sociological Association's strong efforts to find a meaningful place for sociological policy and practice activities and research over recent years, it is my sense that little real change has taken place in mainstream attitudes in the thirty-some years since that conference.7 Recalling that a major (if sometimes only implicit) theme of the conference was the negative impact on the status of those working on public policy

7 Social psychology is yet another sociological specialty seen by many sociologists as being outside the mainstream, "nicely" (if that word is appropriate here) illustrated by Alvin Gouldner's (1970) vitriolic attack on Erving Goffman, whose work Gouldner believed focused on the trivial in contrast to work in the tradition of Marx and Weber. That mainstream response to social psychology, although importantly mitigated, still exists today and may well enter into contemporary mainstream attitudes toward the sociology of mental health, given that mental health issues are often approached from a social psychological perspective. However, this case is different in many ways from the other sociological specialties discussed above and will not be pursued further here.

and in sociological practice of attitudes held by a self-appointed sociological elite, I would guess that something of the same sort operates today, old attitudes dying hard, in particular with respect to sociological practice. (It is, after all, sociological practice, rather than the "high level" public policy issues that draw the attention of the government commissions and the more "intellectual" media, that come closest to work on everyday issues of family interaction and relationships, crime and delinquency, and sociological practice.)

What is it about the specialty areas of the work on family interaction and relationships, criminology and delinquency, and sociological practice that makes them germane to this volume's concern with the breach that separates mainstream sociology from the sociology of mental health? Posing this question immediately provides the answers to it: each finds much of its motivation not in sociological theory per se but in everyday problems of human beings and the attempts of these human beings to resolve those everyday problems. And each finds some part of its motivation in social policy issues that emerge around alternative ways of meeting these problems through collective (essentially governmental) action. Clearly, neither problem-focused interests nor sociological practice represents "pure" sociology, either in the sense propounded by Donald Black (1995) or by mainstream theorists in general. It reveals no secret of sociology as a discipline—nor does it take any deep sociological inquiry—to note that American sociology for almost a century has taken pains to dissociate itself from ameliorative interests of social work and from the religious personnel who constituted a major segment of its 19th and early 20th century professorial cadre. In that process, mainstream sociology found its major motivation largely in the logic and societal level concerns of its European forebears. While there can be no quarrel with such logic and concerns as at the very core of the sociological enterprise (and I certainly have no quarrel with these), a number of unfortunate consequences have followed for both mainstream and specialties, albeit not necessarily.

The first of these consequences is the devaluation and marginalization of sociological specialties that have their substantive focus on problems of everyday life of ordinary people, that is, on the topic on which this volume focuses attention, mental health, as well as on the other sociological topics that have been noted above.8 A set of auxiliary consequences follow such devaluation and marginalization. One is the pattern of present and probably future migration of substantive fields—the present day exemplar is the movement of criminology and

8 There is one area of sociology that has largely if not entirely escaped the attitudes toward work dealing with everyday problems of human beings I have attributed to mainsteam sociology, and that is the area of race, especially racial segregation. Why that may be so is an interesting question. Likely strongly implicated in the answer is the fact that race and ethnicity are closely related to issues of social class and social power, and class and power analyses are the heart of the foundational contributions of Marx and Weber to the discipline. An important element in this part of the answer lies in that which is noted in the text, above, as well as in the just prior sentence: sociological theory itself provides more than sufficient motivation for work in race relations. Sociology's historic affinity for the underdog may enter the answer as well. Some might include an element of political correctness in the answer; I do not believe that is the case.

delinquency to criminal justice programs—from sociology to other disciplines. Another is that major talent among recruits to sociology becomes diverted from the devalued and marginalized fields as the recognition of such denigration sinks in and as they receive career advice from mainstream representatives. Still further, a perhaps inevitable accompaniment of devaluation and marginalization of specialty fields is some degree of alienation of those who remain within sociology itself, a phenomenon that seems to have occurred among those with interests in family interaction and relationships and in criminology who seek to pursue those interests in the context of non-sociological organizations.

But it is perhaps a longer term consequence of the gap between mainstream sociology and specializations like mental health, crime and delinquency, and sociological practice that may be even more fateful for sociology as a discipline and a profession. It is this possibility that initially caught my own attention as I witnessed the noted changes in work on the family among sociologists. In the main, students entering sociology as undergraduate majors (and it is such students who ultimately enter graduate programs of sociology and eventually are employed as sociologists) do so because some everyday social problem has attracted them to the field: interactional problems centering around their own social relationships; difficulties in family relationships that eventuate in parental divorce or in their own "divorce" from parents or siblings; mental health problems of friends or family members, their own delinquent behavior or such behavior that has in one way or another impacted them; the aspiration to do something to mitigate such problems. As far as I can see, we recruit few persons directly through interest in abstract theoretical issues; and they become interested in theoretical problems only as they begin to see the relevance of these for illuminating their own initiating concerns. If this is so, to denigrate those initiating concerns, directly or by implication, may rob sociology of a significant portion of its potential recruits.

That is my fear, and it is a fear that generalizes beyond work on the family and other "marginal" specialties within sociology to work on mental health: denial of the relevance and potential import for sociological theory of any of its specialty areas by mainstream sociology closes off important processes by which students become interested in sociology and truncates the potential contributions to sociological theory of those who maintain their interests in one or another non-mainstream sociological specialty. Doing whatever can be done to make more visible the reciprocal links between mainstream and specialty areas serves the interests of both specialty and mainstream, and benefits sociology as a whole.

Can anything be done? In my more optimistic moments, I think some possibilities exist to stem the tide. Volumes such as the present one can certainly help, though its impact is likely to be more limited to one side of its intended audience than one might hope. But suppose the underlying rationale and principle involved in the volume—increasing the specialty's awareness of the utility of sociological theory to enrich its research and increasing sociological theorists' awareness of the potential of specialty contributions to "growing" sociological theory—were extended to sessions at ASA meetings as well as regional association meetings jointly sponsored and organized by theory and specialty sections. Suppose, too, that editors of specialty journals (including theory) could be persuaded to sponsor special issues of their journals pursuing the same tack? Might we reasonably expect such communication across the specialty-mainstream gap (as well as other efforts generated by more imaginative minds than mine) to contribute strongly to making each side of that gap aware of the intellectual and professional costs of their separation? I hope so.

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