American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

How Might a Study of the History of Sociology Inform the Discipline’s Response to the Pandemic? (History of Sociology)

Compiled by Gillian Niebrugge-Brantley, George Washington University

Section members responding to this question drew on past crises for warnings and exemplars for contemporary sociology. Full versions of these responses can be found in Timelines issue 29.

The Cholera Pandemic 1854-1860 

Stephen Turner traces the debate between social statistician William Farr, who created “beautiful visual models of the statistical distribution of cholera” based on the miasma hypothesis, and a founder of epidemiology, John Snow, whose exploration of anomalies in Farr’s models helped to end the scourge by tracing the transmission of the disease to drinking water. Turner concludes, “An impressive model with faulty assumptions can be deadly... [W]ith epidemic disease, understanding the mode of transmission is key. And this is the very thing that policy and science have failed to get a clear understanding of in the coronavirus crisis.”

Post-Reconstruction Terrorism 1877-1960

Patricia Lengermann examines African Americans’ turn to sociology to provide data for their battle against post-Reconstruction terrorism, looking especially at W.E.B. Du Bois’ work institutionalizing the presentation of methodological statements in research publications, as described by Kalashia Daniels and Earl Wright II (2018) in “’An Earnest Desire for the Truth despite Its Possible Unpleasantness’” whose title, from Du Bois, captures African American hopes for sociology as a source of methodologically transparent truth claims. 

The Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906

Steven Lukes shows the Dreyfus crisis stimulating Durkheim’s expansion of his concept of organic solidarity in “Individualism and the Intellectuals” (1898), which argues that society “cannot hold together unless there exists among… members a certain intellectual and moral unity” which in an “advanced, heterogeneous society” must be found in “a society-wide commitment to individual rights, which finds its ‘motive sympathy for all that is human.’” Lukes concludes, “On the most optimistic of assumptions, people will learn from the current crisis that the interdependence of organic solidarity demands recognition of everyone, including all essential workers, … doctors, those who dispose of dead bodies… delivery men… cashiers in the grocery store.” 

The Social Problem —1890-1914

Vicky MacLean, Gillian Niebrugge, and Joyce Williams examine a moment of high prominence for sociology generated by the “social settlement movement” a widespread public sociology project (over 400 geographically dispersed settlements run by thousands of volunteers) addressing “the social problem” of “poverty amidst riches.” Nobody knew the poorest neighborhoods of American cities better than settlement residents who provided aid and information to their impoverished neighbors, collected data about local conditions, organized remedial actions, and lobbied for state interventions. The movement's leader Jane Addams theorized the social problem as “maldistribution” and its answer, social ethics, as the proposition “the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain… until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life. 

Fascism, The Depression, World War II

Jack Nusan Porter and Michael Schwartz explore American sociology’s relation to Jewish refugees fleeing fascism. Porter, himself a Holocaust survivor, reflects, “These emigres… escaping from fascism in Europe…ironically [finding] racism and xenophobia here… used their tools as social scientists to work to eradicate these evils.” Drawing on Roger Bannister (1992) and citing George Lundberg’s 1943 ASA Presidential Address which censured supporters of Jewish immigration, Schwartz warns, “we as sociologists interested in learning from history should work hard to make sure that this time the profession is fighting FOR the most victimized and not against them.”

Patrick Fontane and Gary Janowski each point to sociology’s debilitating pre-occupation with internal battles during The Depression and World War II. Fontane recommends Charles Camic’s (2007) “On Edge:  Sociology during The Depression and the New Deal” and warns against  “sociologists responding to crisis by re-arranging the deckchairs.” Janowski recommends Anne Rawls’ 2018 paper, The Wartime Narrative in U.S. Sociology, 1940–1947” which shows how ASA Presidential Addresses produced “a ‘narrative’” of “good and bad science” based in a “‘trauma’ to the discipline… ‘blamed’ on qualitative and values-oriented research for damaging the scientific status of sociology.” 

The Cold War

Christian Daye shows divisions accelerating during the Cold War with “increased demand [by] decision-makers for social science expertise [meant] money outside the academy: jobs at think tanks, government agencies, or private businesses.” These changes heightened calls to unify sociology around “quantification,” situationally relevant theory and practical research. Failing to achieve a workable unity, Day warns, sociology may be supplanted by “other forms of organizing social scientific knowledge.”

The Trump Presidency 2016-2020

Anne Rawls traces “the election of Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic to… deep mistrust of experts and science…that has been growing for decades…where simplistic versions of science are tested against theories and beliefs—rather than empirical evidence.” She summarizes Durkheim’s and Garfinkel’s calls for sociology to “clearly theorize the role of expert practices in sciences and occupations. [A]nd because we have failed to do this… we find ourselves being governed by people who put beliefs–both personal and religious–above the scientific and occupational practices of experts.” 

Andrea Ploder optimistically conceives “the social crisis around COVID 19…as a liminal period—a time when formerly stable social orders get disrupted, and ideas, institutions, and power relations are open for re-arrangement—typically involving anxiety and quests for re-orientation, but—simultaneously—promoting extraordinary creativity.”