- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

The nation's sociologists, often viewed as dispassionate researchers who collect data on social trends, this week were challenged to become activists.

"Sociology must vigorously engage issues of social justice or be irrelevant," said University of Florida professor Joe R. Feagin, president of the American Sociological Association (ASA).

Members attending the annual meeting here this week are diverse in outlook and did not view the keynote address, or the theme of "Oppression, Domination and Liberation," as a retreat from the field's objectivity.

Mr. Feagin, who studies race relations, said sociology should be used to actively challenge the privileged order of wealth, sex and race in society.

He said that while "most sociologists share at least some of the social-justice values," others may be "apologists for the status quo" or seek "more lucrative fields" of work.

The speech Sunday reminded some of the era when sociology was a battlefield over Marxist and capitalist analyses of society.

Sociologist Gad Yair of Hebrew University said yesterday he reviewed addresses by ASA presidents since 1906, and the dominant themes were aiding democracy and equality making this year's keynote somewhat more revolutionary.

Mr. Feagin took the approach that "sociology is a moral activity" that should be aimed at "the big social questions."

"I want a society that is fair and just," said Harvard sociologist Barbara Reskin, explaining why she has studied work discrimination for 20 years.

She will be ASA president next year and expects to design a conference theme on applying social science research to public policy.

In a session this week, she presented data showing that racial and sex discrimination still is widespread in job hiring, but would only go as far as saying current laws should be better enforced.

"If a sociologist has convincing data that a problem exists, and that area is in their specialty, it's not [unscientific] to propose solutions," she said.

Sociologists who see inequality may indeed have to be "getting our hands dirty in the political process," said David Montejano of the University of Texas.

"We have to develop ourselves as public intellectuals," he said in one of the 500 sessions held here since Saturday.

The ASA has a membership of 13,000, and about 5,000 professionals attended this year's meeting. Sociology, founded in the late 1800s, is the science of how social groups interact.

Sociologists long have proposed sweeping theories about how a society works or becomes dysfunctional, but their daily work is analyzing data from the census, public polling, and public behavior and opinion over time.

"The National Science Foundation considers sociology to be a vibrant, crucial research area," said William Butz, head of the NSF's economics and social science division.

The NSF, with a nearly $4 billion annual budget, has given $4 million for sociological research.

Mr. Butz said the "hot fields" of study now are social movements, both upper and lower class, the birth and death of organizations, and domestic violence, with its implications for crime in general.

This year's five-day ASA program, which ends today, suggests that no social topic is untouched.

Under the "Oppression, Domination and Liberation" theme, there was more emphasis than usual on the sociology of race, women's rights and homosexuality.

With the Internet revolution and the 2000 Census, sessions also focused on how cyberspace will effect social relations and what new data sociologists will have to interpret America.

There is no disagreement among sociologists that their data must be "scientific," but they differ on whether it then must be used by them for advocacy.

"There's always that tension within the profession," said David Bills, a sociologist at the University of Iowa.

"It's a big tent, and should be a big tent," he said. "If you're an activist, it's got to be influenced by good research. You can't fudge the numbers."

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