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Has Sociology Been Overrun by Postmodernists? Probably Not.

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Is social science infested with postmodernism? This seems to be a constant refrain on Twitter and other venues for social criticism. Postmodernism tends to be an umbrella term for all sorts of radical social constructionism, including literary postmodernist thinkers (Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault), intersectionalists (people who describe their area of study as “race, class, and gender”), and “cultural Marxists” (a right-wing dog whistle for Frankfort School theorists like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse).

This all seems like a very different academy than the one I’ve belonged to for almost 30 years (eight as a graduate student, then twenty as a tenure-track and tenured professor at the University of Utah). Although I teach in an interdisciplinary department, I was trained as a sociologist and sometimes identify as one professionally. My experience is of a discipline devoted to the empirical study of the social world, not a bunch of bloviating nihilistic theorists.

Sociology is an eclectic field. As a scholar who mostly analyzes large national data sets, I have little awareness of my colleagues conducting archival research on 19th century government records, doing participant observation at methadone clinics, running computer simulations of social networks, or teasing out antinomies in Max Weber’s seminal texts. Is this beehive of activity concealing a postmodern pestilence lurking somewhere beneath the surface?

To find out I had my research assistant conduct a small survey.  She inspected the faculty web pages for seven top schools (Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Michigan, UC Berkeley,      Wisconsin, University of Chicago) and thirteen lower-ranked departments (Louisiana State University, Cal State-Long Beach, Syracuse, Cal State-Chico, University of Kansas , Northern Arizona University, Montclair State University, Ball State University, Central Florida University, Davidson College, Middlebury College, University of North Dakota, Towson State University). For each school, she identified faculty with stated interests in postmodernism, critical anything (most commonly critical theory, but could also include critical race studies, critical demography, and so on), or race/class/gender.

The results reveal a discipline collectively disinterested in postmodernism. Among the top seven schools, only one faculty member listed race/class/gender as a research interest. Not surprisingly, there were a few more positive results at the lower-tier schools.  Faculty web pages for these thirteen schools list 193 tenured or tenure-track professors and 27 contingent instructors (i.e., adjuncts or lecturers). Instructors on short-term contracts, perhaps a majority of contingent faculty, are unlikely to have faculty web pages and are therefore under-represented in my tally.

Among the lower-tier schools, there are twelve faculty interested in race/class/gender (i.e., intersectionalists), one critical theorist, but no self-proclaimed postmodernists. One school, Cal State-Long Beach, had four intersectionalists on its faculty (it also has at least one conservative, preserving some viewpoint diversity).

This non-random survey of American sociology departments suggests that my notoriously left-leaning discipline is not overrun by postmodernists. Certainly they exist, but are far from a majority.

Two provisos

1) Contingent faculty are underrepresented in my survey, and I suspect they’re especially likely to be postmodernists. Here I rely on the incisive analysis of sociologist Neil Gross, perhaps the foremost modern student of faculty political beliefs. He’s argued that the faculty most likely to misbehave by making extremist political statements (e.g., publicly calling for the execution of the President of the United States) are contingent instructors. Presumably academics prone to radical public pronouncements harbor radical ideologies.

2) It’s probably a mistake to think that all postmodernists are equally radical.  Intersectionality was first proposed in a 1989 paper by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. Its original insight—that, say, racism and sexism sometimes operate simultaneously—wasn’t especially extreme in its diagnosis and prescription. It’s telling that by 2009 Crenshaw was hedging: “[I am] amazed at how [intersectionality] gets over- and under-used; sometimes I can’t even recognize it in the literature any more.” I’m not going to waste my time reading a bunch of scholarship that’s not relevant to my research interests, but I suspect that some moderate intersectionalist research will still offer valid empirical findings.  A lot is nonsense; the remainder would be well served by unmooring it from its theoretical baggage.

So where are the postmodernists?

The humanities, especially English departments. Schools of education. “Cultural studies” departments. Europe (European sociology appears to have many more postmodernist scholars).

But they’re not a ton of them on sociology department faculties, especially at the top schools.

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