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. Defining a Realm for Normative Questions

There is nothing wrong with discussing what ought to happen. There is nothing impossible about discussing what ought to happen in a scholarly way. But there is something both wrong and impossible about attempting to avoid the question of what ought to happen, deliberately shying away from the facts of one’s consequences and allowing unexamined normative frameworks to seep into one’s work. It is “wrong” because moral values are important, and anyone who holds them should act in accordance with them. It is “impossible” because values are inescapable, and if debates over them do not happen in universities, then they will happen in op/ed pages and on cable news.

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The committed dispassionate scientist rightly fears the creeping of “political” values into “schol- arly” work. But since creating the political/scholarly distinction is in itself a political choice, the aspi- ration is unachievable. The best available alternative is to make values clear and subject them to careful analysis, encouraging the revision and refinement of values in the same way one revises and refines empirical findings.

Social philosophy offers a way to do this. It encourages us to examine our presumptions, and to state how we feel things ought to be. For those skeptical of normative academic work, social philoso- phy should come as a relief. Values no longer need to be smuggled into empirical work, because there is a designated space in which values-talk can be deployed.

3. Making Knowledge Useful

One reason it is vital to ask social philosophy questions is that without them, knowledge is adrift. Social science (rightly) never spends its time asking “What is social science for?” and “What should we do with this knowledge?” But someone must spend time asking these questions.

Instead, social science builds up an impressive array of facts and theories, many of which could be extremely useful. But debates over use and purpose are set aside. A glance at the leading journals in political science and sociology will confirm that “What are these findings for?” is not a question frequently asked.

For example, say we casually wade into the most recent issue of the American Journal of Sociology. What will we find over the course of its pages? There are seven main articles, plus 18 book reviews. What sorts of new information does each give us about the world? In the articles we learn the following:

ww A study of three early 20th century U.S. companies shows that low-skilled immigrants were largely unable to climb job ladders within companies to achieve well-paying positions. This is contrasted with the position that immigrants quickly assimilated and had high levels of economic mobility. The study also found that “[h]aving a relative in the firm is associated with starting at a higher position” and that “having training in a trade dramatically increased the odds that a worker was hired in a craft/managerial/professional position” (Catron 2016).

ww A study of 3.9 million police stops in New York City finds that “incidents of extreme violence against police officers can lead to periods of substantially increased racial disparities in the use of police force.” That is to say, if a police officer is killed by a black person, there will be a temporary spike in police violence against black people. The author says that this finding is important, because it shows that racial discrimination does not operate at some constant level, but fluctuates over time in response to local conditions, and it shows how particular events can trigger discrimination. (Legewie 2016).



The Advantages of Social Philosophy 27

ww A study looks at the period of time in which U.S. congressmen used to live together in board- ing houses (specifically examining the years 1825-1841). It finds that when congressmen lived together, their levels of partisanship decreased. The author believes this finding has implications for contemporary partisanship, suggesting that the less time congresspeople spend socializing together, the more partisan they will become. (Parigi and Bergemann 2016).

ww A study adds to the literature on how membership of organizations affects people’s levels of polit- ical involvement. The author’s results “suggest a more limited influence of civic organizational engagement on political activism than is the case for membership in political organization. She suggests that “we need to devote more attention to specifying and refining our tests of the theoretical mechanisms of the differential influence of more passive and active membership forms, rather than continuing to get bogged down in debates about whether there are any relevant ‘internal effects’… of more symbolic forms of organizational membership” and that “[w]e also need to think more carefully about how even membership in organizations that are not expressly political in purpose might situate participants for more intensive engagement in nonconventional modes of political behavior.” (Minkoff 2016).

ww A study analyzes U.S. tax statistics, in order to examine the causes of economic inequality. The study identifies two important factors: (1) the increasing power of “neoliberal” politicians and (2) skill-biased technological change (which occurs when technology changes the kinds skills that are in demand, and thus the kind and quantity of jobs that are available). (Jacobs and Dirlam 2016).

ww A study’s authors ponder why it is “that women and men continue to work in extremely segregated occupations, with women still crowding into a relatively small number of female-typed occupa- tions.” They suggest two different explanations for segregation: (1) “the presumption that women and men have fundamentally different tastes and proclivities and are accordingly suited for very different types of occupations (what they call the “essentialism”) and (2) that men are “more com- petent, committed, and status worthy than women” and thus more deserving of particular jobs (what they call “verticalism”). They find that the importance of the “essentialist” explanation is under-appreciated, and that while society may have succeeded in reducing the idea that men are more competent and deserving of higher-level work, it has failed to change the idea that men and women are better suited for different kinds of tasks. (Levanon and Grusky 2016).

To dismiss this accumulation of new knowledge as negligible would be shortsighted. Leaving aside all questions over method and the validity of particular findings, many of the subjects and scholarly findings discussed in the American Journal of Sociology are far from trivial. It seems useful to have evidence undermining stories about immigrants getting off the boat and instantly climbing the class ladder. It seems quite important to know that certain kinds of violence against police can cause increased discrimination. But the fact that these findings are of “seeming” importance should be concerning. “Seems” is a term of imprecision. Many of these findings appear relevant, but rele- vant for what? What do we do with such a piece of knowledge?

The authors largely leave these questions to others, content to make the case for why the findings are significant in terms of the scholarly literature. But since it is clear that one examines racially-biased police shootings, the persistence of gender segregation, and economic inequality because one thinks such things must be dealt with, what is the link between the “dealing with” and the “writing about”? Without that link being made, these new facts are fragmentary and adrift, certainly “interesting” without it being clear just how interesting they are and what the scope of their possible uses is.

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