Monday, October 18, 2010

"Scientific" Racism 2.0

While the eugenics morons doing "evolutionary" psychology are busy finding ways to explain away social injustice with pseudo-arguments about genetic determination of social hierarchies... the ostensibly more progressive (and, typically, more empirically sound) discipline of sociology is seeing a resurgence of racist "culture of poverty" ideas.

Switching gears to more respectable sociological research programs, I don't happen to think that the sociology of knowledge is complete. That is, I don't think it is able to give a full account of it's own conditions of possibility, or of the extent to which it also produces knowledge of the social determinants of what's already recognized as knowledge, etc. But it's pretty damned useful for politics, and the above is a case in point. That is, we should be asking the following sorts of questions about the "culture of poverty" ideology: whose interests are served by it? What is the functional role of this ideology in maintaining and stabilizing existing hierarchies and inequalities? In what institutional and political context did this ideology develop? What political or historical shifts are to explain its decline and subsequent reemergence?

There is no place for the disinterested, neutral gaze of natural science in the discussion of the "culture of poverty" ideas. They've been refuted several times over. Their genetic properties, so to speak, (i.e. their lineage, where they emerged from historically) are damning, as the article above makes clear. So to present these ideas as possible contenders among other neutral ways of making sense of deep social inequalities is already to do something ethically and politically suspect.

The fact is that in the face of the continuing oppression of non-white peoples, the idea of a "culture of poverty" is a convenient way of blaming the victims and tabling demands for justice. It says, in effect, that there is no racism, no oppression, no unequal relations of power, no historic injustice: only "pathological" groups who have a faulty culture, who need to "pull their pants up" and "act white". That's got to be music to the ears of conservative, white suburbanites. But any critical program would take that fact as grounds to reject the ideology entirely.


-sf said...

Can there really be neutral ways of making sense of deep social inequities? I mean if one studies something so politically charged as social inequity, how can one approach the causes and effects objectively? People on the right would levy the same criticism about the entire field of Women's Studies and other sociology sub-specializations that you do about culture of poverty theories: that their acceptance in "radical" leftist circles is grounds to reject the ideology entirely. This is the essence of David Horowitz's (the American former New-Leftist, not the British JPost editor) academic freedom argument: that these fields were from their inception politically motivated, and thus have no place in serious scientific (i.e. neutral) scholarship. In fact the field of Sociology serves little purpose other than to indoctrinate naive liberal arts students into a radical leftist world view (or so says Horowitz).

I certainly don't think that Sociology as a field is unworthy of pursuit, or that it doesn't have profound policy implications. I do, however, accept that any sociological arguments are colored by the author's political perspective, and should be understood in that context.

-sf said...

Slightly related:

Times did a couple of pieces in the Stone on altruism recently (I'm sure you've read them). This is reminiscent of the discussion we had on this blog about scientific theories of social behavior and how, as I argued, the conclusions can be challenging to both oppressive and liberating paradigms and narratives. The bit about altruism is interesting because no one points out one obvious (at least to me) conclusion: that the capitalist paradigm of selfish humanity being the primary barrier to communal societies is incomplete at best.

t said...

I'm in agreement that such matters shouldn't be discussed in a way that purports to be neutral. That was the argument of the post. So I don't see how the David Horowitz complaint that sociology is "political" is in any way similar to what I wrote in the post. My whole point was that we shouldn't approach the "culture of poverty" argument with a neutral, disinterested gaze (as it's proponents, suspiciously, suggest we should)... hence the series of questions about its functional role, etc.

I don't think the question of the politics of social science should be in the first instance understood in terms of the individual author's ideas. I think instead a more fruitful, critical approach would examine the historical origins of the formation of social theories, the social and political function of the theories, the ways of thinking about action afforded to agents by the theories, the extent to which the theories brushed against the grain of the status quo, etc.