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By now, I’m sure you’ve read reports about how the American Anthropological Association and its Canadian counterpart pulled a previously accepted conference panel entitled “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: Why biological sex remains a necessary analytic category in anthropology.”

The panel, which would have featured five female specialists with specialties in bio-archaeology, evolutionary biology, forensic anthropology and molecular and cellular biology, was to have focused on sex as a material reality. Topics included determining the sex of skeletal remains, feminist opposition to the surrogacy industry and materialist and sex-based understandings of power and inequality,

The associations defended their decision to cancel the session on the grounds that the panel lacked scientific merit and was harmful to transgender members. In the words of the AAA,

“The session was rejected because it relied on assumptions that run contrary to the settled science in our discipline, framed in ways that do harm to vulnerable members of our community. It commits one of the cardinal sins of scholarship—it assumes the truth of the proposition that it sets out to prove, namely, that sex and gender are simplistically binary and that this is a fact with meaningful implications for the discipline.”

When questioned about the decision to stop the conference panel, an association spokesperson responded with the following statement:

“The function of the ‘gender critical’ scholarship advocated in this session, like the function of the ‘race science’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is to advance a ‘scientific’ reason to question the humanity of already marginalized groups of people, in this case, those who exist outside a strict and narrow sex/gender binary.”

In a letter defending the proposed session, the panel’s organizers wrote that the associations’ “decision to anathematize our panel looks very much like an anti-science response to a politicized lobbying campaign” and represents a “declaration of war on dissent and on scholarly controversy” and a betrayal of the organizations’ commitment to “advancing human understanding and applying this understanding to the world’s most pressing problems.”

Predictably, the decision to “deplatform” a session on sex in anthropology has resulted in a public brouhaha, with critics arguing that the decision to drop the panel was proof, if any was needed, that the academy is closed to dissenting views on a subject of scholarly contention. In the words of one website, “If scientists can’t listen to presentations like the ones accepted without being ‘harmed’, they need therapy, not canceled talks.”

This particular critic goes on,

“How many of these things have to happen before scientists realize that the chilling of speech, the declaring of topics taboo to both research and discuss and the ritual invocation of ‘harm’ to minority groups by the to-and-fro discussion inherent in science—that all of this is going to kill off science as we know it? But they don’t care, for their main concern is not the discovery of scientific truth but adherence to the current liberal and orthodox ideology.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression issued an open letter, signed by Steven Pinker, among others, which contends that an “unwavering dedication to free inquiry and open dialogue … cannot coexist with inherently subjective standards of ‘harm,’ ‘safety,’ and ‘dignity,’ which are inevitably used to suppress ideas that cause discomfort or conflict with certain political or ideological commitments.”

Jeffrey Flier, a former dean of the Harvard Medical School, deemed the session’s cancellation “a chilling declaration of war on scholarly controversy.”

I think it’s fair to say that a growing number of topics are now treated as moral or political issues rather than simply as academic matters.

Within the discipline of sociology, an older view, associated with Max Weber, that sociologists should strive in their scholarship for value neutrality and present their findings as dispassionately and objectively as possible, has increasingly given way to a very different perspective: that objectivity is at once impossible and undesirable and that the ethical and political stakes are too high to succumb to the allure of impartiality.

This shift has contributed to a growing perception among large segments of the educated public that the academy has erected no-go zones where intellectual debate is forbidden. Not just over trans issues, but the role of genetics in social outcomes and culture’s role in perpetuating poverty. Many fear that any contradiction of the politically correct line is met with threats, censorship and public shaming.

Is it true that the major social science disciplines have shut down debate about sensitive issues? At times, the answer is certainly yes. But an important new book entitle Moral Minefields argues that some sociologists have developed strategies to address some of the most highly fraught issues of our time, involving race and genetics, secularization, nationalism, the culture of poverty, and parenting practices.

The book’s authors, Shai M. Dromi, an associate senior lecturer at Harvard, and Samuel D. Stabler, a doctoral lecturer at Hunter College, show, for example,

  • How, in the decades following the release of the 1965 Moynihan report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” a number of leading scholars, including Harvard’s William Julius Williams and Orlando Patterson, found ways to rehabilitate a much-modified conception of the culture of poverty.
  • How, beginning in the 1970s, a growing number of sociologists challenged the profession’s long-held orthodoxy that secularization was an inexorable outgrowth of modernization and that religion’s decline represented an unambiguously positive development.
  • How, over the past quarter century, a group of sociological researchers contested a viewpoint that had been widely accepted within the discipline: that nationalism was an unequivocal source of evil—a “root cause of warfare, xenophobia and social suffering” and an obstacle toward “substantive universal values of justice and right”—that needed to be replaced by a more cosmopolitan outlook, that a focus on the nation-state was misguided and that the field needed to adopt a more global approach to the problems of our time, which cut across national borders, including climate change, epidemic diseases, immigration and pollution.
  • How a coterie of sociologists reframed the scholarly controversy surrounding breastfeeding: whether its health and emotional benefits for babies outweighed the costs it inflicted on women’s careers.

So, how did these scholars succeed in overcoming resistance to their ideas? By adopting a series of arguments and tactics that legitimized their ideas, even if they failed to convince their adversaries.

  1. Critique the original argument. These scholars demonstrated that sociology’s conventional wisdom on a particular topic was too simplistic or reductionist, that the dominant interpretation lacked nuance and failed to adequately account for counterexamples, that data didn’t support the earlier claims and that neither the research methodology nor the theoretical framework adequately supported the argument.
  2. Complicate or complexify the argument. The scholars acknowledged that the original claim contained grains of truth but showed that there were more sophisticated and higher-level ways to frame the argument.
  3. Refine and recast the debate. The scholars argued that an ongoing debate was too crude and needed to be modified. They insisted that earlier researchers were asking the wrong questions or were viewing the topic from the wrong angle and held that there were better ways to think about the subject at hand.
  4. Teach the controversy. These scholars asked why an argument, dispute or debate arose at a particular point in time and why participants in the debate took the positions that they do.
  5. View the debate through the eyes of those who are the subjects of the study. These scholars shifted the focus away from the empirical to the qualitative and asked what ethnographic research, interviews, oral histories and other first-person accounts can tell us about how the individuals being studied think about their own lives or understand the controversy.

All of us who tread on minefields in the classroom ought to familiarize ourselves with these strategies.

One topic that the authors examine involves the claim, made by many of the founders of sociology and shared by many of the discipline’s leaders up until the 1970s, that secularization was a defining characteristic of modernization, whether for good or ill. Beginning in the ’70s, the growth of fundamentalist religious movements threw into question the assumption that secularization was an inexorable process. That prompted a slew of empirical critiques of the earlier emphasis on religious decline.

Historical sociologists showed that in certain cases, “religious movements provided revolutionary actors with counter-hegemonic ways of thinking and inspired democratizing social change” and fostered mutuality and a sense of community, while, conversely, science, in the guise of pseudo-scientific racism and eugenics, had profoundly negative consequences. In particular, this scholarship argued that the relationship between religion and violence was far more complex than earlier scholarship had implied and that the example of totalitarian movements shows that atheism and secularism aren’t necessarily less prone to violence.

The authors do a really wonderful job of succinctly summarizing research on the privatization of religious belief and practice, the spread of quasi-spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation, and the ways that therapeutic ideas infused and reshaped religion. The result is that earlier claims about emptying pews gradually gave way to a more multifaceted understanding of the nature, forms and functions of religion and spirituality in contemporary societies.

Few research topics are more problematic than investigations into whether there is a link between race, genetics and inequality or between culture and poverty, especially given the foundational role of social Darwinism and eugenics during sociology’s early days. Studies that emphasized genetic or cultural explanations were long dismissed as a form of victim blaming, to use William Ryan’s famous term. Critics were quite right to argue that such studies impaired our understanding of how structural and systemic arrangements maintained poverty.

Dromi and Stabler show that “rather than simply banning” discussion of these supposedly “forbidden” issues, some scholars ultimately devised morally acceptable ways to frame their research. Recent examples include the study of epigenetics (that is, social-gene interactions) and investigations into “collective genetic trauma and the heritability of many health characteristics.”

The authors cite with sympathy an editorial in the journal Nature, which argued that “Many sociologists … are still immured in their fortress, struggling to catch up with a debate that has shifted from nature-or-nurture to nature-and-nurture or are unable to shake off their distrust of scientists [and the long history of misuse of genetic data] … Now is the perfect time for a reconciliation of the two cultures.”

Moral Minefields also examines shifts in sociology’s treatment of nationalism, as scholars like Liah Greenfeld pushed back “against the allegations that nationalism in itself is pernicious and that the study of nations and nationalism is morally suspect.” The book shows how a new generation of scholarship began to examine the conditions under which nationalism led to violence and sought to distinguish between forms of nationalism based on ethnicity and nationalisms that served as a basis for individual rights, civic equality and inclusivity, while enhancing a sense of collective belonging.

To take another example: Do public health recommendations for mothers to breastfeed ignore the costs of breastfeeding on women’s lifelong wages? Recent scholarship has shown that it is possible to address this question without treating it as a zero-sum dispute pitting the interests and well-being of infants and mothers against each other.

In popular parlance, the honorific commonly bestowed on economists is “eminent.” For literary critics, the adjective is “celebrated.” For historians, the modifier is “distinguished” or, in rare cases, “renowned.” Sociologists, in stark contrast, are commonly referred to as “radical.” Across the academy, there’s a widespread sense that sociology is the most politicized of the mainstream social sciences disciplines and also the most activist, contentious and riven.

Compared to my discipline, history, far fewer sociologists believe their discipline can or should aspire to value neutrality. Like Howard Becker, Alvin Gouldner and C. Wright Mills, many leading sociologists argue that researchers can “never detract” their scholarship “from their social positions” and that the notion of objectivity or scientific neutrality is, as Dorothy Smith and Patricia Hill Collins have argued, “an inherently racialized and gendered concept.”

I think Dromi and Stabler are right when they maintain that many sociologists, who are members of a discipline especially attuned to social problems and public concerns, view issues involving inequality not merely as academic or abstract issues, but as matters of morality, politics and social justice. I think they are correct to say that sociologists are more concerned than many other social scientists in the political implications of their research findings, the power relationship between researchers and their research subjects, and whether their scholarship gives sufficient voice to underrepresented groups.

The authors cite, as one example, the controversy that swirled around the question of whether the children of same-sex marriage have different life outcomes than those of opposite-sex marriage.

But, as Moral Minefields contends, that doesn’t mean that liberal or left-wing moralism inevitably distorts sociological scholarship or closes off discussion. Rather, the book maintains that it is “debate—in particular moral debate … about what qualifies as good sociology” that “is a core engine of progress for the discipline.” Debate can “drive disciplinary change and spur breakthroughs, rather than hinder research.”

The authors cite a retracted 2014 study that claimed that conversations with gay canvassers had a positive impact on voters’ attitudes toward same-sex marriage. The article seemed to demonstrate that individuals can be convinced to support equality, but later research suggested that the findings were fabricated, which damaged the credibility of social scientific research. As in the debate over COVID’s origins, we mustn’t shut down debate, but we must also insist that any claims reflect high academic standards.

We live in an era in which scholarly debates, inside and outside the classroom, are increasingly viewed through a moral or political lens. As Dromi and Stabler quite rightly maintain, we must navigate through a scholarly landscape strewn with moral land mines. This makes it incumbent on us as teachers and scholars to develop strategies for discussing difficult and divisive issues in ways that don’t descend into acrimony and animosity, but that also recognize that disagreement is essential to disciplinary progress.

So I’d urge you to follow those authors’ advice—encourage your students to:

  • Question research methodologies, data and theoretical frameworks, no matter how much they might like a particular study’s conclusions.
  • Avoid oversimplifying arguments and strive to make their contentions more sophisticated, complex and evidence based.
  • Recast or reformulate debates and view controversies from fresh angles.
  • Ask why a controversy has arisen at a particular moment and why debate has become so highly charged.
  • Focus on individuals, especially those who have been historically marginalized and strive to understand their perspective and experiences.

Scholarly disciplines, by their very nature, police boundaries of acceptable research. But the disciplines must be careful not to reject dissenting or alternate perspectives, lest they be like the journals that rejected the scholarship of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, whose pioneering research on messenger RNA provides the foundation for the COVID vaccines. In Dromi and Stabler’s words, “value pluralism does not mean that everything goes or ought to go, when it comes to justifying research.” But it does mean that rigorous, if dissenting, scholarship ought to be taken seriously.

When we treat academic issues as moral or political issues, we run the risk of subordinating our disciplines’ primary purpose—the quest for truth and insight—to some supposedly more practical and timely goal. Let’s not follow Kieran Healy’s 2017 advice and “fuck nuance.” That will only serve to degrade, damage and debase our scholarly reputation. Instead, let’s strive to elevate and complexify public debates that often exist on a far too crude, naïve, simplistic and unsophisticated plane.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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