Why is Sociology Valuable?

3ATY4m1Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has made several public comments suggesting that sociology is irrelevant to matters of crime. Last year he used the humorous phrase, “now is not the time to commit sociology.” This year, his anti-sociological sentiment was revealed once again in his comment stating that crime against aboriginal women is not a sociological phenomenon.

The Prime Minister suggests that the police and the criminal justice system are the appropriate response, rather than investigating crime sociologically. His reason is that these are individual criminal acts, not symptoms of problematic social structures.

Harpers comments are not necessarily anti-intellectual. Rather, they are just anti-sociological, As suggested by Jakeet Singh in The Star, his comments are the result of a neo-liberal ideology of individualism:

Harper’s seemingly bizarre beef with sociology is actually an ideological attempt to prevent us from being able to identify, and tackle, our structural injustices.”

Harper received a degree in economics and supports the merits of a global free-market, giving him a valid reason why he holds an anti-sociological attitude toward crime. The field of economics has traditionally favored the idea of autonomous subjectivity and rational actors. This means that structural constraints and social forces are neglected in favor of blaming individuals for their actions. For example, a criminal is someone who willingly made poor decisions, not someone who is a product of a bad social environment. Harpers anti-sociological statements about crime are radically economic and completely neglect social influences.

The field of sociology is fundamentally different than economics in terms of the way subjectivity is framed. It has traditionally favored the idea of inter-subjectivity and socially constituted actors. This means, as C.Wright Mills has stated, the domain of sociology is “to translate personal troubles into public issues.” For example, a criminal is someone who has been labeled as such according to the norms and values of a particular society, and that persons criminal actions are largely a symptom of a problematic social environment.

Just like Harpers radical economic perspective, a radical sociological perspective neglects individual decision-making and personal responsibility. Rather than saying Harper is wrong and sociology is right, I am saying we need both sides in order to effectively deal with crime – through penal measures, as well as understanding and dealing with root causes.

CrimeHere is a rough example to put this into context:

Social issues (open faucet) produce crime (a wet floor) and the police are dispatched to deal with it (the mop). One way to better deal with crime is to dispatch more police to clean up the mess – makes sense. But an ever better way to deal with crime would be to use the use the extra resources on studying the social issue producing it (using sociology or related fields), and implement a viable strategy to prevent it in the first place.

Crime will never be completely eliminated. People will make bad decisions, and police are necessary to ensure individuals are punished. But Harper’s anti-sociological statements are completely off the mark when it comes to crime-prevention by considering the root causes.

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