The Culminating Crisis of American Sociology and Its Role in Social Science and Public Policy: An Autobiographical, Multimethod, Reflexive Perspective

For over 50 years I have been, and remain, an interdisciplinary social scientist seeking to develop and apply social science to improve the well-being of human individuals and social life. Sociology has been my disciplinary home for 48 of these years. As a researcher/scholar, teacher, administrator, and member of review panels in both sociology and interdisciplinary organizations that include and/or intersect with sociology, I have sought to improve the quality and quantity of sociologists and sociology. This article offers my assessment as a participant observer of what (largely American) sociology has been over the course of my lifetime, which is virtually coterminous with the history of modern (post-World War II) sociology, and what it might become. I supplement my participant observations with those of others with similarly broad perspectives, and with broader literature and quantitative indicators on the state of sociology, social science, and society over this period. I entered sociology and social science at a time (the 1960s and early 1970s) when they were arguably their most dynamic and impactful, both within themselves and also with respect to intersections with other disciplines and the larger society. Whereas the third quarter of the twentieth century was a golden age of growth and development for sociology and the social sciences, the last quarter of that century saw sociology and much of social science-excepting economics and, to some extent, psychology-decline in size, coherence, and extradisciplinary connections and impact, not returning until the beginning of the twenty-first century, if at all, to levels reached in the early 1970s. Over this latter period, I and numerous other observers have bemoaned sociology's lack of intellectual unity (i.e., coherence and cohesion), along with attendant dissension and problems within the discipline and in its relation to the other social sciences and public policy. The twenty-first century has seen much of the discipline, and its American Sociological Association (ASA), turn toward public and critical sociology, yet this shift has come with no clear indicators of improvement of the state of the discipline and some suggestions of further decline. The reasons for and implications of all of this are complex, reflecting changes within the discipline and in its academic, scientific, and societal environments. This article can only offer initial thoughts and directions for future discussion, research, and action. I do, however, believe that sociology's problems are serious, arguably a crisis, and have been going on for almost a half-century, at the outset of which the future looked much brighter. It is unclear whether the discipline as now constituted can effectively confront, much less resolve, these problems. Sociologists continue to do excellent work, arguably in spite of rather than because of their location within the current discipline of sociology. They might realize the brighter future that appeared in the offing as of the early 1970s for sociology and its impact on other disciplines and society if they assumed new organizational and/or disciplinary forms, as has been increasingly occurring in other social sciences, the natural sciences, and even the humanities. Society needs more and better sociology. The question is how can we deliver it. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Sociology Volume 45 is July 30, 2019. Please see for revised estimates.