Is Charles Murray a sociologist?

UPDATE: Charles Murray has again denied being a sociologist today, in two tweets from @charlesmurray. He called the label “a pretty low blow” and said “I don’t deserve that.” And he added, “Not a sociologist. My PhD is in political science. Haven’t committed poly sci for decades, though.”

When the New York Times’s Nate Silver referred to Charles Murray as a “sociologist” a few weeks ago, I fired off a brief letter:

What does Nate Silver have against sociologists, that he would use the phrase “sociologist Charles Murray”? I almost choked on my arugula.

In an earlier interview with teh Chronicle of Higher Education, Murray himself laughed at his historical bad relations with mainstream (left-leaning) sociology:

I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room.

A quick check of his profile at the American Enterprise Institute (which I discussed earlier) confirms that he has a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (MIT, incidentally, doesn’t have a sociology department or give degrees in sociology, although it has sociologists.)

Murray and I then had this exchange about this issue on Twitter:

But then he thought it over and added this:

My attempt to get the Times to run a correction of this error fizzled when they stopped answering my emails (one to the magazine, one to the editor of the story, one to the public editor – ok, already, I have better things to do).

And then in this morning’s Times, the historian Nell Irvin Painter, in an Op-Ed about White poverty and Murray’s historical blinders, refers to him as a “conservative sociologist.” And by now I have to admit, maybe he is a sociologist.

What is a sociologist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than half of sociologists are employed in academia. Here is their definition of “sociologist”:

Sociologists study human society and social behavior by examining the groups and social institutions that people form, as well as various social, religious, political, and business organizations. May study the behavior and interaction of groups, trace their origin and growth, and analyze the influence of group activities on individual members.

In academic sociology we have this conversation periodically, usually when we are discussing hiring someone with an interdisciplinary background, or giving someone an institutional home in a sociology department (when faculty are hired as administrators, for example, they usually have a home department to which they can retire if the administration thing doesn’t work out).

In my experience, the criteria considered in those cases are generally three: 1) PhD in sociology, 2) faculty position in a sociology department, or 3) publications in sociology journals.

Some people, however, like Barbara Ehrenreich, who sports a PhD in cell biology, are sociologists by function of their research and writing alone (and she has published books with PhD’ed sociologists). This was recognized by her receipt of the Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues Award from the American Sociological Association, which “recognizes the contributions of an individual who has been especially effective in disseminating sociological perspectives and research.” Plus her books are assigned in many sociology courses — and most of us are friendly to her politics (when the conservative columnist David Brooks won the same award, many sociologists were unhappy).

Murray doesn’t meet those criteria. But his job is in a think tank as a “scholar” (in a chair named for W. H. Brady, a corporate mogul and right-wing bankroller). His job is not based on a disciplinary perspective but on his political convictions. So he’s in a different category.

But maybe his work is sociology, and we should admit (claim?) that. It doesn’t have to be good to be sociology. He seems to fit the BLS definition. What do you think?

* * *

(In an unrelated question, am I an artist?)


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

7 responses to “Is Charles Murray a sociologist?

  1. Actually the ASA award Barbara Ehrenreich and David Brooks won is explicitly for someone who is NOT a sociologist, but a media person- books, articles, movies, who uses and thus spreads a sociological perspective and research findings… but i don’t think we ought to nominate Murray for it. He doesn’t seem to have a well developed sociological imagination.


  2. Fascinating post. On the one hand, describing Charles Murray as a sociologist is accurate given his factual subject matter: inequality, race, culture, and social policy. On the other hand, his political values are right-wing libertarian, which conflicts with the values of most but not all sociologists. Thus, describing Murray as a “conservative sociologist” effectively conveys his loosely sociologically-oriented facts while (appropriately) distancing him from the values of most sociologists.

    Incidentally, a number of years ago I debated Charles Murray at a seminar at Harvard. Frankly, I had a blistering criticism of his positions, but I appreciated that he admitted that one of his claims was factually incorrect (he was radically underestimating the solvency of Social Security). Mainstream economists are often wrong on many facts, but I have never seen any of them admit to getting a fact wrong (with the exception of Alan Greenspan).


  3. Jim Dunkins

    Perhaps a better question is “what is Nate Silver?”


  4. Eleanor

    Does Murray claim to be a sociologist? If not, then an interesting question is why the NYT sees Murray as a sociologist…


  5. Daniel

    I think the biggest issue with calling him a sociologist, besides lacking the professional credentials, is that he is consistently wrong/consistently misrepresenting the facts. In some cases, he has made up claims out of whole cloth (and data as well). In other cases, he has simply drawn conclusions that are not even possible under the data he presents or cites. Other than Talcott Parsons, most sociologists tend to be a little more honest than that. Just sayin’.


  6. Pingback: I hope Charles Murray’s gay friends also have some better friends | Family Inequality

  7. Pingback: Quote that sociologist, 124 in the Times edition | Family Inequality

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