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?)

11 thoughts on “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.

    Liked by 1 person

  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).


    1. “On the one hand, describing Charles Murray as a sociologist is accurate given his factual subject matter: inequality, race, culture, and social policy.”

      Those things do not a sociologist make. High school dropouts have opinions on those same subjects. To be a sociologist, one must:

      A) Have a sociology degree (technically, a doctorate with employment in a university is required)
      B) Cite/conduct actual social science research.


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


  4. 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’.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When Auguste Comte coined the term sociology, he was neither teaching it nor was school of sociology existed. Even though he coined the term but technically we can’t call him sociologist if these are the requirements to qualify as such: A) Have a sociology degree (technically, a doctorate with employment in a university is required)
    B) Cite/conduct actual social science research. Similar as the case of Ibn Khaldun, his literary work, Muqqadima, was exceptional but technically we can’t call him sociologist. But then both Comte and Khaldun are iconic in the discipline of sociology. I guess we’re to hard on Murray and so did he. When somebody is really good as an analyst of society, his/her works speak for itself. labeling is a weakness for most and a great past time. Let’s work on sharpening our tools in understanding society rather than waste our time creating subjective criteria.


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