Mark Regnerus’s study and the sociology of knowledge

My point of view is that Regnerus’s controversial study is, first and foremost, a piece of data in the sociology of knowledge.

Like my own research, Mark Regnerus’s sociology is for hire, as his recently oft-torn-apart study (found here) makes empirically evident. ‘Research for hire’ is not an issue unique to Regnerus. Any sociology grad student recognizes that not all research questions come with the same promise for funds, jobs, prestige, etc. Decisions have to be made, and researchers make these decisions with calculation and feel, armed with experience and observation. For example, when I was at the University of Texas department of sociology, where Regnerus calls his academic home, early in the first year of my cohort it was talked about and became knowledge to students that “there was money in studying religion.” Grad students who had not professed an interest in the sociology of religion nonetheless gravitated there.

I describe this situation not to criticize — my own research was often subject to influences of which I was well aware — but to point out how accurate but perhaps too easy it is to criticize research as shaped by money. Simply said, money shapes all research, from the lack of it to the promise of more of it. From material reward to the prestige that is made possible to the funds needed to even start the research. We can definitively say Regenerus would not have conducted the study he did, in the way he conducted it, without the organizations and the money that were available contingent upon certain research. And that all social scientists weigh multiple factors during research, not only, but including, the need for “truthful” findings. Money does not determine behavior, but it is a major component of the context of behavior — scientists included.

So, Regnerus is not the only issue here. We can say that American sociology itself would not be structured the way it is, dominated by the methods and research questions that currently prevail, without the organizations and the money made available contingent upon the conduct of certain methods and research questions.

Perhaps we cannot expect any different: People’s decisions get shaped by any number of factors — and money is no doubt generally a significant factor.

If so, I would say the problem is that US sociology has not to this point adequately institutionalized as a norm the ideas of Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology. By which I mean (a) an analytical ‘reflex’ meant to neutralize the biases that researchers bring to the research by (b) seeing the impact of one’s biases as part of the research. In the reflexive method sociologists are made an aspect of their own inquiry, seen as impacting the research by interacting with the research. US sociology is not in my estimation very good yet at seeing their own practices as part of the data. Bourdieu’s concept of a ‘sociology of sociology’ is far from realized.

As I see it, Regnerus meant to give the world insight into family structures. As many others have pointed out better than I can, he didn’t succeed. Instead, Regnerus provided rich detail into the sociology of sociological knowledge — a prime example of how knowledge comes to be. Problem is, a sociology of knowledge is not what he intended to do, and he is not even aware that’s what he did.

*   *   *

(I have some other comments to make, and I’ll publish them here when they come to form.)

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One Response to Mark Regnerus’s study and the sociology of knowledge

  1. Pingback: Further thoughts on Regnerus and his study | price of data

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