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Sociology’s (Selective) Diversity

January 3, 2017 2853

ny-honours_optDiversity is a fetish among sociologists. No minority is too small, and few too deviant, for us to champion their case for recognition. In many ways, this is one of the nice things about our discipline. We start from an assumption of common humanity. Our evolutionary roots also underline the value of difference in adapting to an unknowable future. Diverse societies are inherently more resilient. However, a couple of snarky tweets over the festive season prompted thoughts about the selective nature of our attention. Clearly some diversity is less favored than others – and this is a problem for the material base of sociology.

Twitter is not a platform entirely devoted to civil communication. Nevertheless, even trolls represent something of interest. These tweets responded to press reports of the work of Jessica Carbino as an in-house sociologist at Tinder, and to the award of civil honours to UK social scientists.

Dr Carbino was hired by Tinder in July 2014. Her work featured in several press reports during 2016. In one of these, she explains why she was recruited and what she does:

A company like Tinder needs a sociologist because we’re trying to understand what individuals desire and how they behave. A sociological lens to understand a user’s dating history is pretty logical. Individuals don’t operate in a bubble and they are quite affected by the institutions in which they’re operating. Tinder and online dating generally are two of those institutions. The options that we have regarding the individuals that we date are largely structured by the communities that we’re embedded in and the individuals with whom we regularly have contact. Tinder provides people with a way to have a larger degree of contact. (My day-to-day-job) is to understand user behavior and then use that understanding to create a better experience for users.

This work has led, for example, to improved advice for users about creating profiles that will attract appropriate potential partners. The tweeter, though, is concerned that this is not ‘important work on networks, hierarchies of power, social capital, surveillance’.

The United Kingdom has a complex system of public honours, recognizing different civil and military contributions. The most important numerically is the Order of the British Empire. Most awards are announced at New Year and on the Queen’s official birthday in June. Academics are regularly included, with recognition for scholarly distinction or public service. Individuals are always free to refuse the, confidential, offer of an award: a few have done so where they feel embarrassed by the imperial language.

A relatively small number of sociologists have received such honours, although it is not known how many have refused. The 2017 New Year list included three prominent women scholars in law and society. Its publication was closely followed by a Twitter poll initiated by a sociology group, asking for votes on whether sociologists should accept or reject such awards. When I last looked, voting favored rejection by a margin of about two to one. I am not suggesting that the poll was intended to embarrass particular individuals. However, its appearance is indicative of disdain for this form of recognition.

On their own, two tweets are not a robust foundation for an argument. They are, though, emblematic of the selective approach taken by many sociologists to the question of diversity. Dr Carbino, and those colleagues who work on user experience research more generally, cannot be ‘proper sociologists’ because they are not studying ‘important’ things. Since when, we might ask, was it unimportant to help people find potential life partners, or even just long-term friends? As she points out, this is not an easy thing to do in contemporary societies where the pool of accessible others may be severely constrained. Is the real objection that she is engaged in commerce? Is there not a risk here that sociologists become so concerned with the distribution of wealth and income that they seem uninterested in how this is generated? When did it become an ignoble ambition to help a company increase profits by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of its services to all of its customers? Can sociologists really only think of ingenious ways to share out the pie without also trying to enlarge it? If we want our discipline to be valued and supported, can we be indifferent to such questions? Why would we criticize Dr Carbino rather than celebrating her work as evidence that there is more to sociology than a chronicle of complaints about social exclusion?

This is compounded by the attitude to the acceptance of public honours. That is surely a matter for personal choice rather collective posturing. We might, though, reflect on the implications of the posture. In striking a rejectionist position, are we not just asserting our alienation from something that many other citizens respect? Are we not disconnecting ourselves from those people who find their identity in the nation and its traditions, however eccentric? If we make ourselves into a minority, who will advocate for us? How do we persuade the country’s taxpayers that we are worth supporting if we simply proclaim our contempt for institutions that they favor?

A leading UK lawyer recently reflected in his blog on a conversation with a ‘bow-tied academic sociologist’ at a New Year party. He concluded:

What much of liberal society has forgotten – sometimes even lost interest in – is meeting people where they are. Engaging very directly with people’s fears and their aspirations. This doesn’t mean throwing out the facts. It doesn’t mean accepting propositions that we know to be wrong or self-defeating. It doesn’t mean negating our own values. But it does mean accepting… that there is value, too, in the instinctive mind. With grace and dignity. And, with the legitimacy this brings, pressing what we do know.

Diversity is not just about marginalized people and groups. It is also about our engagement with those believers in ‘faith, family and flag’ who gave us all Brexit and Donald Trump. Diversity is for everyone.


Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

View all posts by Robert Dingwall

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