The central problem with research results based on a single discipline is one can account for only a small part of the variance

To be published July, 2003

Letter to the Editor 1388 words

Contemporary Sociology

This letter is in no way to be seen as a criticism of Donald Black’s research on the sociology of law. As the contributors to the Symposium pointed out, it is an admirable achievement. I focus only a feature of his approach that seems to me gratuitous, the supposition that "a pure sociology" is the best goal for sociologists to pursue. I note with alarm that this idea found sympathetic reverberations in most of the essays in the Symposium.

At the beginning of his evocation of the strategy for a pure sociology (Black 1998, p. 158), Black noted that "pure physics ignores chemical and biological variation…" What he failed to note is that pure physics, chemistry, and biology have been more or less dead in the water for more than half a century. Virtually all of the major advances in these three disciplines have been the product of interdisciplinary approaches: physical chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry, etc.

In the social sciences, however, most researchers have been repeating the methods that led to the creation of their separate disciplines. Over a hundred years ago, Boltzmann (1899), the brilliant physicist who created the theory of heat transport, had a similar complaint. He noted that when a new method yields interesting results, many become wedded to it, they come "to believe that the development of science to the end of time would consist in the systematic and unremitting application of it."

The development of modern sociology provides an example. In his first systematic study (1897) Durkheim demonstrated that year after year, the suicide rate in Protestant regions was higher than the rate in Catholic regions. He linked this finding to a general theory of social integration: social bonds that were neither too loose (isolation) nor too tight (engulfment) protected its members from suicide. Durkheim’s theory of social integration (solidarity/alienation) is central to modern sociology, and his statistical method forms the basis for quantitative studies. The theory of social integration implied by Durkheim’s study is not obvious, at least in Western societies. It goes deeply against the grain of the idea of the self-contained individual, an idea that lies near the core of Western culture.

Although modern sociologists copy Durkheim’s method in Suicide, they ignore what to me is the essential aspect of this study: he linked a social variable, suicide rate, to a psychological variable, degree of alienation. Most studies in current social science, whether quantitative or qualitative, are not undertaken in the service of a multi-disciplinary theory. Modern sociology imitates Durkheim’s monodisciplinary statistical method, but ignores the potential contributions by other disciplines.

It is also important to note that although Durkheim’s findings have been replicated, the correlation between degree of social integration and suicide rates is always quite small, accounting for less than 10% of the variance. The small effect size suggests that many, many other factors are involved. In other words, the theory of social integration does not explain the major causes of suicide.

Even if one were able to account for a substantial proportion of the variance by using an interdisciplinary approach, the results would still not contribute directly to the understanding of suicide. For this purpose, a dynamic model is needed, one that explains the process step by step. However, successful correlational studies could be an important preliminary to such model, since they at least suggest the basic parameters that are needed.

There was a legitimate reason for Durkheim’s approach: he was establishing sociology as an approach to the study of human conduct separate from other disciplines. But now that sociology, psychology, and economics have all been established as separate disciplines, it seems senseless to try to explain human conduct exclusively within a single discipline.

The Blau and Duncan study (1967) of adult incomes, and the replications of it, are cases in point. These studies copy exactly the methodology of Durkheim’s study of suicide, attempting to explain complex human conduct by using only sociological variables. But the upshot of copying what sociologists take to be Durkheim’s method is that their studies, like Durkheim’s, account for only a tiny proportion of the variance. The Blau and Duncan study (1967) may be the high water mark in this regard, since class of origin accounts for 16% of the variance, about twice as high as in the original Durkheim study, and in its modern replications. Still their findings do not account for the major forces at work in shaping income.

The French philosopher Emile Chartier observed that "Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it’s the only one you have" (circa 1910). He may not have had the disciplines and sub-disciplines in mind, but his observation is appropos. Specializing in a single aspect of knowledge is usually a good idea at the time it is undertaken, but ultimately comes also to be an impediment to advance, when the original idea is used as a shield against other good ideas.

It would seem at this point that the only way to generate results that would explain the major causes of social phenomena would be to utilize variables from all relevant disciplines. I have found only one study involving three disciplines. Research on health levels of welfare recipients in Sweden by an interdisciplinary team combines social, economic and psychological variables (Starrin, et al 1997, 2000, and 2001, and also other publications in Swedish). Their basic finding, that social class, shame and financial stress together predict poor health far better than either variable alone, has been replicated in several different populations. Three variables, working class, high on shame experiences, and money worries, are powerful predictors of illness. Working class subjects high on shame and money worry are twenty to thirty times as likely to be in poor health than the other subjects.

Advanced as they are, these studies are still in correlational mode. They are only preliminary to building models of process. If we want to understand suicide well enough to prevent it, we will need an approach that can combine economic, social, and psychological vectors into a single dynamic system.


If the determination to keep sociology pure does not advance our understanding of the real world, what other function could it serve? In an earlier essay (Scheff 1995) I proposed that allegiance to a discipline, whatever it’s other functions, also helps members to defend against feelings of separation and alienation. The emphasis by most of the contributors to this Symposium on keeping sociology "pure" and on "purity," suggests a further refinement of this idea.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966) has suggested that a focus on purity has a primitive function: defending the status quo in a tribe or other group. The quest for purity, she states, is deeply reactionary: "Purity is the enemy of change, of ambiguity, and compromise (2002, p. 163). Perhaps we need miscegenation between disciplines, sub-disciplines, methods and levels, rather than purity (Scheff 1997). To this end I will propose a public debate on the integration of the social sciences. If the social sciences are to advance, they may need to cooperate, rather than to compete or ignore each other.

Thomas J. Scheff

Prof. Emeritus



Black, Donald. 1998. The Social Structure of Right and Wrong. San Diego: Academic Press.

Blau, Peter, and O. D. Duncan. 1967. The American Occupational Structure. New York: Wiley.

Boltzman, Ludwig. 1899. The Recent Development of Method in Theoretical Physics. Monist 11: 229-30.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge. (2002)

Durkheim, Emile. 1897. Suicide. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press (1951.

Scheff, Thomas. 1995. Academic Gangs. Crime, Law, and Social Change 23: 157-162.

____________ 1997. Emotions and the Social Bond: Part/Whole Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Starrin, B, Rantakeisu, U, Forsberg, E & Kalander-Blomqvist, M, Understanding the Health Consequences of Unemployment - The Finance/Shame model. In Kieselbach, T (Ed.) Youth Unemployment and Health - A Comparison of Six European Countries. Leske + Budrich. Opla-den, 2000.

Starrin, B, Rantakeisu, U & Hagquist, C, In the wake of the recession - economic hardship, shame and social erosion. Scandinavian Journal of Work and Environment, 1997, 23, 47-54.

Starrin, B, Jönsson, L R & Rantakeisu, U, Unemployment and sense of coherence. International Journal of Social Welfare, 2001:10, 107-116.