Science in Christian Perspective



Frank A. Houser, Jr., M.A.

From JASA 8 (June 1956): 19-20.

When I was in the Navy the word was passed that if the sailors weren't griping there was something wrong with them. At the time this seemed to me to be just another irrational dictum by which the big brass kidded themselves and consoled their junior officers. As the word filtered down to the enlisted man it seemed to have a singularly unsolacing effect.

Now, in the light of hindsight and some sociological insight the dictum seems to make practical sense. Let's change it to "If the sailors weren't griping there was something wrong with the organization." Look at the large organization that 'has no "loyal opposition", no "party of the second part", no organized minority, and there you see hardening of the arteries known as oligarchy. Whether it's a trade union, political party, church, or U. S. Navy it needs the healthy criticism which is the first step in avoiding concentration of power and/or desiccation of ideas. Sometimes this criticism comes from outside the organization. Sometimes from within. In any case human organizations need it.

So, the griping could well indicate that (1) the organization is not really up to snuff, (2) the atmosphere is free enough to permit criticism. (3) the desirably taut organization which has activists instead of "apathists" is indeed to be congratulated.

These general remarks could well apply to the ASA. But, for the moment, let's look at the people who study groups-the sociologists themselves. Yes, the fratern ity of sociologists is far from uniformity. Even better, it is far from unity. But, it's a healthy kind of disagreement that is of interest not only to the sociologists themselves, but to Christian men of science at large.

The fascinating aspect of the division in the house of sociology is that the minority spokesman is the President of the outfit! Herbert Blumer is a man long respected in the society of sociologists but hardly agreed with by everyone. It is the merit of the organization that it elected a leader for this year who could focus attention on an issue which undermines the bulk of research in the field of sociology today. Not only the healthy give and take of ideas, but the substance of the issue Blumer states is of interest to ASA members.

Let's look at the issue. The main line research in sociology today stresses analytical variables which are discrete and homogeneous. Blumer asserted recently at the Midwest Sociology Society's convention that this emphasis results in "research at a distance" or setting up on the basis of certain "outside" concepts a design of a study. The mode of research is structured in advance. For example, if a sociologist decides to study the relation between griping and size of organization he proceeds by (1) defining griping or what indicates it, (2) setting up a questionnaire or interview schedule to reveal the subject's gripes, (3) setting up an experimental situation wherein a large and small group are compared when all other factors are controlled. Notice that in this approach the researcher came to the situation or looked for it with some fairly well established ideas in mind. Naturally, the level of the sophistication or refinement of concepts is much higher in today's research than our prosaic example. But, the point is that he comes to the situation with concepts or variables which have been gleaned from many previous studies or observation. In order to test his hypothesis he designs the study rigorously, and probably makes it very amenable to statistical manipulation-not just measures of central tendency, but correlation, chi square, critical ratios, or whatever device best fits the problem at hand.

Now as I understand the point Blumer is making, it is that the above type of approach, while useful, fails to lend itself to a faithful understanding of social behavior. Why? Because it "emasculates" the individual or group by forcing a conceptual scheme on one facet of behavior. Rather, says Blumer, ought sociologists to see persons as "wholes"-in interaction with others--so that the inevitable scheme with which we come to our study, may be open to vast amendment or reorientation as we allow the whole person in a full setting to act. The cardinal point of any empirical science is to stay true to the nature of its subject matter. This can be done, and has been done better, according to Blumer, by sociologists who involve themselves by way of "participant experimentation" in the study. "Sympathetic introspection" is a key.

As a matter of fact, Blumer indicates that the earlier sociologists who immersed themselves in the situation without completely prearranged ideas (and with fairly crude methods) probably have given us more lasting results than all the contributions of modern research. For example, Thomas, Znaniecki, Thrasher, Cooley, Park, and Weber stand out in the quality of their contributions. What today, asked Blumer, can match such concepts of earlier vintage as mores, primary group, bureaucracy, anomie, definition of the situation, et al? To introduce an intellectual understanding of experience of people studied is an art that seen is hard to duplicate given today's approach.

Please note this is no blast against empiricism. It is a critique of the current variety of empiricism in sociology which gives us much that is precise, but little that is significant.

Christian men of science may be reminded here that the search for truth is best accomplished when free inquiry and discussion prevail. They may also note the revised defense of man who cannot be reduced to fit some analytical scheme without doing despite to both man and science.