Monday, March 26, 2012

Irving Louis Horowitz (1929-2012)

This last Wednesday, social science lost one of its greatest practitioners and critics, Irving Louis Horowitz. Although Horowitz is often described as having started on "the left," influenced by the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, and then moved to "the right" later in his career, in truth Horowitz was always too independent in his thinking to conform to any party line. Among his other accomplishments, in 1962 Horowitz founded the journal Transaction: Social Science and Society, an interdisciplinary publication intended to bring social scientific debates and findings to a wide readership. The journal later changed its name to Society. Under the current editorship of Jonathan Imber, it continues to be one of the most readable and free-thinking outlets in the social sciences. Transaction Publishers, initially established by Horowitz to publish the journal, became a major publishing house and a bastion of open-mindedness and true intellectual diversity in the works it made available.

In his later years, Horowitz was an outspoken critic of the politicization of the social sciences and especially of the transformation of sociology from an area of study to a home for campus-based political dogma. Those who have criticized him for not recognizing that the social sciences are often unavoidably value laden seem to me to have missed his main point. It may not be possible for sociology to be as "objective" as the hard sciences. But if the discipline is, in practice, the propagation of a political and social creed, then it is difficult to see how it can contribute to the cultivation of independent thought or why it should have any place in an academic curriculum.

More than once, I've quoted the following passage from Horowitz's 1993 book The Decomposition of Sociology:

The identification of social science with social advocacy has reached such pandemic proportions in American sociology that it is time,  indeed the time is long overdue, to step back from the precipice of partisanship if the worth of serious analysis is itself to be preserved. Instead of being a possible consequence of decent social research, advocacy has become the very cause of social research. We have taken the chief weakness in the structure of knowledge about society (namely the propensity to ideological thinking) and turned it into a first principle of the research process. (p. 183)

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