Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sociology, Theory, & the Welfare State - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1
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Sociology, Theory, & the Welfare State - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Sociology, Theory, & the Welfare State
“‘Buddy, Can You Paradigm?’ The Crisis of Theory in the Welfare State.” Pacific Sociological Review 22(January 1979):3–22.
In his 1978 presidential address to the Pacific Sociological Association, Prof. Joseph Gusfield discusses two basic questions: sociology's contribution to the development of social policy in the United States as well as the crisis of confidence currently afflicting the field. That crisis, he feels, jeopardizes the foundations of our society's welfare state ideology, a paradigm promoted by sociologists in the first half of the twentieth century.
Sociological theory has in the past served three functions in American society. First of all, its role has been intellectual, enabling us to turn what William James called “the buzzing, blooming confusion” of raw reality and sensation into an ordered and consistent pattern. Secondly, sociological theory has been political or ideological by reflecting current political ideals and, to a large extent molding the ways in which Americans conceptualize their society. Thirdly, it has served an institutional function by providing entrée into the field for aspiring professionals and by furnishing them with a quasi-official identity label (Weberian, Parsonian, Marxist, etc.). Such labels become important when grants, jobs, and publishing outlets are sought from those who hold similar views.
Another aspect of sociological theory's institutional impact has been the rapid expansion of the “troubled persons” or “human resources” industries, which range from alcohol treatment to educational guidance. These new “service” areas also reflect a new public approach to private woes which has become the hall-mark of the modern welfare state. Sociological research largely laid the ground-work for these new concerns.
The practical contributions of academic theory have recently been undermined, however, as pragmatic users come to find sociological scholarship too hesitant to legitimize action and too demanding of technical knowledge. Even more fundamentally, disenchantment has grown with the basic paradigm of science as a model upon which to build the discipline. A split now divides those who still seek to discover the vital laws of human action and those for whom such a goal is either fruitless or even vicious.
Three intellectual movements of our day have rendered the tasks of theorizing less feasible than in the past. The emergence of structuralist and linguistic concerns have played the most significant role, along with the philosophical critiques of natural science. Chomsky, Levi-Strauss, Polanyi, Witgenstein, and Kuhn have made us sensitive to the presuppositions of a supposedly presuppositionless science. They have also laid the foundations for a view of human action which is less deterministic, more situational, and more freely creative than that provided by the paradigm of a generalizing social science.
The two other intellectual currents have also undermined sociology's institutional mission to American society. The renaissance of Marxism has weakened the influence of Parsonian functionalism with its basic acceptance of the American system. Nonetheless, the new Marxism itself suffers from the corrosion of current disputes over method, language, and philosophical assumptions.
Finally, quantitative empirical research once seemed destined to develop an effective human “technology” complete with maps and recipes for action. However, the more refined the techniques have become, the less they seem to say. The depictions of pathways and analyses of variance have demonstrated the interplay of variables, but they have frequently ended in the view that everything is relevant and that everything causes everything else.
These developments have brought about a tendency toward paralysis in contemporary sociology a real “failure of nerve.” To overcome this state of affairs, Prof. Gusfield urges sociologists to face up to their limits and recognize their opportunities. Sociology can still perform a valuable service by undercutting the “enslavement through science” by which many of our institutions and their personnel accumulate power simply through the aura of “scientific” expertise.