Why there are very few popular books on advanced sociology topics?

I want to leave this post open ended and relatively short. So let me state my proposition straight away.

In my opinion several aspects of modern sociology along with a good part of gender studies put forward political propositions that are either utterly vague and non-committal, or when they do commit turns out  to be unprovable and non-falsifiable claims. This apparent behaviour is  not primarily because of the complexity of the subject, but for its inherently shaky foundations and vacuous content.

A statement has explanatory power only if it reduces the complexity by a good deal. Therefore any stream of knowledge that attempts to explain the world or parts of it, should necessarily explain itself first. The order of complexity in explaining itself should be lower than what it intends to explain. Your experiences prevent you from knowing this ultimate truth is not a good argument; far from it, it exposes the proposer’s lack of depth. In practical terms, this would mean that a well founded knowledge stream should produce accessible books and/or other resources, that are intended for a lay audience. The shock value or non-intuitive nature of an idea is not a deterrent to its accessibility. Consider quantum mechanics, string theory or evolutionary biology. They are as non-intuitive as it can get. Any 9th standard kid can read and get the flavour of these “complex” ideas. But why not Derrida’s deconstruction, Foucault’s discourses on power or Third wave Feminist theory?


Source : https://datausa.io/profile/cip/4511/?compare=4008 (as on 30th September 2017)

Sociology departments award three times more number of degrees than physics departments in USA (data from 2015). Now compare this with economics departments, and we see thus:


Source : https://datausa.io/profile/cip/4511/?compare=4506 (as on 30th September 2017)

For a comprehensive comparison, let me add on biology departments too where women makes up almost 60% of the graduates and is easily close to the statistics in sociology.


Source : https://datausa.io/profile/cip/4511/?compare=4506 (as on 30th September 2017)

Now, let me tell you a little bit as to where this comes from. As a school kid in late 80’s and early 90’s, I was into quizzing among other extra curricular activities. It is not that I was a well known whiz kid among the quizzing circle, but I could dabble. My memorising ability was not exceptional, but curiosity made up for it. For that very reason, I did not miss any chance to explore ideas, the cool sciency, mathsy, literature fancy stuff and a few lesser ones too in  the old fashioned way — books, newspapers, magazines and TV documentaries. Through this way, I already had an introduction to  a lot of history, classic fiction, science and mathematics that I came to learn afterwards. There was however a huge exception to this rule — social sciences excluding economics and psychology. Looking back, it makes me wonder that even in this era of wikipedia, there are very few books if any, or a new form of presentation, accessible to an school kid when it comes to many advanced social sciences. Think about it; you can get dazzled reading introduction to relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, number theory, calculus, geography, economics, philosophy, statistics and even evolutionary psychology, but very little of gender theory or modern sociology.

Well many people might not be convinced. So let us look at some proxy evidences. Here is a good list of popular (layman) books in quantum mechanics (643), cosmology (201), number theory (104), biology (1182) and economics (173) books from one of the most active book review sites, goodreads. The listed number of books, as of 30th September 2017, is given in brackets. The number of books in popular sociology section is 245, of which many falls into popular economics, anthropology, psychology and brain sciences categories too.  In my view, many are wrongly categorized. Even if we take things as granted, very few down to earth books on the advanced topics that sociology deals with such as gender, race, power and privilege, exist in that list. Why is this so?

Now here are a few plausible explanations, I could think of. More ideas are welcome.

  1. Lack of patronage.
  2. Lack of enthusiasm by the proponents of the discipline to communicate to a larger audience, or a form of concealed elitism.
  3. Lack of interest as far as lay audiences are concerned.
  4. Inability to make a clear, concise and simple communication, or shaky foundations.

I will rule out 1 and 3 immediately. The number of students who opt for these courses in developed nations is good enough an indicator for the patronage and interest aspect. I will definitely argue that 2 exist, and this is very much visible as against scientists working at the highest levels who want to reach out to high school students in their language. My thesis however shall be that 4 is the most accurate explanation. When you make it clear and simple, you have to answer some difficult questions. If you fail there, the whole edifice will get exposed. Or am I wrong?


Analytical thinking and understanding Indian society

Let me shoot this straight. Serious hobbyists and professional social scientists from India should learn and follow modern developments in psychology, economics  and game theory, if they really want to make sense of the society. There is far too much insularity and special pleading when it comes to our understanding of the social dynamics at play. Our modern contribution to knowledge at large, and specifically to the study of our society, is marred by the sloppy thinking prevalent in the orient.

Image Source: Amazon

Most people might find my initial remarks something very drastic. More over, people have every right to question my competence to make such an opinion. I won’t be offended if that is the case. Call me a Macaulayist for this crime if you must, but do hear me out. I opine that if we want to understand our social dynamics and contribute to knowledge pool of the world, the volumes on history, mythology, literature, art and modern sociology are only going to be of help as footnotes. They can utmost provide details of individual tiles in a jigsaw puzzle. But we won’t be able to view the shape from the angle we are viewing. We are not using the right tools or developing them, as far as one can see. For somebody who has more than working knowledge on the cultural history of ‘Indian society’ (or some aspect of it), I believe that reading modern psychologists like Richard E. Nisbett and Daniel Kahneman (Nobel laureate in economics, the author of “Thinking fast and slow”), mathematician cum financial analyst Nicholas Taleb (author of “Black Swan“, “Fooled by Randomness“) etc. will be more beneficial. Social psychology, economics, logic and mathematics (especially for game theory) should be a must read for budding social scientists and even historians. We need to nurture analytical ability, a pathetically under appreciated skill in Indian social science research landscape, as far as I have seen.

Let me give some context to this. Although formally trained in engineering/physical sciences, on the hobby side, I have always been a history buff. This probably started from the childhood days when collecting stamps, and later coins, was the cool hobby. It was indeed a curious thing to speculate, then find out from a library or GK books as to what a particular cultural artifact from a country’s stamp meant to them. Presence of a parent and relatives who had had many anecdotes and stories to tell about places and people outside the country where they worked, possibly catalyzed it. Most importantly, the anecdotal historical gyan always came handy in extempore speech and essay writing competitions. Browsing through the random pages of wikipedia remained as the favourite time killing exercise for quite some time until recently. Today the enthusiasm to read and amass details has waned a bit in favour of understanding and quantifying the nature of events. And this is because I have come to identify a fundamental shortcoming found in most oriental minds developed in its native cultural environment — it has a typical two scale dynamics.
What is this two scale dynamics? We work, and indeed very well, at the level of micro scale. We appreciating and often encourage diversities to a mind boggling level. Then we switch on to a macro scale where life is seen as a cycle of repetitions, be it karma or some mystic sense of timelessness. At best, we try to fit it to an already known theory. The problem however is that we are culturally untrained to work with the middle scale where the majority of knowledge production happens. This is where you connect dots and model. This is where you develop tools to quantify and analyze. The western mind, from the books I have read, works very well in this area. We are told not to venture much into this area because it is risky.

Image source: Amazon

Allow me to elaborate this point. It is well recognized that oriental people, including Indians of all ethnicity and religions, have a problem in understanding categories. We are culturally trained to see a continuum, which is possibly good for social cohesion, but certainly a handicap in dealing with concrete objects and ideas. In fact, we hate concrete ideas with sharp boundaries and are afraid of making the distinctions. In my opinion, this has consequences in our social outlook. Risk aversion is the motto of Indian society. ‘Sharmaji ka beta‘ meme did not come as an accident. In our society, the ‘ideal person’ is a weighted golden mean. The weight varies from place to place. It is a Master moshai — the upper caste, lower middle class, nominally irreligious (and yet culturally Hindu), sacrificing Bengali school teacher with calm mannerism — in Bengali society, while a Deenanath Babu — upper caste, pious, slightly wealthy, Ramayan chanting, Mukhiya type, Sarkari officer — in the Hindi heartland. All communities have such stereotypes, but in western societies these golden means only have a symbolic value, as a pillar of stability; you have to surpass them and are encouraged to do so. But in our oriental societies deviation from this golden mean are not generally considered as positive. The weights and values change only when there is an external pressure on the community. In short, in our societies failure is looked down than success is valued.


Image source: Amazon

Now the above said social dynamics has direct impact on the way we think. It discourages bold analyses, even in the academic disciplines where it is expected. As a result, we value getting along than pursuit of truth or bettering our understanding. I believe that even persistence of caste in urban spaces in this modern age has something to do with this attitude. Society believes that an inter-caste marriage implies a lowering of value from the ideal mean for the privileged spouse and hence failure. But then, for the less privileged spouse, it is again a digression from the mean which might award better mobility or success (for lack of a better word). A risk averse society does not value success to the extend it abhors “failures”. Hence even progressive values does not catch up fast. The general hatred towards wealthy capitalists, even in societies with no left wing roots, again is a permanent feature of this risk averse society. It happens in rich countries too, and higher in poorer societies. Yet in India we have it more as disdain,  than just anger. To top it all, our cultural discouragement for thinking in the middle scale, i.e weaving the observed diversity into a theory with ample explanatory power and without bothering whether it upsets the current notions, is really poor.

So here is my suggestion. Our problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, if we look them as diverse pieces arising from historical accidents. Neither will the ideologically motivated grand narratives help beyond a point. We need modern evidence based science and analytical tools. We need to learn to work in the middle scale.  Above all, enthusiasts of social sciences (other than economics) should broaden their outlook by learning economics, psychology and mathematics. The patterns are much more clear once you equipped with the details and stand above quantitative reasoning processes.