For my dissertation research, I read my fair share of sociology monographs from the 1950s and 1960s. Although unsure of what to expect at the start, I had in my mind something approximating a combination of social analysis with the quantitative approaches so common in sociology today. Instead, many of the books I read were so sparse on evidence or even references to studies providing it that it felt a bit like they were getting away with something. Of course, there were footnotes with nods to previous work – not unusually their own – and many of the books referred back to a couple of famous and ubiquitous studies, such as William F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society. However, on the whole, they read more like rough drafts of proposed arguments rather than robust defenses of them. It was if they formulated an idea in their heads, read a bit of secondary literature on it, from which they gleaned a few historical examples, typed that all up and presto!, there was the finished product.
I have to admit to having ambiguous feelings about this. My first gut reaction was to think, “not fair! If this was all that was required I could have three books published by now.” That, perhaps, is the response of someone who, having undergone a hazing, now desires to inflict it on others, even retroactively! On the other hand, it seemed incredibly seductive, and led me to perhaps (ok, probably) nostalgic speculations about the world of academia before a glutted job market resulted in an incredibly competitive environment where empiricism works as a major strategy for convincing hiring committees that your project is the most promising (ie, correct) project. (And how much time have you spent in an archive, lately?)
Indeed, there seemed to be a freewheeling, nonchalant attitude about their work which I found appealing – it was as if they were all sitting in a room, simply tossing out ideas, without anyone feeling particularly defensive about or invested in being right. Would this not create an intellectual environment more interested in creative thinking than competitive posturing? Imagine if every conference paper or article ended with an implied shrug of, “then again, I could be wrong.” How would this change the environments we think and work in?
Moreover, I have long appreciated the value of a bold and completely wrong idea. Think of how many epic historians have come up with brilliant, useful, compelling arguments that also happened to be false – Fredrick Jackson Turner for example, or Richard Hofstadter. What such historians accomplished was not always to get it right, but to force others to take creative and critical account of their arguments, thus spurring, in the process, more daring and groundbreaking scholarship. As I’ve often joked to friends, I would be perfectly content to have my life’s work assigned for decades in graduate seminars, not in spite of being wrong, but in some sense because of being wrong.
Then again, perhaps such an attitude plays too fast and loose with the truth. After all, is this not the overblown confidence of elite white men casually discussing the problems of the world, apparently in desperate need of their expert advice, unconcerned with having to rigorously check their assumptions? Indeed, any approach to sociological speculation that could earn Daniel Patrick Moynihan the (lasting, oddly enough) reputation as being a serious thinker has got to be seriously flawed. (On that note, the best summary of Moynihan’s work I’ve ever read comes from Francis Fox Piven, who wrote in a review of his Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, “[a]s always with Moynihan, it is difficult to distill the main ideas from the dazzling verbiage with which he flits from accounts of specific events and persons to half-completed generalizations about, say, the crisis of Western civilization in the mid-twentieth century.”) More seriously, as was detailed in Trevor Burrow’s review of Mical Raz’s new book on poverty as cultural deprivation, such practices might have had something to do with the willingness of an entire generation of social scientists and social workers to accept ideas about poverty that were neither based in historical evidence nor rigorously tested. Once someone writes something down as though it is true and in no need of elaborate defense, it is very easy for others to pick it up on the mistaken assumption that the original theorist built it on a solid foundation, and such developments can have very serious consequences.
Yet I still wonder if there isn’t a way to get if not the best, then a bit of both worlds – because even when you read, for example, Moynihan, you might not always understand at first what the hell he is talking about, but you are enjoying the ride – and an intellectual environment based as much in the joy of creative thinking as the importance of being correct sounds sometimes deliciously subversive and well, just plain fun. But is there a place for intellectual play in our increasingly cramped and competitive workspaces, or is it all too risky to flirt with being wrong?
 At least, the ones that I read; I would not be surprised if this was related to the particular fields I was looking into, primarily research on juvenile delinquency, poverty, and community dynamics.
 Hofstadter was not wrong about everything, of course – there was much on which he was quite right – but suffice to say there are serious problems with his account of populists, progressives and the source of contemporary conservatism.
 Francis Fox Piven, “Whose Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding?,” in Social Work, Vol.14, No. 2 (April 1969), 96, Francis Fox Piven Papers, Box 74, Folder 18, Sophia Smith Collection (Northampton, Massachusetts).