How is sociology like theoretical physics?

Honore Daumier, Family on the Barricades, 1848
Honore Daumier, 1848

Mark Regnerus, the sociologist who developed and carried out the New Family Structures Study at the University of Texas at Austin, writes that the question of whether same-sex ‘marriage’ will “…cause harm to opposite-sex marriage” is “empirically unanswerable any time soon.” Since legally-privileged same-sex unions have only just become a feature of the moral, legal, and political landscape in various American and European states, it will take a long time to collect empirical sociological data on how re-structuring the marriage institution impacts families. Perhaps we will have to wait a generation or so to claim “scientific” knowledge of these effects. Regnerus writes:

But the question itself is empirically unanswerable any time soon. We are arguably years away from gathering quality longitudinal, nationally representative data on the matter. And even then, assessing — let alone agreeing upon — causation will remain difficult. Same-sex marriage may, after all, be a later-stage symptom of the general deinstitutionalization of marriage rather than, as many assert, a cause of it. So the question remains less an empirical one than a theoretical one at present.

And yet we can build plausible hypotheses about the broader influence of same-sex marriage by looking around the neighborhood — that is, at what we already know about gay and straight relationships, about what’s happening to marriage, the mating market, and how institutions change.

In other words, if sociology were merely a matter of long-term studies, social policy would always be a case of shooting first and asking questions thirty years later. This is often how political sausage is made. Lobbyists and activists pressure politicians to pass or change a law, the change is enacted in a hurry, and, years later in some cases, we discover the terrible long-term effects of, for instance, pressuring banks into granting balloon rate mortgages to unqualified homebuyers.

Regnerus himself, the author of a large study on adulthood outcomes among children raised in various types of “non-traditional” families, prompted many supporters of marriage redefinition to lose their shit when his study’s results suggested that rates of social pathologies among children raised in non-traditional family structures were higher than among those raised in stable mother-father homes. Yet he admits that his research is not definitive in the empirical sense and more work is necessary. The question he raises here is whether sociologists need to wait for huge, long-term empirical data sets to say anything worth saying about an issue — especially an issue as important as whether we ought to make fundamental changes to the institution of marriage.

It seems to me that we might fairly compare the relationship between long-term studies and the “[a]ssociations, probabilities, and educated guesses” of short-term sociological opinion to the relationship between experimental and theoretical physics. Theoretical physics consists in jacking around doing who-knows-what while living with your odd buddies in a really huge apartment constructing hypotheses about how the universe works by bringing together previously-observed phenomena, theoretical paradigms, mathematical logic, and intuition. Experimental physics then attempts to design and carry out controlled experiments to test these hypotheses. Often theoretical physicists intuitively discover a truth before there are instruments precise enough to test it. Albert Einstein developed his theory of special relativity by attempting to reconcile seemingly contradictory observations of gravitational and electromagnetic field behavior. Mathematics and intuition both played essential roles in guiding him to surprising conclusions, subsequently proven by experiment. His theories provided the incentive for a vast amount of subsequent technical innovation and discovery over the past century.

“Social science” is not a science in the same way that physics is a science. But like physics, it seeks to interpret and predict phenomena and construct theories to explain observed phenomena. And like theoretical physics, social science does not merely rely on huge sets of observed long-term data. It can draw on the tools of observation, intuition, and analogy to seek out new insights. It can dialogue with philosophy, ethics and theology to better understand its subject, the human person. And enabled by this broader conception of its work, such a science can help us navigate the difficult social problems that can’t wait thirty years for a solution.