US sociologists ‘ignoring’ climate change in research

Planetary warming shown to attract very few of the subject’s scholarly articles, conference sessions and course listings

July 9, 2024
Climate change in action
Source: iStock

US sociologists consistently pay almost negligible attention to the problem of climate change, despite the central role of human behaviour in planetary warming, a University of Michigan researcher has concluded.

Climate change is a topic for less than 1 per cent of articles in leading sociology journals, 1.5 per cent of conference sessions and 0.2 per cent of course listings, across the nation’s 20 highest-ranked departments, the analysis showed.

“And when the social sciences are represented” in scholarly analyses of climate change, study author Sofia Hiltner said, “they often mostly include economists, which does not account for other social scientific perspectives.”

The investigation by Ms Hiltner, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Michigan, is published in the peer-reviewed journal The American Sociologist.

The reasons for the deficit aren’t clear, although it appears to have historical origins going back to the founding of the field of sociology in the 19th century – during the transition from agricultural to industrial societies, when social realities were regarded as distinct from the physical world – that have been reinforced in more modern times by political funding decisions, Ms Hiltner said.

Ms Hiltner said she wasn’t ready to declare as intentional the paucity of social science expertise in the exploration of climate change and its solutions. Yet there have been clear political efforts in recent years to avoid giving research into controversial topics the advantage of insights into human behaviour.

That perspective got a major boost about a decade ago when Lamar Smith, then chair of the science committee in the US House of Representatives, led a sustained Republican push to cut social science funding at the National Science Foundation.

That campaign has had an enduring effect. Over the decade from 2013 to 2023, the NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences has seen its funding shrink from $247 million (£193 million) to $234 million, and its annual number of grant awards plummet from 995 to 753. By comparison, total NSF funding over that period jumped from $6.7 billion to $8.7 billion, and the agency’s total number of awards held steady at about 11,000 per year.

And, just in recent weeks, the State University System of Florida cut sociology from its core course requirements, under pressure from the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has made a habit of insisting that his political preferences override academic judgements.

Opponents called the decision – making Florida the only US state that doesn’t include sociology as a core course option within its general education curriculum – a political calculation that will hurt students as employers increasingly value workers with a greater understanding of the human dimensions of their jobs.

“Those of us in academia understand that no subject is taught in isolation,” Teresa Hodge, an associate professor of mathematics at Broward College serving as president of the United Faculty of Florida, said in response to the DeSantis action.

Ms Hiltner did note, however, that leading UK and European sociology journals appear to show a similar trend of relatively few articles examining matters involving climate change.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Amid concerns about value for money and the supposed liberal bias of certain humanities and social science subjects, conservative politicians are increasingly intervening in curricular decisions. Do such subjects still have a place at public universities – and who should get to decide, asks Paul Basken

12 October