How did you get into Sociology?
For a better understanding of the following, it is important to know that I was born, went to school and graduated in East Germany (that is, the GDR at that time).
I wanted to study architecture. To do so, I had to pass an admission exam consisting of two parts: a mathematical part (because of statics), which I mastered very well thanks to the mathematical focus of my high school, and an artistic part, which I did not pass. At the same time as taking the exam, I took a course called “Scientific-Practical Work,” which was a K11/K12 course in East German schools (it was the counterpart to “Introduction to Socialist Production,” which was a school subject from K5-K10). As part of this course, I regularly visited the Institute of Sociology at Humboldt University in Berlin and helped conduct a survey on the “desire to have children.” Talking to scientists there, the question of what I wanted to study came up, and they asked me why I wanted to study architecture. I told them (the kind of answer you give when you are 16 or 17) that I wanted to make our cities more humane. Their response was that I should study sociology instead. Urban sociology would be more in line with my interests than architecture. I did. But I did not choose urban sociology (because that was more administrative sociology in the GDR). I chose methods and technological sociology. In the GDR, there were only 40 places per year for sociology (it was considered a bourgeois-critical science). The selection was tough, but my work at the Institute of Sociology helped me get in.
I have never regretted it, even though after the fall of the Wall I realized that I was no longer in an “orchid subject” but in a “mass subject” – but on the upside, I was now able to research the class structure of the GDR in my dissertation at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, something I could not do freely in the GDR.
What makes you sociologically curious?
My main interest in sociology has been the most disadvantaged groups in our society. Although I myself come from a privileged group (my father was a university graduate, my mother is a high school graduate and was a physical-technical assistant; both of them had no problems getting decent jobs in the public sector after reunification, and I am a professor and thus among the top earners in Germany), my research is primarily concerned with the group of low-achieving young people and low-skilled workers. I want to understand why they fail, but also why some succeed. How do they overcome barriers? It is not about shifting responsibility to the individual, along the lines of “even with inequality-generating structures, you can make it if you work hard,” but learning more about those structures. From this point of view, I am and remain a structuralist (perhaps this is due to my East German socialization.)
What challenges does sociology face as a science?
On the one hand, I am always surprised and amazed at how original and diverse the research questions are that sociology deals with – and how different the methods are. How sociology also takes up the most recent developments as a subject of research and as a method. On the other hand, I feel that the “production” of the rapidly increasing number of journal articles (on 15-20 pages) is “forcing” sociology to make its research questions smaller and smaller, and the standardization of writing makes them easier to read, but also more boring to read. The growing demand for causality (or “causality turn”) increasingly determines what can be worked on, (dense) descriptive work is often lacking (e.g. because it is not published), and books are read less than before … The danger is that sociology becomes “impoverished” and loses its genuine distinctive position in competition with economics, psychology, computer science. I also see this in the supervision of dissertations, where I increasingly ask the question: “And what is the sociological point of this question?”
I am an “optimistic pessimist” – I tend to see the black more often, but I also live by the motto “there is nothing bad about which there is not also something good”. So, I am sure that sociology has a great future if we learn from our mistakes. At the ECSR* conferences in recent years, I have noticed a greater breadth of topics, of methods, and of good descriptions. I would be happy to see this continue.
Heike Solga is Director of the research unit “Skill Formation and Labor Markets” at the WZB – Berlin Social Science Center, Professor of Sociology at the Freie Universitaet Berlin and President of the European Consortium of Sociological Research (ECSR)