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CONTRIBUTIONS OF SOCIOLOGY TO POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

Over the years, there have been many instances in which sociological perspectives, concepts, theories, and methods have aided the development of policy recommendations (Jimenez, 2010; Jordan, 2007). Perhaps the best-known illustrations of this are the various uses made of sociology in presidential commissions. These commissions include the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. Sociologists were active in these commissions, and disciplinary research and knowledge were incorporated in the recommendations.

Sociology played an especially important role in the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. Social science concepts, theories, and perspectives were of great utility to the commission in forming final recommendations, and “existing social science theories and data were drawn upon to formulate broad general strategies in the prevention and control of crime” (Ohlin, 1975:108). Sociologists also provided sensitizing concepts and theories that oriented the search for solutions of the crime problem. For example, studies of the correctional system and the operation of law enforcement in the courts raised doubts about the effectiveness of existing criminal justice policies and of rehabilitation and treatment efforts. On the basis of sociological data, the commission accepted the view that alternative systems of social control should be used in place of the criminal justice system when possible, recommended the possibility of decriminalizing certain offenses against moral or public order, and called for a reconsideration of consensual crimes, or “crimes without victims” (Ohlin, 1975:109).

Sociologists made similar contributions to the work of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The specific recommendations provided by sociologists were incorporated in the commission’s progress report and “marked the high point of social science input to the Commission” (Short, 1975:84). Specific recommendations rested on the ideas that the nature of violence is essentially social as opposed to biological or psychological, that there is a connection between perceived legitimacy of the law and effective legal control of violence, and that the notions of responsibility for violence and of “relative deprivation” often lie in the unresponsiveness of social institutions (Short, 1975:85).

One of the final recommendations of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography resulted directly from sociological and other social science research on the personal, psychological, and social consequences of exposure to explicit sexual materials. The commission recommended that federal, state, and local laws prohibiting the sale, exhibition, and distribution of sexual material to consenting adults be repealed. This recommendation was based upon extensive sociological investigation that provided

no evidence that exposure to or use of explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of social or individual harm such as crime, delinquency, sexual and nonsexual deviancy, or severe emotional disturbance—Empirical investigations thus support the opinion of a substantial majority of persons professionally engaged in the treatment of deviancy, delinquency and anti-social behavior, that exposure to sexually explicit material has no harmful causal role in these areas.

(Report of the commission, quoted by Scott and Shore, 1979:17)

A similar conclusion was reached by Berl Kutchinsky (1973) in his ground-breaking study of the effects of liberalizing pornography in Denmark. Kutchinsky found that concurrent with the increasing availability of pornography, there was a significant decrease in the number of sex offenses registered by the police in Copenhagen. He concluded, “The unexpected outcome of this analysis is that the high availability of hard-core pornography in Denmark was most probably the very direct cause of a considerable decrease in at least one type of serious sex offense, namely, child molestation” (Kutchinsky, 1973:179). In a later study, Kutchinsky found a similar decrease in child molestation in Germany, which he attributed to an increased availability there of pornographic material (U.S. Department of Justice, 1986:974).

On the basis of the involvement of sociologists in presidential commissions, Scott and Shore (1979:20-21) conclude that sociology has made a contribution to recommendations for policy in three ways:

The first is through the use of sociological concepts that are said to provide new or unique perspectives on social conditions—perspectives that are based upon more than common sense and that may in fact be inconsistent with basic notions upon which existing policies are based... . Second, prescriptions for policy are sometimes suggested by the findings of sociological research undertaken primarily to advance scientific understanding of society... . The third is the use of sociological methods and techniques of research to obtain information about specific questions central to the deliberations of Commissions.

As this brief discussion should suggest, sociological knowledge can and at times does have an impact on developing recommendations for social policy. “For this reason,” as Scott and Shore (1979:23) observe, “sociologists can legitimately claim that their discipline has been and is relevant to the development of policy recommendations.” That claim has been validated over the years as evidenced by the demand on sociology and sociologists in policy-making circles.

 
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