What getting a degree in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis has done for me

I sometimes surprise people by telling them that I have five degrees total: 2 BAs, 2 MAs, and a PhD. They often wonder what the "other" MA is in, since one is clearly in sociology. 

The answer is "Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis" which is a very fancy phrase for higher education administration. My particular focus was on student affairs, which means that I spent a lot of time thinking about student development, and learning student development theory in addition to organizational behavior and the history of higher education. 

It turns out that nearly all of this is useful in my current work coordinating a sequence of two, never-taught-before courses on the ethics of care. We are placing students in fieldwork sites, teaching them qualitative research methods (sociology here) and we are asking them to create proposals for on-campus projects that might apply what they have learned about caring and care theory. This is where the student affairs part comes in. I can say some things about where students are developmentally, and the kinds of student affairs professionals that might be able to speak to the issues students raise in their proposed projects. And because I taught in a liberal arts college whose students are not unlike those at Vanderbilt, I can speak with some authority on student cultures.

All this to say: the detours aren't distractions from your goal, they are the journey towards your goals. 

Clinical Ethics, the normative, and the sociologist

In my new role as clinical ethics trainee, I've been reading a lot about normative theory, or ethical theory. That is, theories that answer the question: how do we determine what is right? 

Mostly, sociologists studiously avoid this question, as we are taught that sociology is not a normative discipline, but rather an empirical one that has to do with creating theories that explain real things that happen when people do whatever it is that they do. 

Simply put, what is "right" and what is "wrong" are not valid considerations for the sociologist, because sociology simply describes what "is" and the social forces that made it so. 

This often works for the rhetoric of science, and it's great for those making political claims that their evidence, and their theory explaining that evidence, are objective, value-free, and thus neutral and trustworthy. Unfortunately, I think this stance fails for several reasons. First, scientists are never disinterested, and we don't expect them to be. No cancer researcher is neutral on cancer -- they want to eradicate it as it causes clear harm. I expect that most all researchers who study the social sources of inequality have a similar view, although many would not expect to eliminate all inequality in social and personal life. For them, it's the degree of inequality and the unfair (value judgment!) distribution of rewards and punishments that is the problem. You can see how there is both a moral or value judgment embedded in the question.

There is also an implicit view of human nature in this view of inequality. I think it goes something like this: There is a range of natural human variation in socially valuable traits that may or may not be developed, given social and material conditions at any given point in time for any particular person. The degree to which any individual human person develops to their maximal potential is a joint product of both this natural variation and the specific social and cultural context(s) in which the person develops, including any systemic social inequalities often structured around race, class, gender, sexuality, and other matters of personal and social identity. 

Along with this view is the unstated belief that human persons should have access to the social and material resources to achieve their full potential. For shorthand's sake, and to follow Christian Smith on this (see his book To Flourish or Destruct), I'll call that access human flourishing.

Am I wrong here? Enlighten me.