SCOTUS & Social Science

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a case involving a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart. The argument before the Court was not about whether Wal-Mart discriminated on the basis of sex but instead whether 1.5 million women were similar enough to be considered a class. The purpose of this piece is not to focus on the specifics or argue the merit of the case but instead, to consider the research component of the case. Specifically, to address the role that social research, and sociology in particular, played in the Court case.

The attorneys for Wal-Mart argued that social research on sex discrimination in the workplace, in general, and the case study done by sociologist William Bielby, in particular, were not valid evidence of discrimination.  They argued the evidence was anecdotal and mere “statistics” because a single “smoking gun” – a specific discriminatory policy  – could not be identified.  In fact, during oral arguments Justice Antonin Scalia seemed surprised that Wal-Mart would discriminate on the basis of sex since they have an “announced policy against sex discrimination”. In March 2011, the American Sociological Association (ASA) filed an amicus brief with the Court that refuted these claims and essentially argued that sociology and social research are “scientific” enough to be used in legal proceedings.

This ruling appears to be problematic for the discipline of sociology and all social researchers because it diminishes the validity of social research, especially in the judicial system.  It also seems to reaffirm the belief that since social research is a soft science, it isn’t a “real” science.  Scalia, writing for the majority seemed to outright reject sociological evidence and explanations of sex discrimination via gender bias, stereotypes, and organizational sex discrimination .  However, within the field of sociology, it is widely accepted that institutional discrimination exists in a variety of forms and that just because you can’t directly observe discrimination does not mean it doesn’t exist.  After all, we can’t see black holes (they absorb, rather than reflect, light), but their exististence is widely accepted based on supporting evidence (an accretion disc, made up of the matter slowly falling into the black hole).  We’re interested to hear your thoughts on how and to what degree this ruling will impact social research.


Author: Rachel Lovell

Rachel Lovell is the Senior Research Methodologist at the SSRC where she is responsible for designing, developing, implementing, and analyzing empirical research studies generated within SSRC and also by faculty researchers affiliated with SSRC. Rachel received her Ph.D. in sociology from The Ohio State University in 2007. Her more recent research interests include women, public health, and sex work.

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