Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century

Clawson, Dan (Editor)
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
9780520251380 (pb)

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Cover of book Sociology does not function in a hermetically-sealed environment. One of the side-effects of permanent war on permanent terror has been to bring to the surface two opposing visions of sociology in the US. On one side, sociology is viewed as a professional discipline that claims legitimacy for its endeavours insofar as it functions a rigorous science. Whatever view sociologists may hold as private citizens about the rights and wrongs of the War on Terror really has little to do with how sociology functions as a profession. On the other side, it is seen as the duty of sociologists to engage in public debates over the urgent problems of the day. This has an equally long pedigree in US sociology, most notably in the muck-raking 'public sociology' of C. Wright Mills.

In a spirit more conciliatory than Mills would have cared for, Michael Burawoy's 2004 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association (ASA) raked over the embers of 'public sociology' to issue an appeal for renewing the discipline's bond with diverse publics. Public sociology concerns itself with articulating 'the public interest' through engagement with social movements, labour, and community associations of various stripes. Public sociology complements and rounds out other functions of the discipline: the 'professional sociology' of rigorous research methodologies and concepts; the 'critical sociology' which provides the discipline with an auto-critique; and 'policy sociology', where research expertise is paid for and shaped by the needs of sponsors.

This collection forms part of the official ASA response to Burawoy. His original essay is the occasion for considered responses from a range of eminent sociologists, including Patricia Hill Collins, Immanuel Wallerstein, Alain Tourraine, and Judith Stacey, as well as the renowned journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich. Burawoy's interlocutors are not exactly fugitive outlaw figures, voicing grievances that come from professional isolation and exclusion; they are the great and the good of secure, professional sociology.

The security of eminence provides sufficient institutional capital for the contributors to do battle for the soul of sociology. A commitment to speak with and for diverse publics follows from professional conduct. From such elevated positions a cosmopolitan view of local difficulties is afforded. On behalf of public sociology Burawoy has travelled the length and breadth of the US as well as England, Scotland, Canada, Norway, Taiwan, Lebanon and South Africa. Somebody has to do it, I suppose.

Some voices jar amidst the agonising of the tenured. Long-standing activist-academic Frances Fox Piven demands a dissident, politicised sociology, one that reconnects with local movements involved with those at the very bottom of the heap - which is a long way down in unequal societies like Britain and the US - the poor, the disenfranchised, racial minorities and women. Such appeals sit rather uncomfortably with policy sociology as defended here by Orlando Patterson.

More typical of professional sociology is Arthur Stinchcombe's call for sociology to keep its distance from public involvement until it has accumulated enough data and conceptual clarity to come up with reliable predictions about the future perfect, a scenario echoed in the lukewarm reception of Burawoy by British sociology. As Burawoy notes, Leon Trotsky was able to discern the rise of Stalinism and the degeneration of the revolution precisely because of his intimate relationship to the revolutionary process. Sociology's divorce from radical movements means that this sense of praxis, as opposed to 'reflexive knowledge', is not explicitly engaged in this collection, even by critical sociologists.

The fractured field of sociology is neatly reorganised by Burawoy in the concluding chapter. He explains 'the chaos' of the field against the three waves of expansion in US sociology. First wave sociology, roughly from the Civil War to the First World War, was concerned with moral and civic reform, giving the discipline a pronounced public character. Second wave sociology, reflected the state-managed capitalism of the 1920s to the 1960s in a professionalized discipline concerned with policy problems of social order and regulation. Third wave sociology emerged in contact with the reinvigorated 'publics' of the social movements of the later 1960s and 1970s to stake a claim for critical sociology.

Luckily, according to Burawoy, the division of sociological labour articulates together rather nicely: 'Critical sociology is the conscience of professional sociology, just as public sociology is the conscience of policy sociology' (p. 33). An excessive focus on any single form of sociology descends into one-sided 'pathologies'. Disciplinary entropy might be avoided by adopting a Habermas-style consensual ideal: 'We need to bind ourselves to the mast, making our professional, policy, public, and critical sociologies mutually accountable' (p. 44). Such professional consensus stands in stark contrast to the image of sociology as an 'angel of history' that Burawoy borrows from Walter Benjamin. Benjamin failed completely to become an institutionally 'eminent' scholar.

It is a professional conceit shared by most contributors that public sociology can resurrect meaning and social justice from the wreckage that has further piled up in the land of the War on Terror. Nevertheless, professional sociology in Britain will find much in this book to reflect upon and, hopefully, to act upon, not least Burawoy's and ASA's sense of political responsibility.

Alex Law
University of Abertay Dundee