Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Public Sociology

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.”

I wouldn’t like to think how many times I’ve heard these words from the Theses on Feuerbach. As someone on the cusp of what I hope to be a long and distinguished academic career, I try and keep it at the forefront of all the work I do. It has in fact become something of a badge of honour for me. While a good proportion of academics I know blend their career and activist interests, the same cannot be said of the field of sociology taken as a whole. In fact, it is striking that for all its concern with social life, comparatively few take part in fighting the ills that plague it.

Not anymore! Well, in the USA at least. After a huge meeting of the American Sociological Association in 2004, Michael Burawoy used his presidential address to argue for a new direction in sociology, one that reaches out to wider audiences beyond the exclusive academic public. In a discipline largely ignored by policy makers and having just overcome the twin traumas of ‘end of history’ thinking and postmodern attacks on the very possibility of social explanation, it’s easy to see why the call was heeded with infectious enthusiasm. For a discipline mired in staid routinism, public sociology promised the vision thing.

Sociologists generally are a contentious rabble, and soon some began grumbling. Mathieu Deflem is one of the leading naysayers. He argues public sociology is nothing more than a populist fad driven by a desire for publicity and the commercialisation of academia. He charges Burawoy with the crime of limiting sociology’s research agenda to inequalities, environmental destruction, and other social pathologies. In doing this public sociology stands accused of treating the standards of sociological knowledge in a cavalier fashion. The analysis of social processes instead is subordinated to a political agenda, when in fact rigorous sociological knowledge is revolutionary in itself.

You don’t have to believe sociology is in mortal danger to realise he has a point. The left regularly stands guilty of just this sort of thing. Answers often are manufactured to confirm shibboleths – the distorting and ignorance of features and facts that do not sit with a particular understanding of the Soviet Union is one such prominent example. But Deflem overplays his hand. Given the paucity of sociological investigation into issues that “matter”, public sociology can hardly be accused of narrowing the research agenda! In fact engaging with and producing knowledge about and for those at the sharp ends of society could breathe new life into the professional body. Some will not wish to sully their hands. That’s okay; the insights of this kind of research will keep them in papers and commentaries for years to come.

Neither does work directed at non-academic publics have to be dumbed down. Research made legible to a lay public can be done without compromising scientific rigour. After all if cosmologists, physicists, environmental scientists and biologists can do it, why not sociologists?

In fact one sociologist did - Marx. His work even now, 120 years after his death, still generates insights, research agendas and political interventions. Sociologists keen to get stuck into public sociology should also get stuck in to Marx to see how it can be done, and hopefully you’ll come away with more besides.


Jim Jay said...

Well Lukacs said that Sociology is a bourgois response to Marx which absolves you of the "necessity of praxis" which I think is right.

But everyone has to make a living.

big_d said...

hey up phil..

I finally got round to sorting my blog out.

check it out.

Phil said...

I think Lukacs had his former mentor, Max Weber, in mind when he wrote this. Despite his idealist methodology Weber produced a lot of work that conforms to a historical materialist understanding. Unfortunately for him as a liberal nationalist who felt crushed by bureaucratisation and rationalisation, he couldn't see any basis for a politics beyond administering what is.

Jim Jay said...

This is the one and only time I'll say this but "there is a very good book by anthony giddens on this" gasp, gasp, there, I said it!

I forget the exact title but it's about Weber's role in the formation of the Weimar republic. Ace.

I don't think Lukacs was only refering to Weber, although I believe Weber was the first person ever to teach "sociology" at a university. I think the objection is to turn society into an object of study where one must, of necesity, remain "objective" and therefore passive if one is to retain any academic credentials