Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The Perils of Public Sociology

About 40 people turned up to hear Professor Steve Fuller give a talk on the role of the public intellectual, as part of an ongoing series of lectures on public sociology put together by the University of Birmingham's Sociology Department.

Fuller kicked off the discussion by defining his problem. Though many academics fancy themselves as public intellectuals, at best most have a frosty attitude towards those who are. He suggested not many natural scientists are comfortable with Richard Dawkins' media antics, and it seems sociologists are equally unimpressed by the ubiquity of Frank Furedi. Quite ironic when you consider the different kinds of 'public intellectual' roles played by each of sociology's founding fathers and other early key figures - Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Comte, Spencer, Simmel, etc.

Fuller's contention is that sociologists who've played the public intellectual in the recent past have tended not to leave much of a legacy current generations of sociologists and students can make use of. Fitting into this unfortunate slot are post-war writers like C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell, Raymond Aron, and Alvin Gouldner. Whereas all these sociologists had an impact outside of the academic field, they are seldom discussed today.

Take the example of Raymond Aron. In France, he positioned himself as a kind of anti-Sartre. Whereas Sartre would bang the drum for Marxism, the USSR, and Maoism; Aron defended liberalism and urged support for the USA and NATO in the cold war. One of his chief arguments was that likelihood of nuclear war was an ideological bogey, and used proto-rational choice arguments to demonstrate how neither side had any self-interest in disappearing under a mushroom cloud.

Herein lies the rub for Fuller. Aron may have found fame in his life time as a public intellectual, but his pursuit of this career came at the expense of his sociological legacy. As much of Aron's media output was concerned with making a liberal case for NATO, and given it was this camp who won the cold war, can there be any wider sociological value in returning to these writings? Aron therefore was a victim of his success, and as a result is not highly regarded in the sociological canon. Contrast this with the fate of his student, Pierre Bourdieu. Though by no means an ivory tower academic, Bourdieu refused to play the media celebrity game and instead concentrated his efforts on building and ambitious, innovative, and rigorously materialist sociological research programme. Bourdieu did not have Aron's or Sartre's contemporaneous fame, but his legacy has now become a key theoretical stake in the sociological field.

Therefore for Fuller, a sociologist who is also/aims to be a public intellectual has a choice to make. The tensions between academia and media are such that one cannot straddle the two fields unproblematically. Bourdieu, Giddens, and Habermas may have had an effect on public debate in their respective countries, but this was a byproduct of their academic activities and not due to media appearances.

It is for this reason why Fuller has a problem with the whole public sociology debate. Just as there is conflict between the demands of the media and the demands of academia, there too will be friction between academia on the one hand, and the kinds of advocacy/activist-inspired research work self-defined public sociologists engage in. If sociologists are producing work articulating the standpoints and interests of oppressed and marginalised groupings, however laudable these objectives are, where does that leave sociology? Can it only engage with publics by being the mouthpiece of others? Is there anything distinctively sociological about such work?

If we believe there is a distinctive sociological enterprise that is worth pursuing, an 'independent' sociology requires academic autonomy, which in turn requires an expansion of tenured positions. Unfortunately, the prevalence of short term contracts in the HE sector destroys any incentive for sociologists to try and present their ideas outside of academia, as the acquisition of jobs becomes increasingly bound up with numbers of papers and books published, citation counts, and so on. Any turn to public engagement, let alone a full scale programme of public sociology, can only really be the province of those who've reached the top of the profession. For PhD students, early career academics, and other short-term'ers, riding the academic and the public horses simultaneously is very difficult indeed.

As a socialist and a researcher engaged in what could be called an activist or, to use the academic jargon, a movement-relevant PhD, I'm less pessimistic about the promise and prospects of public sociology in our neoliberal climate. I'd also take issue with his ideas around the independence of sociology as a discipline. The questions asked of Fuller were quite interesting too, but I'll take those questions up in a future post.


Anonymous said...

This is Steve Fuller the intelligent design advocate, yes?

Phil said...

Yep, it's the same guy.

He was asked about it and tried to clarify his position. The way he presented it was it should be treated as a scientific hypothesis like any other and be rigorously tested, which wouldn't necessarily make the fundie ID fanatics particularly happy.

Another point he made about this was that because he is a tenured academic, he can make controversial interventions of this character, whereas it would be career suicide for someone lower down on the pecking order.

Anonymous said...

If ID was about rigorously tested hypotheses, I don't think there'd be quite so much fuss about it. As it is, the ID people act in bad faith and play to the gallery, and someone who can't spot that isn't competent to be doing something called "science studies".

E.g. the first time I read a Dembski paper was weirdly unsettling. This was before I realised who/what he was, and so thought it a normal paper about quantitative measures of information. It started off quite typically, but then there was this sense of things being concealed rather than disclosed, and it gradually became clear that it wasn't going to do anything that it had started out claiming; then the topic switched to evolution and it became obvious what was going on.

Frank Partisan said...

Why not major in something as labor studies? That would be activist oriented, without worrying about your definition.