Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Putting Sociology in its Place

There are a few loose threads dangling from my last post on public sociology, concerning disciplinary identity, the interests of sociology, and the position of the researcher.

Just to recap, the tendency toward public sociology as a political and ethical turn in the discipline (a tendency that aims to link sociology to mass publics outside the academy by seeking to assist progressive causes directly, or producing research that could attract a large audience), is potentially problematic for Fuller. In the rush to be popular and/or useful for others, he asks whether sociology risks losing something distinctive along the way. Is there a danger of 'the sociological' being annexed to whatever political project the public sociologist is pursuing?

It is a valid question to ask. For example, some in the public sociology camp appear to have embraced the problem Fuller identified. To take one example, Randy Stoecker in a 2005 paper, 'Rethinking Public Sociology' makes the case for a radical public sociology that eschews traditional practices, where research questions, methodological decisions, writing up, and dissemination were the purview of the researcher. Instead, sociology should empower by changing the relations of knowledge production. The top-down pedagogical model needs to make way for participatory research where the key decisions are made by the participants themselves, thereby building their understanding of their socially constituted circumstances and capacity to change them. Hence participatory, or organic, public sociology cannot avoid being about social change. Going further, this orientation requires a wholesale transformation of sociology. Students are not empty vessels to be filled with the nuggets of sociological wisdom, they must learn through role play and reflexive, experiential learning. One's attitude to fieldwork dispenses with instrumental and should be about building alliances with communities, community organisations, and other social movements. And most controversially, it means turning one's back on many aspects of the disciplinary field currently constituted - such as ending sociological stardom, and the practice of building careers on the back of colonising knowledges.

Whatever one thinks of such a programmatic turn, Fuller is right in so far as the sociological position is subordinate to the interests of research participants. Of course, Fuller is not the first to have highlighted this problem. A number of sociologists entirely hostile to public sociology have discerned this implication in Burawoy's original document, and have shamelessly indulged in often crude red-baiting in their attacks on him. But none are so blind as those who refuse to see. Unsurprisingly, Burawoy's critics have very little to say when the neoliberalisation of the academy puts pressure on a section of sociologists to undertake policy research for institutional and/or corporate clients. Do questions around outside interests and the subsumption of disciplinary identity not apply in these cases? Does research-for-cash guarantee scientific outcomes, while research out of political and ethical commitment results only in opinion? Motes and beams spring to mind.

That said, Fuller certainly doesn't fall into this camp, just because he's concerned with the autonomy of sociology. Returning to last week's talk, his argument was that to be an effective public intellectual in sociology, one should concentrate on the sociology and not allow the bright lights of punditry become the be-all and end-all. The notion of autonomy held out by Fuller implicitly follows that articulated by Bourdieu and adhered to many in the anti-public sociology camp. That is, autonomous sociological practice allows for truth-telling: the revolutionary quality of the enterprise lies in its laying bare social processes and power relations abstracted out and therefore shorn of the mystification wrapped around them in the everyday. For Fuller, what guarantees sociologists the ability to do this is tenure. Unfortunately, the decline in tenured positions in favour of the short-term contract seriously undermines autonomy, and therefore the opportunity to engage in sociological truth-telling. The competition for jobs combined with the Research Assessment Exercise forces all academics - not just sociologists - to play their disciplinary games. The whip hand of funding render more explicit one's interest in the "disinterested" pursuit of sociological knowledge, and its shaping according to the logics of the field.

Clearly, Fuller believes sociological autonomy is a good in itself, but what is this good? The fact this good exists is a supposition shared by all sides of the public sociology debate. Even Stoecker's vision of organic public sociology rests on an unspoken premise that the sociologist is autonomous and free to pursue the agenda his envisages. However, as Fuller has noted the decline in tenure narrows the opportunities for the bulk of sociologists. Perversely, the freedom to do participatory research is only really an option for those in commanding positions in the field. So this good is a rare resource, a key objective that career sociologists must aim for. A second and related question is do sociologists have a real interest in autonomy, even if it is a core stake? How is it distinctive from other interests outside of the discipline, and can it work to mask the interests of others inside sociology?

We've already noted how defenders of academic/professional sociology tend only to get excited about outside interests when the question of excluded/marginalised publics are raised. The policy work carried out, which takes place in the absence of their raised voices, is unsurprising when you consider sociologists occupy coordinates in social space Bourdieu terms a 'dominated dominant' position. This is to say that as part of the academic apparatus and by virtue of the privileged place it occupies in the education system, it affords position holders certain cultural and economic advantages compared with the population at large. But as dominant positions go, sociology is subordinate in the academy to most other social science disciplines (psychology, political science, and economics spring to mind). Its endeavours do not enjoy the same profile and its work lacks the same sorts of policy influence, even when commissioned by institutional actors. However, these material circumstances the discipline finds itself in have become internalised as part of the natural landscape of the field - the subordinate position of sociology, the with-strings funding ties, are more or less accepted as part of the rules of the game. To decry the role of funding elites is to kill the goose who lays the golden egg. On the other hand, some in sociology have reacted unfavourably to marginalised interests precisely because they do not appear with the same immediacy or effect on the operation of the disciplinary field.

In this regard it's useful to examine the notion sociologists do have distinctive interests not tied to elites or other groupings. Burawoy has argued that because sociology is about the study and theorisation of social relationships, we have a real material interest in defending the social from commodification and attempts to displace them by administrative systems. Sociology therefore stands or falls with civil society. For example, there is a correlation between there not being a Saudi Sociology Today or Korean Peoples' Journal of Juche Sociology and a lack of civil society in both countries. In my opinion, though one can abstract such an interest, there is nothing particularly distinctive about the need to preserve civil society when you observe the practice of community groups, trade unions, campaigns, NGOs, political parties, the media etc. demands the same thing. Rather there is an homology of interest.

What the public sociology debate has done is succeeded in laying bare the interests that structure the sociological field in stark fashion. Sociological autonomy, a key stake in this debate, can no longer be presented as a mystical ideal. While it is clear that from the standpoint of the individual sociologist the autonomy of tenure gives one a freedom to intervene and engage with a variety of issues, one can be under no illusion that autonomy means freedom from interests. Even the position of refusing to take a position remains a position, and is very much tied to certain interests.

But sociology need not be the plaything of interests from either above or below. Whether explicitly public or unashamedly academic, sociology needs to be conscious of the biases and the conditions in which the construction of sociological research takes place. It needs to be open about the interest a sociologist has in pursuing a particular research trajectory and the relation they have with the objects of the research. And it must also be aware of the likely knowledge effects of dissemination - the question of who gains? Do participants gain? Does the knowledge constitute a public good? Do hostile groups and/or elites benefit from it in some way?

This kind of reflexivity, or what Bourdieu termed 'the sociology of sociology' is something I've tried to accomplish in relation to my own PhD research, and how this pans out as the thesis finally emerges from a mountain of transcripts, scribbles, and confused thoughts will be returned to somewhere down the line.


Phil said...

Bizarre photo I know, but YOU try finding a "sociological" image!

Anonymous said...

Phil, could you give a basic explanation, either as a comment or a post, as to what 'public sociology' is ?

Frank Partisan said...

I think you have to be involved in the field, to comment intelligently.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

having read a paper on 'public criminology' i think i get the jist of it. it's to do with trying to make sociology more easy to access for people and sociologists trying to communicate more rather than be in 'ivory towers' etc. (i think)

Phil said...

Leftwing Criminologist is on the money.

For more info Eddie, here's a really old post by me on the subject: http://tinyurl.com/2kt5xy

If you've got a little more time on your hands, and the inclination to get mired down in the strategic direction of sociology, here's Burawoy's paper that started it all off: http://tinyurl.com/2spuoc