The Uncompromising Pessimism of Public Sociology

Michael Burawoy on public sociology and sociological science:

I have always insisted on a division of labor between professional and public sociology. The division of labor implies contradiction as well as interdependence but sociology is of little use if it cannot give some guidance to labor as to the tendencies of capitalism, a theorization that pays attention to history and geography, it is of little use to labor if it fixes the data so that labor appears stronger than it is, or if it ignores the data and declares an imminent upsurge on the grounds that we can never know when the next upsurge will arrive. It is the responsibility of professional and public sociologists alike to combat arguments and claims that have neither concrete nor theoretical foundation. Public sociology cannot be the name for bad sociology, it cannot be vanguardist or populist, but must aim for a dialogue with labor on the basis of what we know as sociologists. Equally, professional sociology cannot be self-referential, we have to defend theoretical frameworks that cast light on the limits and possibilities of the labor movement. And that too is a political struggle, but one conducted on the terrain of the academy, and in accordance with its rules.


In writing of politics Max Weber endorsed the pursuit of the impossible in order to achieve the possible, but he always distinguished politics from science. Precisely because they feed each other, we should not confuse science and politics. Science should be a corrective to politics, challenging assumptions, asking uncomfortable questions, projecting longer time horizons. If it is to formulate utopias these must be real utopias, rooted in lived experience, and we have to be extra vigilant in examining their conditions of existence, their internal contradictions, and their possible dissemination. In all cases science loses its raison d’etre when it loses its autonomy, its critical pessimism.

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