Collectivising public sociology

My notes on Burawoy, M. (2002). Public sociologies and the grass roots, speech to SWS Wrightsville Beach, February 7, 2002.

In this short text Burawoy takes issue with the mythology of decline which intellectuals are spreading about their own existence, as well as the associated belief that “a public sociology that dealt with the big issues of the day” has also begun to die out. However the supposed golden age of public sociology in the 1950s was in fact dominated by a small number of figures during the era of McCarthyism. Even if contemporary professional sociology has prioritised technique over substance, the same was true in this “era of sociology as messianic science”.  There are many more public sociologists today, in this sense of talking to the big issues of the day, then could be found at the time. They might be more narrowly focused but they are nonetheless tackling crucial issues of broader public concern. It therefore seems untenable to see public sociology as in decline.

However is it true that sociology no longer deals with the big issues of the day? Burawoy cites the public engagement activity of the ASA, in its establishment of Contexts magazines and its issuing of statements and authoring of Amicus Briefs. He suggests the belief in decline can reflect a narrow Ivy League focus, failing to recognise a shift in the centre of gravity away from private universities to the public ones that encompasses a deeper professionalisation alongside an expansion of public sociology. This narrow focus represents “an elitist conception of public sociology whose currency is writing op-ed pieces for The New York Times, visiting the White House or writing best-selling books for an emergent middle class” (3). In contrast Burawoy’s vision of public sociology with a wider range of publics, “not just the readerships of national media which is an amorphous, invisible, passive, public made up of strangers but also the much thicker publics that must begin with our students (our best emissaries to the world beyond), extending to local communities (such as communities of faith which we address in our churches), or social movements we stimulate to achieve greater self-awareness (such as civil rights or labor)” (3). He cites the feminist movement as a prototype, constituting its public and bringing it to self-awareness and mobilisation.

He suggests prophets of decline are actually talking about a particular type of public sociologist: male, inner-directed, alienated from public and profession. In contrast, he sees the rise of other-directed public sociologists connected to both sociology and publics. This is “not the free floating intellectual hoping to reach audiences on distant shores” (3) but rather the organic public sociologists whose work might be invisible to the discipline. This is why it’s now necessary to battle to make this work visible, democratising public sociology in the process. This involves collectivising public sociology, in order to recognise our common projects latent within work which might be undertaken as individuals, in communities and largely unrecognised within the profession.

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