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.

My notes on Burawoy, M. (2017). On Desmond: the limits of spontaneous sociology. Theory and Society, 46(4), 261-284.

The work of Matthew Desmond has won enormous acclaim in recent years, with Evicted being a book I recommend to anyone keen to understand the relevance of contemporary sociology. While recognising his talents as an ethnographer and writer, in this paper Michael  Burawoy takes issue with the methodological approach advocated by Desmond, arguing that it represents a form of what Bourdieu called ‘spontaneous sociology’: a return to the naive empiricism of the Chicago school era that confines truth to the field site, presented in the guise of a theoretical revolution. Desmond has made the case that ethnographic practice reminds mired in substantialism, being left behind by what Andrew Abbott describes as a ‘quiet revolution’ in the social sciences: a relational turn which overcomes a dominant tendency where “the object of study is confined to isolated places, bounded groups and homogeneous cultures” as Burawoy summarises the case against substantialism on pg 263.

Nonetheless, Burawoy argues that Desmond struggles to identify examples of substantialist ethnography, with this purportedly dominant approach servicing to obscure the distinction between what Burawoy sees as the two forms of relational ethnography: “empiricist transactional ethnography and a theoretically-grounded structural ethnography” (pg 263). The former’s rejection of prior theory and comparison (the first seen as getting in the way of a pragmatic ontology of the field site by leaving the analyst bogged down in theoretical debates, the second as inevitably involving groups or places and thus substantialism) render it unable to grasp “forces beyond the field site that can only be explored with theoretical frameworks and comparative logic” as in structural ethnography (pg 263). Not only are the effects of wider structures circumscribed by this methodological stance, it goes hand-in-hand with a slide into “old style inductive ethnography in which sociological insights emerge spontaneously from the data”. As Burawoy continues on pg 264:

As a follower of Bourdieu, Desmond insists on the importance of constructing a scientific object that breaks with common sense. Yet his own ethnographies, far from breaking with the common sense of his participants, faithfully reproduce it. His objects of study, such as eviction, spring directly from the experience of his subjects, so that his work exemplifies what Bourdieu et al. (1991, p. 38) condemn, namely a hyperempiricism that abdicates the right and duty of theoretical construction in favour of spontaneous sociology. Paradoxically, the spontaneous sociology of Evicted makes it highly effective as a public sociology of exposé, but it comes at the cost of a critical perspective that would break with common sense and generate convincing policy proposals.

This slide follows from the rejection of comparison and past theory, falling back on the “the inductivist view that the field reveals insights in and of itself without explicitly engaging relevant literature, which is either dismissed as wrong-headed or ignored”: the ethnographer “mimics the experiences of those he studies” because the resources to facilitate an epistemological break (from common sense) in the construction of the research object have been discarded (pg 266). If I understand him correctly, Burawoy is concerned with the scholarly practice which makes this break possible. If you limit truth to what emerges from the field site then how do you ensure a distance from common sense? I’m not sure if Burawoy is saying it’s impossible but it’s certainly difficult. As he puts it on pg 276, “Desmond departs from Durkheim and Bourdieu for whom prior theorizing is essential for an epistemological shift, a shift from spontaneous sociology to scientific sociology”. In this sense, he’s saying Desmond’s approach runs counter to Bourdieu’s in spite of his invocation of it. He goes on to offer a clear summary of Bourdieu’s approach on pg 277:

Bourdieu’s epistemological break is based on a two-fold truth—the truth of the participant and the truth of the scientist between which there is an unbridgeable divide. That is to say, participants cannot connect their own world to the scientific understanding of the sociologist. In the game metaphor Bourdieu often deploys, players develop a commitment (illusio) to a taken-for-granted set of all absorbing and incontrovertible principles (nomos) governing the play of the game—while the scientist observing the game from without can see the conditions that make the game possible, conditions that are invisible to the players.

It follows from this that Bourdieu is “skeptical of participant observation, as it only reveals a partial truth, the subjective truth of the participant, unable of itself to reach an objective truth” (pg 278). Objectivity necessitates distance from the field site of precisely the sort which Burawoy claims Desmond’s approach precludes.

In the final part of the paper, Burawoy compares the Bourdieu’s public sociology to Desmond’s. The former was predicated on an “epistemological break with the epistemological break” that “establishes the conditions for a public sociology, a sociology that engages the public”, something which the insistence on distance from subaltern common sense had previously precluded (pg 279).The latter involves a “synergy of public and professional sociology, each bolstering and inspiring the other”, seen in Desmond’s scientific follow ups to Evicted and his copious scholarly end notes coupled with huge dissemination through popular media (pg 280). Unfortunately, argues Burawoy, it leads to poor policy sociology, producing recommendations which fail to grasp the broader dynamics in place. He writes on pg 281 of the wider social forces which “are invisible in Desmond’s account—forces that have to be unveiled and tackled if there is to be any solution to the housing problem”.

His objection is that “Desmond’s public sociology, important as it is, is limited to an exposé of the lived experience of housing insecurity”: it can’t get beyond the field site and hence is restricted to disseminating the common sense that is found there. This serves a purpose but it is a limited one. Burawoy ends with a call that resonates with me, stressing on pg 282 that the ‘underlying dilemma of ethnography’ is one of broader importance when the academic workplace is under threat: how do we relate to those we study?

Especially today, when the academic work- place is threatened by forces beyond, the underlying dilemma of ethnography—that we are part of the world we study—is pressingly germane to all social science and the academic world more generally. So we have to develop an understanding of our relation to those we study. We cannot confine ourselves to processes within the field site but must recognize how they are tied to the past and thus to the future, as well as to social forces that establish their conditions of existence. We cannot broach these problems without inherited bodies of knowledge—theories—that we continually reconstruct. That is what gives meaning and distinctiveness to sociology.

Reflecting on this a day later, I feel I should stress how much I like Matthew Desmond’s work. I regret the slightly click-baity header I gave these notes, though it does seem appropriate for the point Burawoy is making in his critique of Desmond’s cultivated atheoreticism. It would also be interesting to link up the argument Burawoy is making here to the critique Archer and Donati make of Mustafa Emirbayer’s relational sociology, as there’s a lot of overlap.

In a recent article, Michael Burawoy warned about what he termed the spiralists. These are “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. While he was concerned with university leaders, I observed at the time that the category clearly has a broader scope than this. Reading Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury, I’m struck by the role of spiralists within the Whitehouse who are objectively enablers of Trump while subjectively congratulating themselves for restraining him:

Still, the mess that might do serious damage to the nation, and, by association, to your own brand, might be transcended if you were seen as the person, by dint of competence and professional behavior, taking control of it. Powell, who had come into the White House as an adviser to Ivanka Trump, rose, in weeks, to a position on the National Security Council, and was then, suddenly, along with Cohn, her Goldman colleague, a contender for some of the highest posts in the administration. At the same time, both she and Cohn were spending a good deal of time with their ad hoc outside advisers on which way they might jump out of the White House. Powell could eye seven-figure comms jobs at various Fortune 100 companies, or a C-suite future at a tech company—Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, after all, had a background in corporate philanthropy and in the Obama administration. Cohn, on his part, already a centamillionaire, was thinking about the World Bank or the Fed.

These figures regard themselves as performing an important public service, enforcing moderation on the immoderate and providing competence in an executive characterised by incompetence. They will then be justly rewarded for this service, spiralling out of the Whitehouse and on to bigger and better things. Who could blame them for this? After all, they have spent time and energy giving to the public sector when they could have made so much more money in the private sector. This is a crucial rhetorical strategy of the spiralists: their ambition is justified by their public service but their public service is a tool of their ambition. They approach it as a means to elevate themselves, increasing their standing and seeking out new opportunities, while expecting to be praised for that which they have forsaken in the process. The ascent of the spiralists understands itself to be motivated by much weightier things than money.

In a recent editorial in Current Sociology, Michael Burawoy warns about what he describes as the ascent of the spiralists. He finds these figures throughout the UC Berekely administration, accusing them of being “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. There are naive spiralists and experienced spiralists but between them they are transforming the university system:

Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

His analysis of the spiralists is heavily focused upon higher education:

Spiralism is not a function of pathological individuals but of an executive class who conceive of themselves as visionary innovators with new financial models, traversing the globe in search of  private investors while complaining about recalcitrant legislatures and conservative faculty. They  blame everyone but themselves for the plight of the university.

However I think the concept has a broader purchase than this. Reading the recent account of Hilary Clinton’s failed campaign, Shattered, I was struck by how many of the key figures could be seen as spiralists in this sense. In their concern for their own advancement, seeing the campaign in terms of opportunities to position themselves for their next job, the possibility for collective purpose  amongst the top operatives was fatally undermined.

It’s a descriptively rich concept but it’s also an explanatory one. How does the concentration of spiralists shape organisational outcomes? Under what conditions will spiralists be attracted to organisations? Can certain sorts of organisations ever redeem and transform spiralists? The editorial Burawoy offers doesn’t delve into these questions but the concept he offers is a potentially powerful one. 

It could be read superficially as an implied contrast between instrumental rationality and value rationality. But I think it’s more subtle than that. It points to particular intended and actual trajectories through organisations, opening up the relations between spiralists and their unintended consequences for the spiralists themselves and the organisations they work within.

This short exchange with Michael Burawoy offers some thought-provoking reflections on teaching social theory. He identifies the major traditions of teaching theory within American sociology, before outlining his own ethnographic approach:

  1. The Survey: surveying extracts from a comprehensive range of social theorists, each one treated as an instance of a broader category. Essentially disconnected and decontextualised. Teaching theory in an essentially general way.
  2. The Interpretative: placing theory and theorist in their life and times, seeing the specificity of their work as a response to equally specific circumstances. Teaching theory in a essentially particular way.
  3. The Synthesis: selecting extracts based on a distinctive theoretical vision, using those selections to articulate a theoretical approach which presents itself as grounded in the classics. Teaching theory in an closed but generative way.
  4. The Ethnographic: using shorter extracts from a selected range of limited texts in order to facilitate reconstructive critique. The students are gradually encouraged to situate themselves in relation to the theory, criticise it from the inside-out, learn to apply it to the world around them and relate it to other such theories.

There are interesting critiques that can be made of how this approach works in practice (see the response from Alan Sica in the attached article) but I love the exercise he uses:

Apart from the classroom discussion, there are also discussion sections, 20 students in size, led and organized by brilliant, devoted and above all creative teaching assistants who have collaborated with me in developing this approach to theory. Along with one-page reading memos due every week, each semester we assign a ‘‘theory in action’’ paper (no more than a thousand words) that requires students to choose current events or their own experiences to illustrate a theorist of their choice. In addition mid-term and final exams consist of three short 750-word take-home papers (once again less is more) that assume the form of an exegesis of a given theorist, a comparison of theorists, or an application of theory to real live situations as defined by an article from a newspaper or magazine.

The course culminates in a 20-minute oral examination with their teaching assistant in which each student has to reconstruct the entire course as a conversation among the theorists, again in answer to a specific question given ahead of time. They are encouraged to include images, pictures, drawings, in what essentially is a poster presentation. The posters they produce amply demonstrate to what extent the various theorists have become part of them, whether theorists have become different mindsets that they will take with them into their future lives

I came across this interesting project by Michael Burawoy earlier. He conceives of a whole series of imagined ‘meetings’ between Bourdieu and leading political thinkers, elaborating his own understanding of Bourdieu’s work by considering its relationship with important intellectual trends. I’ve only looked through the Mills one so far but these do look very interesting and worth a thorough read:


1. Sociology as a Combat Sport: Bourdieu Meets Bourdieu

Bourdieu in South Africa: order meets disorder

  1.  Theory and Pracrtice: Marx Meets Bourdieu

Resurrecting the subaltern: bodies of defiance

3. Cultural Domination: Gramsci Meets Bourdieu

Subaltern crowds challenge authority

4. Colonialism and Revolution: Fanon Meets Bourdieu

The state and the people, symbolic violence and physical violence

5.Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Freire Meets Bourdieu

Discipline, the canon and the ‘imperialism of reason”

6.The Antinomies of Feminism: Beauvoir Meets Bourdieu

Gentle violence, brutal violence and the struggle to empower women

7.Intellectuals and Their Publics: Mills Meets Bourdieu

The ‘Realpolitik of reason’ meets the symbolic world of politics

8.Homo Ludens vs. Homo Habitus: Burawoy Meets Bourdieu

Bourdieu, symbolic order and the ‘margin of freedom’: four sketches for a theory of change