Wednesday, June 16, 2004

regarding so-called public sociology

(Paragraph from the current issue of Footnotes casting "public sociology" as a critical counter to the sinister forces of "professionalization")

The theme of the upcoming meetings of the American Sociological Association is "Public Sociologies." There has been much recent effort to spread the "Public Sociology" meme around the discipline, and it's certainly an easy phrase to rouse the troops. Sociologists should be Out There in public view. Sociologists should be working to Make A Difference. Who can possibly be opposed to that?

Especially since part of the story of "public sociology" is a drama where a discipline is given the charge of regaining a part of its past that has been lost. The "wrong turn" trope in academic life--and especially in academic exhortations to action--is a common one. In the one talk I've seen so far about "public sociologies" by its "inventer," the close roots of American sociology to the social reform movements of the early 20th century was of course invoked. The call to public sociology notes that there had once been a golden age (ah, the 50's) of the Widely Publically Discused Sociology Book (epitomized in, e.g., The Lonely Crowd (1950), The Power Elite (1956)). The call also laments that various proferred lists of the 100 Most Influential American public intellectuals might include, at most, a single sociologist (likely Alan Wolfe).

Why aren't sociologists today--Paul Starr's recent volume notwithstanding--putting out books that get the kind of public attention that some books from the golden age did? Why aren't there more sociologists providing influential intellectual voices?

And, here is where the problem arises. Being a drama presented by sociologists, there can't be an adverse set of circumstances without an amorphous and shadowy quasi-entity of confused ontology for us to blame. The current issue of Footnotes, the newsletter of the American Sociological Association, gives much space to the upcoming meetings and so to "public sociologies," including a sentence that provides the unmasking of the villain that those valiant public sociologists are fighting against: "The term public sociology was invented in the United States to criticize and counter mounting professionalization."

This sentence annoys me on so many different levels that it is hard for me to proceed with any kind of coherence after typing it, so forgive me. I could write separate paragraphs about my annoyance with "invented" and "United States" and "criticize" and "counter" and "mounting" and "professionalization."

But let me not get sucked into all that. Instead--and I recognize that I tend to be more hung up than most sociologists with the idea that assertions, even when rhetorically appealing and having a certain sanctimonious force to them, should be supported by evidence--let me first ask: what exactly is the evidence for the mounting professionalization of sociology? Is sociology really a more professionalized enterprise--where "professionalized" presumably refers to a series of qualities that a "public sociology" would be countering--than it was ten years ago, or twenty years ago?

Really, "mounting professionalization," I don't see it. I would like to know what someone who does think they see it is seeing. E-mail me, please. As it is, I suspect this spectre of "mounting professionalization" is more just yet another way for some sociologists to sustain that ever-beloved sociological identity of the brave-subversive-outsider-trend-bucker-speaking-truth-to-the-oppressive-powerful-illegitimate-forces-of-intradisciplinary-epistemological-conservatism.

In any event, what irks me most can be put pretty simply: about the last thing that sociologists need to be doing, in my mind, is using their annual meetings to discourage professional sociology. There needs to be more professional sociology, not less. Or, at least, there needs to be more-professional professional sociology, or, rather, more-better professional sociology. In the talk I heard by public-sociology's-inventer, on a couple of different occasions he made reference to how professional sociology had done a whole host of studies--making it sound like veritable reams of accumulated literature developed by sociologists--on a specific topic, and the discipline needed to do a better job of making those findings available to the broader public.* In both cases, I remember having a chain of three thoughts: (1) to my knowledge, there really haven't been that many studies on that topic; (2) to my knowledge, at least as many studies on the topic have been done in a discipline other than sociology; (3) to my knowledge, a lot of the studies that exist in that literature (sociological or otherwise) are not very sound. And yet, even as issues were being cited where I regarded the professional sociology as being quite wanting, it was being portrayed as some hyperproductive hegemon that is crowding out its public face.

If we had more and better (or more-better) professional sociology, then maybe more efforts at public sociology would seem like they were offering the public something that was based on a stronger foundation than their own on-the-fly argumentation. A large part of what bothers me, in a nutshell, is that I think one of the reasons that there is not more of a market for public sociology out there is that efforts at public sociology often do not have very interesting things to say. Or, more specifically, they have things to say that really are fairly predictable, that do not offer much that is actually drawing on "sociology" other than this "sociological imagination" we like to believe we have somehow magically come to possess, and that when they do draw on sociological work oftentimes are drawing on work that is not very good or that has been laden with a politically convenient interpretation that is itself not all that well grounded in the actual data on which the work is based.

So, rather than seeing public sociology as being Kept Down by the supposed dominance of professional sociology, I see it as being more fettered by the weaknesses of professional sociology. And instead of the discipline thinking of ways that the professional contributions of the discipline might be strengthened, we are instead supposed to focus on criticizing and countering it.

I mean, if you listen to public sociology's inventer talk, you would think of professional sociology as this giant strapping boxer who bounces deftly around the ring and swiftly knocks out any challengers to its vision of what the discipline ought to be. Me, I think of professional sociology as this boxer that already has a black eye and a bloodied lip, stumbling a little out of the corner as it tries to steady itself for the next round.

* One of the two examples here was studies of media effects on children, which I would submit professional psychologists have studied more and better than have professional sociologists. The other example I'm blanking on, but I think it was somewhere where I thought both professional economics and professional political science had done more and better work.

No comments: