Saturday, August 21, 2004

regarding public sociology

The biggest surprise for me at ASA was how many acquaintances of mine knew about this blog and had even looked at it at one time or another. One such person had read my remarks on public sociology and had interpreted them as indicating that I was somehow in the process of partnering with Mathieu Deflem as part of some "anti-public-sociology" faction. Deflem, for those who do not know, has started a Save Sociology website which, for a time, featured printable posters calling for the impeachment of ASA-president-and-public-sociology-patriarch Michael Burawoy (see posts on Deflem by others here and here and [earlier] here). While my own contrarian impulses dispose me to react respectfully to anyone who has enough intellectual passion and chutzpah to risk a ride on the express train to disciplinary pariah status, I do not want to be associated with the views of Deflem, for the simple reason that I do not share them.

Since a clarification is apparently in order, let me be clear: I am not anti-public-sociology.

If you look back at my post on the topic, my opposition was to a particular statement, in Footnotes, that presented public sociology as having been invented "to criticize and counter the mounting professionalization" of sociology. Among other things, I objected to this empirically, making what I think is the hard-to-deny point that whatever the "professionalization" of sociology might mean, it is assuredly not at present "mounting." I also objected to the idea that "professional" sociology was something that our discipline should be using our main meeting to "criticize and counter," in large part because I think "professional" sociology is already weak and widely disrespected enough.

So, again: I am not anti-public-sociology. I am, certainly and adamantly, anti-anti-professional-sociology. If one insists (a) on making a binary distinction between the professional and public, and then (b) on seeing that binary locked in a zero-sum competition, then you could insist that being anti-anti-professional-sociology makes one anti-public-sociology. You're-either-with-us-or-against-us logic has enjoyed a recent renascence, after all. However, unlike apparently whoever wrote the "mounting" sentence I reacted to, I reject both (a) and (b).

I do disagree with various particulars, large and small, of the content and form Burawoy's statements about public sociology, so I do not want to be read as being On, or even Near, That Bandwagon. (Part of what I resist, incidentally, is even that has turned into A Bandwagon.) The largest points of disagreement would be along that predictable dimension of the relationship between politics and sociological research. There is a huge expanse of middle ground between Deflemville and Burawoyburgh here. This could be a short-monograph-length post in its own right, and I'm not going to get into it now.

Or, well, to get into it a little bit: I would personally be less leery of those who wax enthusiastic about a intensely-intimate-intertwining of social research and political praxis if the position was more often expressed in a way so that one could have political views outside a highly circumscribed ideological sandbox and still be welcome to play in our discipline. It bothers me that 90% of sociologists hold political beliefs representative of 10% or less of the available political spectrum.* I do not see what it gains us professionally or publicly--even if it does personally provide for an steady-surfeit of sanctimonious-self-satisfaction and also saves us from the inconvenience of dissensus--and I can think upwards of a dozen reasons why massive ideological homogeneity is bad for an academic discipline.**

But, anyway, whatever else might be said, "Public Sociologies" was a truly excellent and inspired conference theme.*** It got people thinking, talking, debating, disagreeing. Keep in mind, two years ago the ASA theme was "Allocation Processes and Ascription," which, no offense to anyone, is not exactly a sexy-pooch of a theme for generating excitement among the sociologist-masses. I also greatly appreciated the seriousness and enthusiasm that Burawoy brought to being given the mantle of serving as ASA president. This extended to his address. If I had to choose between an ASA president using the forum of their address for delivering a vision-for-the-discipline versus delivering a cute-summary-of-a-current-research-project (not to name any recent-past-president names), I would choose the former every time, even if I dramatically disagreed with the vision.

* Granted, I'm not willing to take some rightward dive myself for the sake of promoting ideological heterogeneity in sociology.

** Non-academics often have this impression that academics spend all their time engaging in friendly disagreements with one another. At least in sociology, sorting into like-minded groups is sufficiently strong that we typically spend most of our time sitting around agreeing with one another and disagreeing with other people who are not actually included in our discussions and so not able to provide counterarguments (economists! evolutionary psychologists!). And then people wonder why sociologists often do not perform all that well when they do participate in public debates.

*** BTW, if future meetings are also going to continue the innovation of us being given fetching souvenir bags to hold our programs and such, do you think someone could suggest that maybe we look into getting union-made bags instead of bags made under who-knows-what labor conditions in China? (Props to whoever it was at the blogger-get-together who looked at the tag to investigate the provenance of the public sociology bags).


tina said...


So nice to meet you at the BlogASA drink.

Regarding those tote bags, in addition to the intense smell of toxic chemicals and the likely sweatshop production process, I can't really see tote bag carrying as an efficient marketing vehicle for public sociology. Perhaps those coffee mugs with the snappy ASA logo on them are a better idea.

John Jordan said...

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