Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-first Century / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Public SociologyIdeas, Arguments, and Visions for the Future
University of California PressCopyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
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Chapter OneMICHAEL BURAWOY
For Public Sociology
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. Walter Benjamin, 1940
Walter Benjamin wrote his famous ninth thesis on the philosophy of history as the Nazi army approached his beloved Paris, hallowed sanctuary of civilization's promise. He portrayed this promise in the tragic figure of the angel of history, battling in vain against civilization's long march through destruction. To Benjamin, in 1940, the future had never looked bleaker withcapitalism-become-fascism in a joint pact with socialism-become-Stalinism to overrun the world. Today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, although communism has dissolved and fascism is a haunting memory, the debris continues to grow skyward. Unfettered capitalism fuels market tyrannies and untold inequities on a global scale, while resurgent democracy too often becomes a thin veil for powerful interests, disenfranchisement, mendacity, and even violence. Once again the angel of history is swept up in a storm, a terrorist storm blowing from Paradise.
In its beginning sociology aspired to be such an angel of history, searching for order in the broken fragments of modernity, seeking to salvage the promise of progress. Thus, Karl Marx recovered socialism from alienation; Émile Durkheim redeemed organic solidarity from anomie and egoism. Max Weber, despite premonitions of "a polar night of icy darkness," could discover freedom in rationalization and extract meaning from disenchantment. On this side of the Atlantic W. E. B. DuBois pioneered pan-Africanism in reaction to racism and imperialism, while Jane Addams tried to snatch peace and internationalism from the jaws of war. But then the storm of progress got caught in sociology's wings. If our predecessors set out to change the world, we have too often ended up conserving it. Fighting for a place in the academic sun, sociology developed its own specialized knowledge, whether in the form of the brilliant and lucid erudition of Robert Merton (1949), the arcane and grand design of Talcott Parsons (1937, 1951), or the early statistical treatment of mobility and stratification, culminating in the work of Peter Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan (1967). Reviewing the 1950s, Seymour Martin Lipset and Neil Smelser (1961, 1-8) could triumphantly declare sociology's moral prehistory finally over and the path to science fully open. Not for the first time Comtean visions had gripped sociology's professional elite. As before, this burst of "pure science" was short-lived. A few years later, campuses-especially those where sociology was strong-were ignited by political protest for free speech, civil rights, and peace, indicting consensus sociology and its uncritical embrace of science. The angel of history had once again fluttered in the storm.
The dialectic of progress governs our individual careers as well as our collective discipline. The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom, or simply a better world that drew so many of us to sociology is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques-standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic rankings, intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the almighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one's colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished; the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.
Constrictions notwithstanding, discipline-in both the individual and collective senses of the word-has borne its fruits. We have spent a century building professional knowledge, translating common sense into science, so that now we are more than ready to embark on a systematic back-translation, taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology's moral fiber. Herein lies the promise and challenge of public sociology, the complement and not the negation of professional sociology.
To understand the production of public sociology, its possibilities and its dangers, its potentialities and its contradictions, its successes and failures, during the last eighteen months I have discussed and debated public sociology in over forty venues, from community colleges to state associations to elite departments across the United States-as well as in England, Canada, Norway, Taiwan, Lebanon, and South Africa. The call for public sociology resonated with audiences wherever I went. Debates resulted in a series of symposia on public sociology, including ones in Social Problems (February 2004), Social Forces (June 2004), and Critical Sociology (Summer 2005). Footnotes, the newsletter of the American Sociological Association (ASA), developed a special column on public sociology, the results of which are brought together in An Invitation to Public Sociology (American Sociological Association 2004). Departments have organized awards and blogs on public sociology, the ASA has unveiled its own site for public sociology, and introductory textbooks have taken up the theme of public sociology. Sociologists have appeared more regularly in the opinion pages of our national newspapers. The 2004 ASA annual meetings, devoted to the theme of public sociologies, broke all records for attendance and participation and did so by a considerable margin. These dark times have aroused the angel of history from his slumbers.
I offer eleven theses. They begin with the reasons for the appeal of public sociologies today, turning to their multiplicity and their relation to the discipline as a whole-the discipline being understood both as a division of labor and as a field of power. I examine the matrix of professional, policy, public, and critical sociologies as it varies historically and among countries, comparing sociology with other disciplines, before finally turning to what makes sociology so special, not just as a science but as a moral and political force.
THESIS I: THE SCISSORS MOVEMENT
The aspiration for public sociology has become stronger and its realization ever more difficult as sociology has moved left and the world has moved right.
To what shall we attribute the current appeal of public sociology? To be sure, it reminds so many of why they became sociologists, but public sociology has been around for some time, so why might it suddenly take off?
Over the last half century the political center of gravity of sociology has moved in a critical direction while the world it studies has moved in the opposite direction. Thus, in 1968, members of the ASA were asked to vote on a member resolution against the Vietnam War. Of those who voted, two-thirds opposed the ASA taking a position, while in a separate opinion question, 54 percent expressed their individual opposition to the war (Rhoades 1981, 60)-roughly the same proportion as in the general population at the time. In 2003, thirty-five years later, a similar member resolution against the war in Iraq was put to the ASA membership and two-thirds favored the resolution (Footnotes, July-August 2003). Even more significant, in the corresponding opinion poll, 75 percent of those who voted said they were against the war, at a time (late May 2003) when 75 percent of the general population supported the war.
Given the leftward drift of the 1960s, this is an unexpected finding. Despite the turbulence of the 1968 annual meeting in Boston, which included Martin Nicolaus's famous and fearless attack on "fat-cat sociology," and forthright demands from the Caucus of Black Sociologists, the Radical Caucus, and the Caucus of Women Sociologists, oppositional voices were still in a minority. The majority of members had grown up in and imbibed the liberal conservatism of the earlier postwar sociology. Over time, however, the radicalism of the 1960s diffused through the profession, albeit in diluted form. The increasing presence and participation of women and racial minorities and the ascent of the 1960s generation to leadership positions in departments and our association marked a critical drift that is echoed in the content of sociology.
Thus, political sociology turned from the virtues of American electoral democracy to studying the state and its relation to classes, social movements as political process, and the deepening of democratic participation. Sociology of work turned from processes of adaptation to the study of domination and labor movements. Stratification shifted from the study of social mobility within a hierarchy of occupational prestige to the examination of changing structures of social and economic inequality-class, race, and gender. The sociology of development abandoned modernization theory for underdevelopment theory, world systems analyses, and state-orchestrated growth. Race theory moved from theories of assimilation to political economy to the study of racial formations. Social theory introduced more radical interpretations of Weber and Durkheim and incorporated Marx into the canon. If feminism was not quite let into the canon, it certainly had a dramatic impact on most substantive fields of sociology. Globalization is wreaking havoc with sociology's basic unit of analysis-the nation-state-while compelling deparochialization of our discipline. There have, of course, been countermovements-for example, the ascendancy of assimilation studies in immigration or the neoinstitutionalists who document the worldwide diffusion of American institutions-but over the last half century the overwhelming movement has been in a critical direction.
If the succession of political generations and the changing content of sociology constitute one arm of the scissors, the other arm, moving in the opposite direction, is the world we study. Even as the rhetoric of equality and freedom intensifies, so sociologists have documented ever-deepening inequality and domination. Over the last twenty-five years earlier gains in economic security and civil rights have been reversed by market expansion (with their attendant inequalities) and coercive states, violating rights at home and abroad. All too often, market and state have collaborated against humanity in what has commonly come to be known as neoliberalism. To be sure, sociologists have become more sensitive, more focused on the negative, but the evidence they have accumulated does suggest regression in so many arenas. And, of course, as I write, we are governed by a regime that is deeply antisociological in its ethos, hostile to the very idea of "society."
In our own backyard, the university has suffered mounting attacks from the National Association of Scholars for harboring too many liberals. At the same time, facing declining budgets, and under intensified competition, public universities have responded with market solutions-joint ventures with private corporations, advertising campaigns to attract students, fawning over private donors, commodifying education through distance learning, and employing cheap temporary professional labor, not to mention the armies of low-paid service workers (Kirp 2003; Bok 2003). Is the market solution the only solution? Do we have to abandon the very idea of the university as a "public" good? The interest in a public sociology is, in part, a reaction and a response to the privatization of everything. Its vitality depends on the resuscitation of the very idea of "public," another casualty of the storm of progress. Hence the paradox: the widening gap between the sociological ethos and the world we study inspires the demand and, simultaneously, creates the obstacles to public sociology. How should we proceed?
THESIS II: THE MULTIPLICITY OF PUBLIC SOCIOLOGIES
There are multiple public sociologies, reflecting different types of publics and multiple ways of accessing them. Traditional and organic public sociologies are two polar but complementary types. Publics can be destroyed, but they can also be created. Some never disappear-our students are our first and captive public.
What should we mean by public sociology? Public sociology brings sociology into a conversation with publics, understood as people who are themselves involved in conversation. It entails, therefore, a double conversation. Obvious candidates are W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1994); David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (1950); and Robert Bellah and colleagues, Habits of the Heart (1985). What do all these books have in common? They are written by sociologists, they are read beyond the academy, and they become the vehicle of a public discussion about the nature of U.S. society-the nature of its values, the gap between its promise and its reality, its malaise, its tendencies. In the same genre of what I call traditional public sociology we can locate sociologists who write in the opinion pages of our national newspapers, where they comment on matters of public importance. Alternatively, journalists may carry academic research into the public realm, as they did with, for example, Chris Uggen and Jeff Manza's (2002) article in the American Sociological Review on the political significance of felon disenfranchisement and Devah Pager's (2002) dissertation on the way race swamps the effects of criminal record on the employment prospects of youth. With traditional public sociology the publics being addressed are generally invisible in that they cannot be seen, thin in that they do not generate much internal interaction, and passive in that they do not constitute a movement or organization, and they are usually mainstream. The traditional public sociologist instigates debates within or between publics, although he or she might not actually participate in them.
There is, however, another type of public sociology-organic public sociology-in which the sociologist works in close connection with a visible, thick, active, local, and often counterpublic. The bulk of public sociology is indeed of an organic kind-sociologists working with a labor movement, neighborhood associations, communities of faith, immigrant rights groups, human rights organizations. Between the organic public sociologist and a public is a dialogue, a process of mutual education. The recognition of public sociology must extend to the organic kind, which often remains invisible and private and is often considered to be apart from our professional lives. The project of such public sociologies is to make visible the invisible, to make the private public, to validate these organic connections as part of our sociological life.
Traditional and organic public sociologies are not antithetical but complementary. Each informs the other. The broadest debates in society-for example, about family values-can inform and be informed by our work with welfare clients. Debates about NAFTA can shape the sociologist's collaboration with a trade union local; working with prisoners to defend their rights can draw on public debates about the carceral complex. Berkeley graduate students Gretchen Purser, Amy Schalet, and Ofer Sharone (2004) studied the plight of low-paid service workers on campus, bringing them out of the shadows and constituting them as a public to which the university should be accountable. The report drew on wider debates about the working poor, immigrant workers, and the privatization and corporatization of the university, while feeding public discussion about the academy as a principled community. In the best circumstances traditional public sociology frames organic public sociology, while the latter disciplines, grounds, and directs the former.
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