Public Sociologies

You may have noticed that blogging was suspended over the past couple of weeks. You may not have noticed that this was because I was at the American Sociological Association annual meetings. Now that I’m back in Durban, here’s a wee reflection on the whole gig…

The American Sociological Association’s 2004 meeting theme was a nifty bit of footwork. The conference title: “Public Sociologies”. In framing the convention with this rather queer term – isn’t sociology about the public already? – Michael Burawoy, president of the ASA, was making an important intervention in a range of battles in the US.

Within the American academy, the discipline of sociology has always been taking a public battering from disciplines that have more happily grasped the nettle of positivism – economics and political science in particular. [1]

This is symptomatic of broader trends of disdain within the US academy, where post-WWII sociology has been successfully associated, through McCarthy, with marxism, and thereby with communism, and thereby with unfettered evil and, to boot, with both a remoteness from the US people and an unscientific methodology. Perhaps this goes a little way to explaining why the US lacks a high profile, much less a visibly *public* sociologist, in the way that there are elsewhere in the North. France has Touraine, Germany has the entire population of Frankfurt, and, hell, even the UK has Tony Giddens. This isn’t to say that there aren’t public intellectuals in the US. Of course there are – but if one looks at the headline speakers at the ASA, they were Mary Robinson (lawyer), Arundhati Roy, Hernando Cardoso (sociologist), and Paul Krugman (economist). Spot the US sociologist? Exactly. But this is part of the point of the conference. In its war of position with economics and political science, U.S. sociology can claim to be a much broader church than either of its more monastic academic brethren. And at the Public Sociologies meeting, the panelists were very popular populist commentators on the sorts of trends that have captivated the imaginations of a key constituencies in the US- globalisation, inequality, human rights. The treatment of these ideas at the professional level in other disciplines, while occasional and less occasionally interesting, has rarely been populist. By pitching itself as the professional interpreter of phenomena such as Seattle protests, the effects of corporate America (esp in media), and race relations, the ASA steals thunder from the American Political Science Association [2] and the American Economic Association. And that’s not such a bad thing.

But there wasn’t only a positional play here. If that were all that might be said, it’d be a sad replay of history. After all, the first pro-French Revolution anti-Market public sociologist wasn’t Marx. It was August Comte. And the positivism that he nurtured had a very specific role for sociologists as elite high priests whose duty it was to inculcate capitalists with the appropriately altruistic virtues that were lacking in capitalism. It would be unfortunate if the sole purpose of the ASA in 2004 were to restate the role of sociologist as “professional interpreter of public discontent to the elites”.

Luckily, this conference was also about dealing, at some level, with the contradictions involved in calling for sociologists to be middle class populists. I’m thinking here of Michael Burawoy’s call for the provincialisng of US sociology. That one could hardly imagine US sociology more parochial (while there are Latin American and Asian ASA sections, there’s nothing on Africa – that’s for the anthropologists) is, I think, part of the point. Following Dipesh Chakrabarty’s call to “Provincialise Europe”, ie. to historicise, de-universalise and de-parochialise the class-positioned ‘occidental’ imagination, Burawoy’s call to provincialise US sociology was a political and methodological intervention.

To be able to demand the provincialising of sociology, one has already to have taken a specific relation to the categories of “universal” and “irrelevant” which many US sociologists hold dear, and to ask questions of audience and power. The ‘laws of society’ sociology, the kind that Durkheim was after, the kind that still speaks to a large and growing fraction within US sociology, the fraction that finds itself increasingly at the service of the state through mushrooming subdisciplines like criminology, is the one that comes in for a bit of a spanking here.

There were a good number of panels that addressed the role of the critical sociologist in society, including an excellent discussion on Sociology and Public Policy in Democratizing South Africa which featured Eddie Webster, Shireen Hassim, Blade Nzimandze and e-Debater Jacklyn Cock. Mind, none of the sessions I went to resolved the contradiction of how privileged mainly white US professors cross class and race lines. The discussion of gender was also uneven, and often compartmentalised, and there’s little excuse for that.

Of course, one might find the whole idea of doing public sociology at an elite institution contradictory. One might want, for example, less of a passive revolutionary approach, and would want sociologists to ‘get out there and walk the talk’. That’s fair enough, and it’s the constant challenge of praxis to be able to pursue the congressional sentiments in the constituency. But given that we’re talking about a conference, and not a discipline, and not a proper Social Forum, the ASA conference signals a very welcome shift in the right direction.


[1] When I was a student in a US university taking courses in political science, my declaration that I was a ‘rural sociologist’ was met with a “huh, so he counts cows”. And that was from the politics professor.

[2] My favourite quote about APSA is from Alasdair MacIntyre, and it’s up online at the splendid Virtual Stoa, at which the splendid Chris Brooke blogs, and from which I’ve copied.

“There once was a man who aspired to be the author of the general theory of holes. When asked “What kind of hole – holes dug by children in the sand for amusement, holes dug by gardeners to plant lettuce seedlings, tank traps, holes made by roadmakers?” he would reply indignantly that he wished for a general theory that would explain all of these. He rejected ab initio the – as he saw it – pathetically common-sense view that of the digging of different kinds of holes there are quite different kinds of explanations to be given; why then he would ask do we have the concept of a hole? Lacking the explanations to which he originally aspired, he then fell to discovering statistically significant correlations; he found for example that there is a correlation between the aggregate hole-digging achievement of a society as measured, or at least one day to be measured, by econometric techniques, and its degree of technological development. The United States surpasses both Paraguay and Upper Volta in hole-digging; there are more holes in Vietnam than there were. These observations, he would always insist, were neutral and value-free. This man’s achievement has passed totally unnoticed except by me. Had he however turned his talents to political science, had he concerned himself not with holes, but with modernization, urbanization or violence, I find it difficult to believe that he might not have achieved high office in the APSA.”

From his essay, “Is a science of comparative politics possible?” from his collection, Against the Self-Images of the Age, Duckworth, 1971, p.260.