Models of Public Sociology
The July/August Footnotes reported that Michael Burawoy was the new President-Elect and by coincidence carried an article by Past-President, Herbert J. Gans, on the role of “public sociologist.” The coincidence was that Burawoy in his Personal Statement in the Association’s election brochure promised to promote “public sociology—a sociology that transcends the academy.” Gans and Burawoy share a vision of sociologist bringing sociological knowledge and perspective to bear in the public arena, but the similarity ends there. These are two different models of a public role for sociologists, and I want to argue that Gans’s model is preferable to Burawoy’s.
Gans defines a public sociologist as “a public intellectual who applies sociological ideas and findings to social (defined broadly) issues about which sociology (also defined broadly) has something to say.” Public sociologists are different from the garden variety of public intellectuals in that the latter “comment on whatever matters show up on the public agenda; public sociologists do so only on issues to which they apply their sociological insights and findings.” For example, we are knowledgeable about social problems and we can be “particularly useful in debunking the conventional wisdom and popular myths (e.g., that teenage pregnancy is a popular cause of poverty).” All in all, it is a modest but useful proposal that essentially is an extension of our role as teachers.
By contrast, Burawoy’s model is quite grandiose. “As mirror and conscience of society,” Burawoy maintains, “sociology must define, promote and inform public debate about deepening class and racial inequalities, new gender regimes, environmental degradation, market fundamentalism, state and non-state violence.” An immediately noticeable difference between Gans and Burawoy is that the latter’s public sociologist is less teacher than “activist”; sociology “must define, promote, and inform public debate” about the issues he lists and, in addition, “stimulate debate” in “local, global, and national contexts.”
This, however, is not the crucial difference, for Burawoy has added another dimension to the meaning of sociology itself—it is no longer merely a scientific or scholarly body of knowledge but “the mirror and conscience of society.” Conscience implies a continuous moral evaluation of action, and Burawoy’s assertion apparently means that it is a defining characteristic of our discipline. Leaving alone the question of who elected sociology to this office, Burawoy also seems to be declaring that our contributions to public debate “must” consist of moral judgments; that is, those who choose not to make such judgments and, for example, merely contribute factual knowledge or recommend one policy rather than another, cannot practice Burawoy’s public sociology.
“Finally,” Burawoy concludes, “the critical imagination, exposing the gap between what is and what could be, infuses values into public sociology to remind us that the world could be different.” This strongly suggests that public sociology should not only be in the business of distinguishing right from wrong but also pointing society in the direction of some ideal reality. Indeed, it is clear, if we remember the issues that Burawoy believes should be of most concern to public sociology, the mirror his public sociology holds up to society would reflect only the portrait in the closet.
The last point reveals a fundamental flaw of Burawoy’s activist notion of public sociology compared to Gans’s public sociologist. The latter applies the discipline’s knowledge and perspectives in the public arena, hoping to clarify issues and help people find their way among the ideological voices filling the air. I fear that Burawoy’s sociologist would be publicly perceived, and justifiably so, as another ideologue pushing his or her vision of what is best for the rest of us because, after all, sociology is “the conscience of society.” That perception would immediately devalue public sociologists’ claims that their views merit attention and consideration because of their professional knowledge.
The preference for the more modest role of public sociologist should not be taken to mean that sociologists possess “value-free” knowledge; have no right to pass moral judgments; or have no ideological commitments of their own. It does mean that when sociologists enter the public square to make moral judgments or support a particular vision of a better world, they speak or write as responsible citizens or as garden variety public intellectuals—they cannot claim that their morality or visions of worlds that “could be different” are more deserving of attention because of their professional knowledge.
In short, a more modest conception of public sociology may even result in sociologists actually influencing public discussions and policies!
Murray Hausknecht, City University of New York
Happy Rejoinder to Gans, on “Public Sociologists”
Professor Herbert J. Gans states (Footnotes, Public Forum, July/August 2002) that “Public intellectuals (i.e., the scholars, critics, and others who speak to the general public on topical matters in which the public may or should be interested) play a crucial role in modern society. They are not only a bridge between intellectuals, academics, and the rest of society, but they also offer society at least a sampling of intellectual commentary on issues of the day.”
I want to share with you my very modest, but fruitful, experience, hoping that it might stimulate my colleagues. For the last 15 years or so, I have been (and still am) writing letters to the editors (both in Spanish and English) to magazines in Argentina, the U.S.A., and Europe (e.g., The Economist, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, The Buenos Aires Herald).
I have already sent more than 11,000. Approximately 7 percent have been published. Incidentally, I have received an ad hoc award by the Argentine Press Association; I am known here as “The king of the letters to the editor.” I even coordinate paid workshops in which I share my tips about how to write a letter to the editor.
Two of my letters, dated in 1994 and 1995, presaged the scandalous very recent collapse of the Argentine peso. Who says that sociology (especially socioeconomics) is a very soft science and, therefore, cannot explain, let alone predict?
Go, go, go!
Marcelo Aftalion, Buenos Aires, Argentina