Public Sociology and Participatory Action Research in Rural Sociology
by Karen M. O’Neill, Rutgers University & RSS 2008 Program Chair
"This is billed as a dialogue, but ha!—I say it is a debate," said Michael Burawoy, University of California-Berkeley, at his plenary session with John Gaventa at the Rural Sociological Society’s (RSS) meeting in Manchester, NH. RSS President Jess Gilbert had invited them to discuss public sociology and participatory action research, two approaches for putting research to broader public use, at the late July meeting. While the debate did reveal distinct differences in emphasis and aim, Gaventa and Burawoy agreed that research is "embedded in relations of domination" and that researchers should approach their public work critically, particularly when working for clients.
Burawoy and Gaventa framed their comments as reactions to the instrumental focus of U.S. sociology on professional sociology above all else, an emphasis that Burawoy asserted is unique in the world. Gaventa said, "my concern is that the power of American sociology will render invisible strong traditions of public sociology and participatory research elsewhere."
In Jess Gilbert’s presidential address, in paper sessions on public sociology, and in questions during the plenary session, attendees of the RSS meeting outlined many ways in which rural sociologists represent a different model of sociology in the United States. Members analyzed the long history of public engagement by rural sociologists, their work within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the role of Extension Service sociologists as researchers who respond to local publics. Dreamal Worthen (Florida A&M University), for example, characterized sociologists at historically black colleges and universities as members of the communities that they research and serve, doing public sociology that is usually invisible to others.
In the highlight paper session on public sociology, Shauna Scott presented an empirical study showing the value of both perspectives on public research, as well as the professional and political hazards of public engagement. She used Burawoy’s four categories to show how Gaventa’s first effort in participatory action research at the Highlander Center in Appalachia emerged out of social movement demands to study patterns of absentee landholding. Through political action promoting their findings, the activists eventually won policy reforms. But as part of the effort, researchers had to defend the value of participatory research against the demands of government officials who sponsored part of the research, whose view of professional sociological standards was narrowly circumscribed.
In keeping with a concern for public sociology, the theme for next year’s meeting of the Rural Sociological Society in Madison, WI, is climate change.