May-June 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 5

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George Mason Introduces New PhD Program in Public Sociology

by Mark D. Jacobs and Amy Best, George Mason University

mason_logoCan we teach our doctoral students—and ourselves—to practice a sociology that resonates with the public sphere? George Mason University has announced a new PhD in sociology to be launched this fall, one that emphasizes public sociology, with two areas of specialization: Institutions and Inequalities, and the Sociology of Globalization. The design of the program is flexible, preparing students to pursue careers in academic sociology, policy research, or civic advocacy. The Institutions and Inequality concentration equips students to conduct research on salient disparities that characterize the functioning of various social institutions, such as schools, health care, the workplace, and family life. The Sociology of Globalization track trains students to apply sociological knowledge to the study of social structures operating at the global or transnational level, addressing questions of development, human rights, and the dynamics of transnational social movements. What better place to develop public sociology than across the river from Washington, DC?

Both the geographic and the institutional environments are propitious for the new program. Northern Virginia, a region rich in history, is among the most rapidly-growing areas in the nation; it is a vital area of first-settlement for immigrants from all over the world. The university, only three decades old, now has the largest student body of any university in Virginia—a student body said to be the most diverse in the United States. The university’s proximity to Washington, DC, gives it ready access to the institutional and community life of the nation’s capital. Officers of the ASA, our DC neighbor, contributed to the conception and design of the PhD.

Reflecting the entrepreneurial spirit of the university, George Mason sociologists have served as founding directors of a number of innovative interdisciplinary programs, including the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the doctoral Program in Cultural Studies, the doctoral Program in Environmental Science and Public Policy, the Program in Global Affairs, the Women’s Center, and the Center for Social Science Research.

Building Civil Society

The mission of public sociology, in Michael Burawoy’s formulation, is to strengthen the institutions of civil society against the encroachments of both state and market. Other units in the university already exercise considerable influence over public life, from a spectrum of ideological positions. George Mason economists—including two Nobel Prize winners—have been instrumental in shaping Reaganomics and in promoting "free market" policies. George Mason historians have helped champion people’s history; the Center for History and the New Media is pioneering the practice of digital history, in part through the creation of massive archives of oral histories and other records of ordinary citizens’ lived experience. The university’s Mercatus Center and its School of Public Policy have significant presences on Capitol Hill. Thus, the new PhD program in sociology emerges within precisely the intellectual and institutional context that public sociology must engage.

Current faculty research interests are wide-ranging, including: The disappearance of the Catholic left; the role of black intellectuals in the United States; war, peace, and nonviolent conflict resolution; the ways privileged allies accompany marginalized groups who are struggling for justice; diversity in higher education; youth culture and consumerism; the culture of public scandal; the music industry in the United States and Brazil; the irreducible role of altruism in environmentalism; reverse transnational flows of ideas transnational networks of law and governance in the struggle for economic justice and human rights, especially in Burma; discourses of urban development in the service of coercive social control in post-apartheid South Africa; family creation and the negotiation of family life; the immigrant experience of Korean-Americans; civic festivals and the play element in community. Moreover, the sociology program benefits from its membership in a joint department of sociology and anthropology, in which the anthropologists are similarly committed to the study of public anthropology.

Ambiguity in Public Sociology

As made clear by the ASA-sponsored publication Public Sociology (Clawson et al. 2007), an anthology of responses to Burawoy’s 2004 ASA Presidential Address, the very conception of "public sociology" is ambiguous and contested. This is hardly surprising, since Craig Calhoun’s anthology Habermas and the Public Sphere (1992) demonstrates the contested and ambiguous nature of the conception of “public.” In its emphasis on globalization and inequalities, and its recognition of multiple publics and the blurring of categories of public and private, we have tried to design a program in public sociology that responds to the emerging critique of these concepts. But how precisely should we conceptualize “the public sphere,” and how can we understand its cultural and institutional contexts and structures so that our sociology can engage it more effectively? And how should we understand the reciprocal relations of professional, policy, critical, and public sociology? Even as we develop George Mason’s program in public sociology, we will continue to interrogate our conceptions and assumptions. We will aim to expand our very conception of “research methods,” to include the heuristics of generating the most significant research problems. We will aim to cultivate reflexivity and transparency, not only toward our research subjects, our publics, and ourselves, but also toward our modes of inquiry and our methodological techniques.

George Mason is currently accepting applications for this new doctoral program. For more information, see sociology.gmu.edu/. small_green.gif

 

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