November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

Community Organizing
Is Public Sociology

For two reasons I was surprised to read sociologist Monte Bute’s critical ASA Forum letter, titled "Public Sociology is Not Community Organizing," in the April 2009 Footnotes.

asaforumFirst, I was surprised at the sheer nastiness of Bute’s criticism of "quixotic members of our profession" who advocate engagement in community organizing and public policy. He calls such sociologists "naïve" "wannabes" [presumably he means wannabe community organizers or "public policy gurus"] who harbor "activist fantasies." Yet Bute promptly proclaims, "Last week I spent two days meeting with Minnesota legislative leaders. Recently, I exchanged e-mails…with the Speaker of the House….Last evening I testified at a legislative town hall meeting." Bute indicates that in doing these things he was "merely being a good citizen," and cautions his reader, "Do not delude yourself by conflating citizenship with what Max Weber called ‘politics as a vocation.’"

Second, I was surprised that Bute refers to Michael Burawoy in order to argue that public sociologists should focus on teaching their students. Yet Burawoy repeatedly defines public sociology as "seek[ing] to bring sociology to publics beyond the academy" (Burawoy, et. al. 2004: italics mine). Contrary to Bute, I read this definition to mean that teaching is not public sociology to the extent that it simply engages students, who are, next to professors, perhaps the clearest and most important constituency of the academy. Indeed, following Burawoy’s definitional lead, one might ask Bute: Why bother advocating for public sociology at all if it simply urges sociologists to be good teachers? Haven’t academic sociologists always endeavored to be good teachers at least to the extent that their job requires it?

I applaud Bute’s involvement in politics as a citizen, but to argue that sociology and public action should be done separately, and to denigrate sociologists who marry the two, is not only contrary to public sociology, but also risks further encouraging those sociologists who see their teaching as their public sociology. Teaching our students sociology is clearly valuable, but it is not public sociology unless it engages publics outside the academy, from the local homeless to international democracy movements. That is why sociologists who engage their students in community organizing and/or public policy are public sociologists. Indeed, as one of a growing number of sociologists who teaches community organizing, I see it as one of the most promising frontiers in public sociology. Who better than sociologists to learn and teach a craft that trains students and citizens to create social change?

Reference:

Burawoy, Michael, et al. 2004. "Public Sociologies: A Symposium from Boston College." Social Problems 51: 1 (Feb): 103-130.

Paul Lachelier is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stetson University. He teaches a course titled "Community Organizing for Social Change." For more information about the course, visit http://stetsonsdp.pbworks.com/.

What Happened to the Sociological Imagination?

I find the self-congratulatory prose in Footnotes, granting the existence of a very few provocative pieces, overwhelming. Just as the prisoners in Plato’s cave gave prizes and congratulations on the basis of who was most adept at developing facts about the shadows behind them, you editors do the same for sociologists whose accomplishments I have great difficulty in understanding. Instead of focusing on the fundamental issues that threaten the survival of the human race sociologists almost invariably continue to focus on relatively trivial problems and generally continue to hide from the mass media of communication.

In this letter I take up a few points within the topic of reason—or, more specifically, the scientific method. I will say a few words about value neutrality, investigator effects, secondary analysis versus collecting new data, and metaphysical assumptions that structure the foregoing epistemological points.

As for value neutrality, I quote from Harold Kincaid’s Value-Free Science?: "All the chapters in this book raise doubts about the ideal of a value-free science. . . If the critics of the value-free science ideal are right, then these traditional claims about science not only are ungrounded but also can have pernicious consequences . . .If scientific results concerning IQ and race, free markets and growth, or environmental emissions and planetary weather make value assumptions, treating them as entirely neutral is misleading at best. I do not argue for ignoring efforts to present a wide range of competing ideas, but call for transparency.

With respect to investigator effects, Alvin Gouldner’s argument for a "reflexive sociology’" in The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970) has been almost universally ignored. If we sociologists, with our understanding of the impact of social interaction, ignore investigator effects, how are we to continue to pretend to be using the scientific method?

Concerning secondary analysis, it is one thing for physicists, with the relatively simple phenomena that they investigate and their effective usage of mathematics to integrate past knowledge, to emphasize the collection of new data. But it is another for sociologists, confronted with the incredible complexity of human behavior and with no procedures developed that can systematically integrate the relevant past knowledge for a given problem, to emphasize new data and thereby violate a fundamental scientific ideal: Building on past knowledge. Therefore, we should focus on secondary analysis, not on new data that almost completely ignores the relevant past research.

Lastly and unfortunately, metaphysical assumptions are quite foreign to the literature of sociology, despite the fact that we are supposedly doctors of philosophy. Our present stance regarding the above issues illustrates what I call a "bureaucratic worldview" in contrast with scientific ideals calling for an "interactive worldview." A bureaucratic worldview orients us to look outward rather than both inward and outward, thus structuring our stance on value neutrality and investigator effects. Further, our bureaucratic mentality yields a narrow approach to human behavior, which helps to explain our narrow theoretical approaches to developing new knowledge, avoiding the broad approach that secondary analysis illustrates.

Dialogue is desperately needed on all four of these issues in Footnotes, our journals, our meetings, and our departments. I am with Mills in my conviction that we sociologists are in the best position to gain understanding of society’s fundamental problems. Yet, given their threatening nature, I also agree with him that our failure to do so—based on methods that are appallingly limited in relation to scientific ideals—"is surely the greatest human default being committed by privileged men in our times."

Bernard Phillips, bernieflps@aol.com, www.sociological-imagination.org

 

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