December 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 9

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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.


Michael Burawoy

Burawoy, a long-time promoter of public sociology, argued that public sociology should be part of the discipline as a whole and judged by professional standards, with an aim of invigorating all of sociology. He has worked in and studied factories in several countries and now presses for public sociology to help people cope with globalization and other social changes. He distinguished four types of sociology—professional, critical, policy (work defined by a client), and public sociology—but argued that each type of research would ideally advance knowledge as it meets the needs of various publics. In considering public sociology’s role in this mix, he asked, "knowledge for whom, and knowledge for what?"


John Gaventa

Gaventa, author of Power and Powerless: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, said that in addition to those questions, "participatory action research asks, knowledge by whom?" He continued, "I think that in the early days, participatory action research over-romanticized local knowledge. [But] for participatory action research, knowledge is a form of power." Its practitioners may emphasize research, conscientization, or action, depending on the project. Participatory action research shares some common origins with public sociology, particularly in Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire, although Gaventa said he is struck by an absence of discussion of power in much of the literature on public sociology. Participatory action research aims to identify "not just whose knowledge counts, but who counts reality." Gaventa is Chair of Oxfam, Great Britain, and works on participatory research projects throughout the global South through the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. He said that participatory action research is being performed across all four of Burawoy’s categories of sociology, including its problematic use by the World Bank as it pursues neo-liberal market reforms.

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. small_green


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