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Public Sociologies: Response to Hausknecht
In the December 2002 Footnotes Public Forum [page 6], Murray Hausknecht correctly identifies me with a critical, activist form of public sociology, but he is wrong to suggest that this excludes Herbert Gans’s “expert” public sociology. As I said, sociology is both mirror and conscience of society. By mirror I mean sociology captures patterns, develops diagnoses, corrects misconceptions, so as to better tackle social problems. The task of public sociology here is Gans’s project of dissemination. By conscience I mean sociology’s interrogation of society’s values that stimulates discussion about their meaning, multiplicity, relevance and realization. The task of this more critical public sociology is to promote public dialogue. In a nutshell, I argue that we need both expert and critical public sociologies and they need each other.

In harnessing expertise, the wider context is easily bracketed as the spotlight turns on specific problems. Take Kristin Luker’s Dubious Conceptions, which dispels the myth of the epidemic of teen pregnancies, showing that teens make up a declining proportion of unwed mothers and that poverty has a more powerful effect on teen pregnancy than vice versa. It was well received in the press, she appeared on radio shows and gave many talks but, according to her, no one changed their mind about the issue. In fact the tide flowed in the other direction as conservative think tanks effectively linked teenage pregnancy with welfare. Asking why she was so ineffectual, Luker writes that academics are ill-equipped to promote their ideas, when competing with swift, flexible, advocacy groups.1 Think tanks not only control a polished machinery of dissemination but, in this case, their message resonated deeply with the powerful social movement of the Christian Right.

Perhaps Luker is too ambitious, perhaps she is too modest about her accomplishments, but her message stands: if public sociology is going to coexist with powerful policy institutes we may have to become more activist in promoting our findings. If we are going to “set sail,” we will need to navigate turbulent seas. Hausknecht is suspicious of this “activist” public sociology, preferring a “teaching” model. But teaching too can take many forms. Just as passively transmitting knowledge is rarely effective without a receptive and already convinced audience, so pouring knowledge into students—as though they were empty vessels—rarely moves them. Indeed, it generally induces passivity. Dialogical teaching activates student minds, incites them to think critically about the world around them. It starts from where they are and elaborates (educates) their experiences—to be sure aided and stimulated by texts, data, and theory. In activating the student, the teacher too begins to learn! The important distinction, therefore, is not between teaching and activism, but between one-way and two-way teaching. It is the model of dialogical teaching that underlies my notion of critical public sociology. In other words, just as effective learning requires expertise and engagement, so the same is true of public sociology.

Hausknecht is concerned not just with the mode of interaction between sociologists and their publics but also with its content. He asks whether as sociologists we can engage in moral critique without moralizing. In other words, can we be the conscience of society without privileging certain values? I think we can and in the following ways.

  • In modern society bureaucratic rationality and market efficiency often eclipse moral values altogether. Merely insisting on explicit examination of society’s values becomes a critique of the exclusivity of formal, or instrumental, rationality.

  • Commentators may have a particular conception of values, for example of “democracy,” without acknowledging alternative ones. Public currency may assume democracy is electoral democracy, but sociologists may point to other “deeper” notions of democracy such as participatory democracy. Society’s values are multiple and multi-valent. Critique often takes the form of explicating already existing alternatives.

  • We can expose the gap between society’s professed values and its practices, how society betrays the values it espouses—as Robert Bellah does, for example, in The Broken Covenant. This is what we call immanent critique.

  • We may enter public debate in our capacity to discern the consequences and conditions of institutionalizing values as when Jencks or Coleman discovers that equality of opportunity in schooling does not produce equality of outcomes. Here, too, there is critique, this time of the presumed harmony of society’s values.

  • As we do our research we may uncover, elaborate and even propagate the values of particular groups or social movements that challenge dominant values. Here we find, for example, Alain Touraine’s action sociology, Dorothy Smith’s sociology for women, or many of W.E.B. Du Bois’s writings.

  • Finally, some indeed have claimed—from Emile Durkheim to Edward Shils and Amitai Etzioni—that sociology embodies values of community and responsiveness that we all share. Depending on the meaning of “we,” this can come close to moralizing or ideology.

    In all these ways we can act as the conscience of society, and in each case critique depends upon our expertise as sociologists.

    If we can act as conscience of society, should we do so? Hausknecht argues that interrogating public values will brand us as ideologues and bring sociology into disrepute. In his view critique will undermine rather than bolster expertise. Of course, there are risks in activating one’s conscience. To remain silent, however, is to endorse the view that public values are private property, leaving moral entrepreneurs, politicians, and other pundits with a monopoly of the interpretation of society’s values. A critical public sociology would mobilize our expertise to re-appropriate public values for public discussion. If we are responsive to the common sense, the popular culture, and the subterranean dissent of the people we typically study, we may find an audience more receptive to our messages than the one ensconced in the tribunes of power. When considering the relation of expertise and critique we should not forget that there are publics and publics!

    It is one thing to speak as a sociologist. It is quite another thing to speak for sociology. When it comes to the collectivity, a critical public sociology has to be true to itself—dialogue must begin at home before it can be taken abroad. Sociologists should debate how and what to speak publicly. Thus, there was much collective discussion about the ASA’s statement on race that insists on its continuing importance in American society. The discussion continues over the Amicus Brief that the ASA will soon submit to the Supreme Court as the court revisits the Bakke decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. Discussion in the Association is also under way around California’s Racial Privacy Initiative that would prohibit the state from using racial classifications. The ASA Council believes that, with our expertise, we can and should take a public and critical stance on the causes and consequences of racial and other forms of discrimination. In short, as I have argued throughout, expertise and critique can play a mutually supportive role.

    Public sociologies, both expert and critical, are enjoying a renaissance—marked by increasing numbers of students, the launching of the magazine Contexts, the recently introduced Award for the Public Understanding of Sociology, and the ASA’s involvement with affirmative action and racial profiling. This ascendancy may reflect sociologists’ common concern about the state of the world as the political environment has become more hostile, and not just to sociology. The public sphere itself is under assault from both state regulation and market privatization. Thus, more than ever, all public sociologies need to collaborate in protecting the basis of their existence, which lies not just in a strong discipline of sociology but also in a resilient public. Public debate stimulates the sociological imagination just as it is necessary for a vibrant democracy. Publics are the lifeblood of both sociology and society. We don’t all have to become a public sociologist by any means, but we do have a collective interest in cultivating, defending, collaborating with and responding to publics. In this regard Gans, Hausknecht, and myself share a common cause, along with many other sociologists.

    Michael Burawoy, University of California-Berkeley;

    1 Luker, K. (1999). “Is Academic Sociology Politically Obsolete?” Contemporary Sociology, 28, no.1, pp.5-10.
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    Public Sociologies: Reply to Hausknecht
    I hope my proposal [July/August Footnotes, page 8] was not quite as modest as Murray Hausknecht portrayed it [December 2002 Footnotes, page 6]. Public sociologists are, in my view, specialized public intellectuals, and like other public intellectuals, their major role is to be, and to be paid attention to, in the public arena. Consequently, they have to be as broad as other public intellectuals. If their public sociology were only another kind of teaching, they would probably be asked to stay in the classroom.

    More important, public sociologists will have to discuss issues that are or should be on the public agenda, rather than the topics in their course syllabi. Although they should limit themselves to issues about which they have something to say as sociologists, they must be free to offer not only moral judgments, as Hausknecht suggests, but also political ones and policy suggestions based on these judgments. And they should do so as citizens.

    Nonetheless, at times they can also speak as sociologists, as long as they do not claim to speak for sociology as a whole. For example, they can point to likely, possible, and particularly unintended consequences of making and following particular moral judgments. Also, they can offer moral critiques without “privileging certain values,” as Burawoy points out (elsewhere in Public Forum in this Footnotes issue).

    In doing so, public sociologists must be careful not to be ideologues, however, and to try to make sure that they will not be perceived as ideologues. Perhaps this problem will never develop, particularly if public sociologists range all over the ideological lot.

    Herbert J. Gans, Columbia University;

    Racial Classification: A Wrong Turn
    A lack of attention to reasoning, or a pursuit of “racial justice” without regard for logical consistency, largely explains why social scientists are not able to rid themselves of a clearly absurd tradition of grouping persons according to certain anatomical attributes. Sociologists are often particularly guilty of this. They have initiated one of the most developed sub-disciplines in the social sciences—the sociology of race relations—and their collaboration with political representatives in the dissemination of “race” is beginning to reach new heights. Of late, the American Anthropological Association represents an exception. It recommended that the Census Bureau phase out classification by race, (Anthropology Newsletter 39 (6): 3, September 1998). By contrast, ASA sought to assist the Clinton White House on matters of race, racism, and race relations. Four years later, at its annual meeting, ASA issued a statement supporting the collection of racial data:

    [The] American Sociological Association … asserts in an official statement that it is imperative to support the continued collection and scholarly analysis of data on racial taxonomies. “Why should we continue to measure race?” asked ASA spokesperson Troy Duster, summarizing the ASA statement. “If biological research now questions the utility of the concept for scientific work in this field, how, then, can racial categories be the subject of valid scientific investigation at the social level?” “The answer,” explained Duster, who chaired the ASA task force that drafted the race measurement statement, “is that our social and economic lives are integrally organized around race as a social construct. The ASA statement explains how race has been a sorting mechanism for friendship, mating, and marriage; a basis for the distribution of social privileges and resources; and a reason to organize social movements to preserve or challenge the status quo. Sociologists are interested in explaining how and why social definitions of race persist and change.” Sociologists also seek to explain the nature of power relationships between and among racial groups and to understand more fully the nature and evolution of belief systems about race-the dimensions of how people use the concept and apply it in different circumstances. (ASA News, August 20, 2002.)

    Duster’s summary begins with an inaccurate claim. Certain biologists and geneticists do not simply “question the utility” of the race concept. They demonstrate that it is arbitrary and internally inconsistent—through migration, miscegenation and genetic redistributions, counts of three races become four, five, six, sixteen, . . . and endlessly multiplying races mean no stable boundaries, and, therefore, no races. Duster’s question, why we should measure race, presupposes the validity of a concept that self-deconstructs. What are “we” supposed to be measuring? Certainly not race, which is a conceptual nullity. Deeming race a social construct does not foreclose the necessity to evaluate it with the same logical rigor with which we assess, for example “class.” Nor are our social and economic lives integrally organized around race, as Duster suggests. Census bureau officials, sociologists, and other academic researchers are attempting to ground our lives in the racial classification that Professor Duster endorses. He then alludes to some of the effects of these attempts—racial profiling and various forms of discrimination and exclusion—as a reason to continue racial classification.

    Duster and other sociologists continue to refer to “race,” when it is racial classification that is at the root of “racial formation” and “racialization.” Avoiding reference to the human (read human beings in government, media, and educational agencies) practice of allocating persons to racial groups, allows “race” to be treated as a deus ex machina. Professor Duster and the sociologists in his Committee are determined not to address the issue of racial classification in order to continue studying “race.” Even so, Duster implicitly admits that sociologists do not study race. Rather, they study the social structural conditions that generate racial definitions of situations, that is, how identities, interests, and actions are racialized though racial classification. Similarly, government agencies and academic researchers do not “collect” racial data; they manufacture them, and in the process they offer bribes to persons—affirmative action plums—and sometimes insist that persons confess to belonging to a racial or ethnic group. Racial data are not things “out there” that are collected; they are generated by the racial classification of persons. The government and academic manufacturing of “races” and racial consciousness should not be obscured by the innocent sounding term collect. People write letters. Postal workers collect the mail. Government agencies and educators place individuals in racial groups, and quantify and compare their experiences. These practices could be called race-ism.

    ASA’s continued support for these practices—and here it is instructive to compare the Association’s recent statement with that of the American Anthropological Association at—reveals that some sociologists are refusing to reason soundly, for it should be clear that the “collection” (sic) of racial data foments separatist racial identities and promotes practices of in-group/out-group inclusion and exclusion. The argument that we must continue to collect racial data and study race because people believe in race and act out racial prejudices reflects an infantile level of reasoning and is particularly self-serving. How can people not “believe in race” when official institutions and academic researchers insist that they label themselves racially? How can people avoid racial self-classification and group allocation when the most potent belief-formative institutions in society (e.g., schools, media, and places of employment) continually bombard people with notions of their racial difference? In other words, the ASA statement proposes that sociologists continue to investigate the consequences of their own practices, but it does not own up to these practices. Out of thin air people are said to “believe in race.” ASA acts as if the billions of dollars spent on racial research, as well as the construction, dissemination, measuring, and comparing of racial experiences, are not only innocent and neutral but also incapable of influencing people’s self-awareness, interests, and actions.

    In pledging its support for the official “collection” of racial data, ASA puts itself in the forefront of collaboration with officialdom in the racialization of identities and social relations. Sociology is to be more fully incorporated into a state apparatus, the census bureau. Nevertheless, are not sociologists obliged to collaborate with government, Republicans, Democrats, and corporate leaders in their propagation of “race relations”? Such collaboration does not square with the “value neutral” and “ideological” reservations and strictures voiced by Max Weber and Karl Marx. More significantly, if sociologists continue to scorn sound reasoning in the name of reality and racial liberation, what makes their practices liberating? Sound reasoning, sound values, and justice are inseparable.

    Almost a generation ago, Peter Berger advised sociologists: “The sociologist ought, therefore, to have difficulties with any set of categories that supply appellations to people—”Negroes,” “whites,” “Caucasians,” or, for that matter, “Jews,” “Gentiles,” “Americans,” “Westerners.” In one way or another, with more or less malignancy, all such appellations become exercises in “bad faith” as soon as they are charged with ontological implications.” (P. Berger, Invitation to Sociology, 1963). It is in this sense that ASA can be said to have betrayed the sociological tradition.

    Yehudi Webster, California State University-Los Angeles;

    Reply to Webster
    I welcome a vigorous debate with Yehudi Webster and anyone else who has read the official Statement of the American Sociological Association on the Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race [see September/October 2002 Footnotes, page 1] and disagrees with its fundamental tenets. But let us try to keep this debate on a track to clarify if, when, and why we disagree.

    For example, nowhere in the Statement is it suggested that sociologists should measure race as if it were a fixed category with clear delineations. Quite the opposite, the statement characterizes race as a fluid and contingent set of classifications that vary across regions and nations, and over time and space even within in the same society. What the statement does say is that sociologists need to continually evaluate and assess the effects of the ways in which people living in a society use their conception of race as a stratifying practice.

    The prologue to the statement anticipates Webster’s concern about the conception of “race”:

      Sociologists have long examined how race—a social concept that changes over time—has been used to place people in categories. Some scientists and policymakers now contend that research using the concept of race perpetuates the negative consequences of thinking in racial terms. Others argue that measuring differential experiences, treatment, and outcomes across racial categories is necessary to track disparities and to inform policymaking to achieve greater social justice.

    And the statement proper also anticipates Webster’s concern:

      Although racial categories are legitimate subjects of empirical sociological investigation, it is important to recognize the danger of contributing to the popular conception of race as biological. Yet refusing to employ racial categories for administrative purposes and for social research does not eliminate their use in daily life, both by individuals and within social and economic institutions. In France, information on race is seldom collected officially, but evidence of systematic racial discrimination remains (31, 10). The 1988 Eurobarometer revealed that, of the 12 European countries included in the study, France was second (after Belgium) in both anti-immigrant prejudice and racial prejudice (29). Brazil’s experience also is illustrative: The nation’s then-ruling military junta barred the collection of racial data in the 1970 census, asserting that race was not a meaningful concept for social measurement. The resulting information void, coupled with government censorship, diminished public discussion of racial issues, but it did not substantially reduce racial inequalities. When racial data were collected again in the 1980 census, they revealed lower socio-economic status for those with darker skin (38).

    I turn now to address what I take to be Webster’s main concern—the charge that social scientists who study the phenomenon contribute significantly to the perpetuation of racial inequalities. That, of course, is an empirical question—one that should neither be made nor dismissed with glib assertions. Webster and I do agree that sociologists should not be “measuring race.” This language conjures up the image of craniometry of the 19th century, of researchers trying to see who fits in what racial categories. But while we agree that sociologists should not be measuring race in that sense, I take the position that re-search in the discipline should be assessing and evaluating the social impact of the way race is deployed to provide or deny access to resources that shape life chances.

    One other point of agreement is also worth mentioning: describing races as socially constructed does not relieve the responsibility to use analytic and methodological rigor to study the manner in which racial categories are deployed.

    Our disagreement lies in where to assign agency in the classification and treatment of people. Professor Webster argues that by using the category of race, sociologists are reifying the concept and thereby are complicit in its continued use. The core of our disagreement revolves around the following facts:

  • It is not sociologists who as mortgage lenders selectively allocate bank and mortgage loans, and systematically provide those loans to whites at a rate double that for people of color (an empirical finding that emerges independent of loan applicants’ social class). But it is sociologists’ legitimate role to assess and evaluate the effects of those practices. This is an empirical matter supported by an impressive body of scientific literature.

  • It is not sociologists who closed factories in northern cities, where the ratio of whites to people of color was 1:2, and then re-opened them in areas of the sunbelt where the ratio of whites to those of color was at least 4:1. But it is sociologists’ legitimate role to assess and evaluate the social, cultural, and economic effects of those practices.

  • It is not sociologists who differentially dispense medical treatment for heart disease based upon phenotype, but it is physicians who are using their own racial categories in classifying patients (another empirical finding that is independent of patients’ social class). But it is the medical sociologist’s legitimate role to assess and evaluate the effects of these practices.

  • It is not sociologists who as law officers arrest youth differentially at a rate of 7:1 by racial category, ultimately resulting in an incarceration rate that has moved from 2:1 in 1930 to 8:1 in 2002, by race. But it is sociologists’ legitimate role to assess and evaluate the effects of these practices.

  • It is not sociologists who dump toxic chemical waste in or near communities of color in quantities more than five times those dumped in areas in which there are all-white communities.

  • Finally, it is not sociologists who use the DNA analysis of several sets of markers to generate “ethnic estimation” (in practice, a re-inscription of Linnaeus’ 1735 taxonomy of races) for forensic purposes and for the tailored development, marketing, and delivery of pharmaceuticals. Rather, it is mole-cular geneticists, biotechnology firms, and forensic scientists who are engaged in these practices. What sociologists should not do is blandly repeat the public pronouncements of “certain” human molecular geneticists while ignoring a hugely significant development of the sometimes-subtle re-insertion of race in the pharmaco-toxicology and pharmacogenomics literature.

    I would not expect Professor Webster necessarily to be aware of these developments, but before he asserts what “certain” contemporary biologists and geneticists have discovered and discarded, he needs to be certain he is aware of the fuller range of the literature of the last decade, in which the practical implications of the significant body of research on “ethnic estimation” using DNA markers is profoundly consequential.

    It will not suffice in a serious debate for social scientists to bury their heads in the sand, lifting them out only occasionally to incant the demonstrably false assertion that “science” has transcended race—citing only “certain geneticists.” A full review of the contemporary literature and the current debates about the use of the concepts of ethnicity and race in biomedical and forensic research will reveal that many of the key researchers and practitioners in this domain often confuse and conflate the genetic with the biological and the cultural. Anyone who asserts that race is a dead issue in genetics and biomedical research is completely unaware of the current smoldering concerns of the vanguard work with the emerging Haplotype Map of the Human Genome Project. It is the sociologist’s legitimate role to assess and evaluate the effects of these practices.

    With Webster, I urge my colleagues to read the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on “Race”( and to compare it with the ASA statement on race: ( The AAA statement characterizes the unhappy history of the uses and abuses of the concept but stops short of recommending what implications there are for contemporary social science research. In that sense, the ASA statement can easily be read as an invaluable complement, even necessary sequel, to the anthropologists’ statement.

    Troy Duster, New York University;