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The Executive Officer’s Column

Public Sociologies – An Agenda For Collaboration

At the close of the ASA Council meeting on February 2, several of us bid farewell saying, “See you next weekend in North Carolina.” We were eagerly anticipating the Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) winter meeting, held in Wrightville, NC, focusing on “how to be an effective feminist public intellectual.” ASA Council member Barbara J. Risman, North Carolina State University, is the SWS President. ASA Council member Jennifer Glass, Iowa State University, and ASA President-Elect Michael Burawoy would attend. I would be joined by ASA staff Carla Howery (a former SWS President), Jean Beaman, and Kerry Strand.

That weekend is now a mere memory but a stimulating one of a very energized gathering that drew twice the attendees as usual. If the SWS meeting theme has a familiar ring to it, that is because ASA President-Elect Michael Burawoy had independently chosen “Public Sociologies” as the theme for ASA’s 2004 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Indeed, the weekend following the SWS gathering, the 2004 Program Committee met to continue planning for that ASA meeting. As Robert K. Merton, my teacher and long-time generous colleague to so many of us, would remind us, serendipity is powerful. The ASA Program Committee benefited from ideas and names of colleagues coming from the SWS event, as the SWS event had benefited from our preliminary explorations of Burawoy’s chosen theme. The timing was obviously perfect. But when you add the convergence of groups on similar intellectual and professional issues and ideas, then you know good things are going to happen.

Burawoy has done more than announce a theme and await session ideas. He has been personally writing and speaking about his ideas, and listening to the responses. Several exchanges have appeared in Footnotes’ Public Forum (e.g., see December 2002, p. 6, and January, 2003, p. 8). He plans to participate in various state sociological society meetings (Pennsylvania and Georgia) and the Society for Applied Sociology.

Risman tapped Burawoy to speak at the SWS plenary session where he took issue with critics who lament the disappearance of public sociology, saying, “To be sure, the 1950s was an era of heroic public sociologists, of C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, and Daniel Bell, but they were few and far between. They were indeed heroic; it was after all the repressive era of McCarthyism!”

In particular, Burawoy challenged the views of Orlando Patterson’s New York Times obituary-tribute to David Reisman, titled “The Last Sociologist.” Calling Patterson’s vision an “elitist conception of public sociology,” Burawoy argued that “today we have to expand our horizons, and expand the meaning of public sociology to include a wide range of publics—not just the readership of national media, which is an amorphous, invisible, passive, public made up of strangers, but also the much thicker publics that must begin with our students, extending to local communities….” He reflected, “Indeed, the prototype of the public sociology of today is the feminist movement that first constituted its public, and then brought that public to self-awareness and mobilization. And in this view, SWS represents the archetypal mediator between professional and public sociology.” This stirring call permeated two days of workshops on speaking to the media, sharing research with policymakers, and giving back to the participants in ones’ studies.

While SWS has long been a part of my professional life, this was my first SWS meeting as ASA Executive Officer. How satisfying it was for me to be able to report on the actions of the ASA Council, of only a week before, to file a Supreme Court amicus brief in the University of Michigan case, bringing solid social science research on discrimination, diversity, and affirmative action to bear on an important legal case that may well be this generation’s equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education. How satisfying it was to see the ASA display table with a wide array of important scholarly and teaching materials, including, especially important in this context, sample copies of Contexts, our award-winning magazine that directly speaks to new publics.

SWS has been supportive of ASA’s initiatives. For years, SWS has made a donation to the ASA Minority Fellowship Program, and its members mentor a scholar who is selected for an award. SWS not only voted to join ASA’s amicus brief as a signatory but also made a contribution to defray the costs of its filing. Granted that by that North Carolina weekend in February I was a bit dazed, having just attended a long string of intense weekend meetings. But when I periodically became confused as to whether I was working at a particular moment on an ASA task force issue, with ASA Council members, with a regional association, or on an SWS project, the fuzziness evaporated as I realized the strong overlap in our people and our interests. Perhaps, as Durkheim noted, times of conflict bring us together. But there is more going on within sociology than a reactive stance. Sociologists are not waiting to be asked, not passively adopting a Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” attitude and merely sighing about it. In many of our overlapping circles we find that our ideas, evidence, and perspectives speak to other audiences about important ways of understanding the world. While we are not always in agreement as sociologists, we are going public about what we have to offer, and we are doing it together as sociologists.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer