April 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 4

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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

Public Sociology Is Not Community Organizing

Some quixotic members of our profession have fostered an image of the public sociologist as a romantic swashbuckler—the sociologist as community organizer or public policy guru. In an article appearing in Academic Matters and Inside Higher Ed, a Canadian sociologist suggests a more realistic alternative to these charades. Robert Brym’s "Why I Teach Intro" is an elegant endorsement of teaching as a genre of public sociology.

The truth is that most sociologists who promote these activist fantasies are wannabes. Self-delusion, however, is not limited to this discipline; these reveries are perhaps even more widespread in departments of literature and cultural studies. Only those who have spent their entire adult lives in academic monasteries are naïve enough to see community organizing and public policy advocacy as leisure-time activities.

Last week I spent two days meeting with Minnesota legislative leaders. Recently, I exchanged e-mails about legislative strategy with the Speaker of the House. Last evening I testified at a legislative town hall meeting in Woodbury. Yet, I harbored no illusion that I was practicing a profession. I was merely being a good citizen and, by my definition, a public sociologist. I encourage sociologists to engage in citizenship whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. However, do not delude yourself by conflating citizenship with what Max Weber called "politics as a vocation."

Before becoming an academic, I spent 20 years mastering the craft of community organizing. I spent those years learning to mentor leaders, build organizations, research issues, develop strategies and tactics, speak and write for public audiences, and exercise political moxie. Drawing upon the work of the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, I now chart that half of my adult life as an experiential learning process, a slow and anxiety-ridden progression from novice to master.

Dreyfus has spent nearly 30 years refining a typology of skill acquisition that has applicability to everything from basketball and chess to intellectual dexterity and professional practice. He structures the learning process into a useful continuum of six stages. Mastery is a gradual transition from rigidly following rules to an intuitive mode of reasoning that resembles Aristotle’s concept of "practical wisdom." To successfully advance through the first three stages requires only the limited commitment of a layperson. This first package of skill acquisition describes the civic repertoire of a reasonably competent citizen. Moving through the last three stages requires a deep allegiance to craft and an apprenticeship to one or more masters.

In other words, if you desire to practice politics as a vocation give up tenure, find a mentor or two, and embed yourself in a couple of grassroots organizations for a decade or so. If not, then perhaps a more humble definition of public sociologist is in order.

While there are a variety of venues for this modest rendition of public sociology, Michael Burawoy has identified the one skill that best suits most sociologists: "Students are our first public." Anyone with aspirations as a public sociologist should first dedicate themselves to the craft of teaching as a vocational calling. Dreyfus provides a guide for those perplexed about the requisite skill acquisition.

Brym, a University of Toronto professor, has made a poignant case for humility when professing public sociology—becoming a masterful teacher is virtue enough:

"I am delighted when [students] tell me that a lecture helped them see how patterned social relations shape what they can become in this particular historical context. On such occasions I know that I have taught them something about limits and potential—their own and that of their society. Teaching intro thus allows me to discharge the public responsibility that, according to Burawoy and others, should be part of every sociologist’s repertoire."

Monte Bute, Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis-St. Paul, is active with his statewide faculty union and frequently writes op-ed essays for daily newspapers.

Sociology and Public Policy

Why should sociologists care about public policy? Too often public policy is understood as an overly technical and even technocratic field of inquiry that is distinct from, and even less valuable than, an inquiry into broad theoretical issues or empirical shifts. I seek to debunk the myth that good sociology and public policy should remain separated. Sociologists are in a good position to provide useful policy advice at a time when the United States is wrestling with an economic crisis that has dire social consequences.

There are six general reasons why sociologists should take public policy seriously. First, from a historical standpoint, key founders of our discipline had clear policy objectives, and they played a central role in the policy debates of their time. For example, Émile Durkheim wrote extensively about education reform under France’s Third Republic. More recently, prominent sociologists like Frances Fox Piven, Paul Starr, and William Julius Wilson have taken a stance in major policy debates about issues ranging from gender equality and race relations to tax and health care policy.

Second, the expansion of state power since the 19th century means that, today, public policy is literally everywhere. From this perspective, it is impossible to study social processes without explicitly taking into account the changing role of the state and, more importantly, the reconfigurations of the relationship between the state and other social institutions. The state is involved in all aspects of our lives, and public policy is an essential component of the "big picture" sociologists seek to understand.

Third, there is a growing consensus within and beyond our discipline that globalization has not strongly weakened the potential role of national states in society and policy development. Yet, the contemporary debate on globalization stresses the need to take into account the role of transnational actors and processes in policymaking. Our discipline is in a privileged position to shape the contemporary debates on the intersection of national and transnational policy actors and processes. In the future, greater involvement of North American sociologists in international scholarly and policy forums could help to reshape future national and global policy agendas.

Fourth, with the growing interest in "public sociology," it is becoming easier to move the relationship between sociology and public policy beyond the technocratic model that dominated the post-war era. But while recognizing that our policy positions are related to power relations, sociologists do not necessarily have to embrace a purely partisan approach. This is because the best we have to offer is the unique perspective of our discipline and its capacity to inform policy debates alongside other disciplinary perspectives.

Fifth, studying policy issues from a sociological perspective is fulfilling the promise of what C. Wright Mills called the "sociological imagination." For him, sociological imagination is about understanding the relationship between apparently private troubles like losing one’s job and public issues like unemployment—a collective problem. Because the social construction of public problems is a major aspect of both policy and sociological debates, sociology unavoidably deals with policy issues. From a historical standpoint, as Robert Nisbet suggests in The Sociological Tradition, sociology emerged partly as an alternative to (or, at least, as a corrective to the individualistic worldview associated with) modern economics. Today, among the social sciences, economics remains the dominant perspective in most policy debates. Meanwhile, in such debates, sociologists are not as visible as they could be.

Sixth, interdisciplinary policy research is both relevant and legitimate, as long as we understand that disciplinary traditions are here to stay, and that the perspectives they offer must complement one another in order to make citizens and policymakers more aware of the challenges and opportunities they face. As a consequence of their participation in broad policy debates, sociologists can become more relevant without necessarily losing their identity as scholars.

Overall, by understanding the history of our discipline, the enduringly central role of the state in contemporary societies, and the potentially important contribution of the sociological perspective on major policy debates, we should no longer think of public policy as a purely technical and, therefore, inferior topic. In the end, through the analysis of policy issues related to the "big picture," our discipline can achieve a crucial element of the "sociological imagination."

Daniel Béland, Canada Research Chair in Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan; www.danielbeland.org

Human Rights and Sociology

Sally Hillsman (Vantage Point, January 2008 Footnotes) rightly commends the ASA’s expressions of interest in—and activities in support of—human rights in recent years, especially the 100th-anniversary statement and the founding of the Science and Human Rights Coalition through the AAAS.

However, I would urge that sociologists not focus on too narrow a subset of human rights but recognize their full breadth. Hillsman’s column briefly mentions social and economic rights but concentrates mainly on the right of free inquiry and scholarship. These are universal rights and the Association should promote them, but, let’s face it, they also correspond to our mutual self-interest as scholars and academics. The great majority of the world’s population have their human rights violated in ways that are far more grave.

The human rights tradition, enshrined in the Universal Declaration and the two principal human rights covenants—The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—embraces a full range of economic and social rights to a decent standard of living; education; employment with living wages and safe working conditions; freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, and other proscribed criteria; participation in cultural life; and many others.

It is important that these rights be part of the Association’s advocacy of human rights, especially because we as sociologists have special expertise on many of these human rights issues and can point to ways in which they are violated and policies to improve their fulfillment. Granted, the covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights explicitly recognizes that not all states have the material conditions to realize them fully. The shortfalls in virtually every country in the world should still be documented by research, and the conditions that allegedly impede their fulfillment should be constantly evaluated and questioned.

As sociologists, we are also well aware of the strong tendency in human societies for people to affirm their particular needs and desires as universal principles. We should be concerned with the human rights that benefit all people in the world, not just those that happen to correspond to our class interest.

John L. Hammond, Hunter College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Are You an Advocate?

"Isn’t it true, Dr. Squires, that you are an advocate?"

As an occasional expert for plaintiffs in fair housing lawsuits this is a question I almost always get during depositions. The implication, of course, is that as an advocate I am less knowledgeable, more biased, and less credible than the experienced, informed, and, most importantly, objective representatives of the defendant. Consequently, judges and juries should dismiss any input I might provide.

This is a widespread but rather peculiar framing of these issues when one considers that it is the defendant who in fact is the most biased and is the strongest advocate of their own self-interest in these proceedings.

Like many experts in such proceedings, I am a college professor. My financial self-interest is served primarily through writing articles and books for refereed publications. The implied motivation for my testimony is unlikely, given that if my work is viewed as biased or the posturing of an advocate, I will be less likely to get my work published and any increase in my compensation from my university will be reduced as a result.

So while it may be the case that all of us have our subjective perspectives on various matters, the academic occupation demands, more than most, that I at least strive for objectivity in my work. That is not the case for a defendant in a fair housing lawsuit. (Plaintiffs, of course, have a partisan interest but the work of their experts is of no value to them if it is viewed simply as advocacy.)

This question recently came up again when I was deposed as an expert for the plaintiff in a discrimination case where an insurance company was accused of refusing to provide service to a community in part because of the ethnic composition of the residents of that community. Attorneys for the insurer asked me if I was an advocate. I acknowledged that I am in favor of strong enforcement of fair housing rules and responded that I assumed this makes me no more of an advocate than anyone else in the room.

I then pointed out that I was receiving an hourly fee for my work on this case that would not be affected at all by the outcome. On the other hand, I reminded my questioners that the insurer they represented had a major financial self-interest in the outcome and observed that, consequently, their client was the most subjective participant in these proceedings and the one whose objectivity should in fact be in question. They were representing the advocate. They then changed the line of questioning.

Litigation is an adversarial procedure. It is to be expected that defendants and plaintiffs in a lawsuit will strive to represent their interests. But the credibility of those who are incentivized primarily to pursue objective social science research and who favor effective enforcement of fair housing rules should not be discounted or discredited in favor of those whose financial self-interest is tied directly to the outcome of a particular case.

Gregory D. Squires is a professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University. logo_small


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