No, no, there's an "L" in the first word of this year's ASA theme...
So, it was more or less inevitable that I would get around to writing a post about this year's ASA theme "Public Sociology." The particular timing of this post, however, is a consequence of my finally banging out a new version of that paper that's been the bane of my existence for the past two months, the speech delivered by Mathieu Deflem at the ASAs, Michael Burrawoy's presidential speech and the recent post by Nick over on the newly born blog Public Sociology.
As a side note to the Public Sociology folks: With all the hubbub about the coming of the Public Sociology blog, I was expecting it to cure syphilis or something when it finally appeared. So far I have detected no healing powers whatsoever, (Not that I, you know, have syphilis) although I guess that annoying whistling when I breathe finally vanished. Should I expect something more when the next iteration (Public Sociology 2.0?) appears? Just busting your chops for the hell of it, folks, welcome to the blogosphere.
As I was saying, for a variety of reasons I decided to go ahead and comment on the whole public sociology issue. Now, as many of you might have guessed, I did not go to this ASA with a sense of joy and fellowship in my heart for the public sociology camp. No, fair readers, I went with malice in my heart. Malice! I was not someone who particularly approved of public sociology, and wanted nothing to do with the "movement."
As another side note: I feel a little weird calling it a movement. My understanding of the demographics of this thing make it resemble a coup d'etat much more than a movement, but that really isn't the point. Seeing how many times I can cram these "side notes" into a single post IS.
Since the ASAs, however, I have mellowed somewhat on this position. I still want little to do with public sociology, aside from the incoherent rambling of this blog, but I am at least more accepting of the presence of public sociology as a goal, or segment, or whatever the fuck it is, within the discipline. The reason for my rather slight change of heart can really be attributed to Burrawoy's presidential speech.
For those who weren't there, the big B managed to deliver what was simultaneously an interesting, and amusing, oratory. I won't go into the full details (and not just because my memory is slightly less than eidetic) except to sum up the nifty little two-by-two table President B used to illustrate his point.
This table included four groups that were supposed to represent the important sectors of sociology. The first of these sectors was identified as the "professional" section, and includes those sociologists who focus on research, often simply for the sake of knowledge, and largely restrict their attention to the academy. It seems that this group is the primary resistance to the proponents of public sociology, and is the most significant target in public sociology's campaign of world domination.
The second sector on President B's table was for the "policy" sociologists. This sector was rather hazily defined, but I think my interpretation is that policy sociologists are also research oriented, but they construct their research to more directly answer specific social and political problems. Thus, research on global inequality might fall into the professional sector, but research on how to alleviate the affects of this inequality in newly industrializing nations might be policy sociology. We might also think of this as "applied" sociology, as opposed to "theoretical" or "research" sociology.
As a side note: (Ha! Another one!) How many times do you think I can put completely normal terms in quotation marks before it gets "annoying?"
The third sector was for the now-infamous "public" sociology. In the context of Burrawoy's speech, this would seem to be a sector that is engaged in an active process of discussion with society at large. It's tempting to label this as the public relations or educational cadre of sociology, but I don't think that would fully encompass Burrawoy's intent.
Finally, the fourth sector is accounted for by "critical" sociology. Now, I think in this case Burrawoy might have been struggling to find a fourth sector so as to satisfy his obsessive love of two-by-two tables. I say this because my understanding is that this sector is not "critical" in the sense of being full of critical, or Marxist, theory. No, I think in this case "critical" refers to the post-modern or deconstructionist factions within sociology. I have difficulty accepting such a sector, since I have a passionate distaste for post-modernism, but such is a topic for another day. For now, I will labor to avert my gaze from the critical sector and just assume there's something in it worth having around.
Now, Burrawoy made two good points about this little four-way configuration of sectors. The first point is that there is a useful and even necessary role for each of them within the greater enterprise of sociology. To start with, the professional sociologists provide the necessary basic research that any science requires to thrive. As such their separation from practical concerns may actually be somewhat desirable, in that it allows a focus on abstract issues the utility of which may not be immediately apparent.
The policy sociologists can take elements of that abstract material and combine it with their own work to produce solutions for real problems and make a real difference in the world. At the same time, professional sociologists can absorb concepts from the policy sector, both because it will inevitably contain ideas that the "professionals" don't have, and because the "policys" are engaged in real attempts to validate the more abstract material.
The public sociologists act both to bring the findings of the professionals and policys to a wider audience, and try to inject the reactions and insights of that audience back into the research-intensive sectors of sociology. In a sense, then, public sociologists act as mediators between various levels of pure scientist, or social engineers, and the actual social bodies we're all supposedly concerned with.
Finally, the "critical" sociologists are responsible for annoying the beejezus out of the rest of us by constantly picking at our assumptions and intellectual foundations. This is not to say that our assumptions and foundations are necessarily flawed (though sometimes they are) but rather that we can usually benefit from a somewhat hostile force that keeps us honest.
In concert, these four sectors of sociology comprise the totality of a scientific discipline. Both abstract theoretical and concrete practical aspects of inquiry are covered, and sympathetic and antagonistic sectors that mediate between the public and the ivory tower are provided. Further, Burrawoy would seem to argue that each sector shares primacy in the discipline, rather than any one of them being a hegemonic power. Personally, I have a difficult time imagining the critical sector achieving anything like equality with the other three, but I have deep prejudices towards that area. So, much like the Science brothers from yesterday, we can achieve more because the other sectors of sociology exist.
Burrawoy made a second point, though, even if I'm not sure he meant to make it. After discussing these sectors and the need for all of them, he observed that there would inevitably be tension and conflict among them. That's definitely the case. Despite the very clear sense in which they DO all fit together, there's also a very real sense in which we are all incredibly arrogant little snots. Folks in professional sociology will get annoyed with the policy types, who will no doubt seem vulgar. Similarly, the policy people can be forgiven for the exasperation they feel at the professionals and their absurd, abstract concerns. The publics will almost definitely grow weary of constantly arguing that the public has something useful to offer to research, not to mention the hardship of trying to sing the gospel of sociology beyond the academy. Finally, the criticals are just that... critical. They're like Marine Corps drill sergeants: they may motivate others to become more than they thought possible, but they aren't going to make any friends doing it.
The funny thing is, the tension is probably what will made the entire system work. I've said this before but conflict and tension are often far more valuable than are consensus and harmony.
As a side note: (Heh, heh, heh) That's the second time I've referred to my own blog in this one entry. If this post gets any more self-involved, it's going to collapse under the weight of its own navel-gazing and acquire an event horizon.
Despite the fact that each sector has a very impotant job to do (and we would benefit from recognizing that) we also benefit from the fact that we don't always get along. This constant process of trying to escape each other, at the same time that we rely on each other, provides a sort of friction that can wear off our rough edges and form us into a smoother, more coherent whole. (Must... resist... sexual metaphor!) If we all agreed all the time there'd be no reason to grow. If the professionals weren't hauled back to Earth, they definitely would wander off into useless abstraction like some other disciplines have. If the policys didn't have the professionals, they would get so mired in specifics, they'd forget the bigger picture. Without the publics, we'd all lose touch with reality and without the criticals (god, this is hard for me to say) we'd become a wee bit too sure of ourselves. This system can work precisely because there will be conflict and tension and we should be pleased that such elements are present. This also implies that, even if we are going to fight, it's in none of our best interests to eject any of the others from the discipline. That goes for the professional old guard and the young turk publics as much as anyone else. We will not all be professional sociologists, no matter what some people may want, but likewise we will not all be public sociologists, no matter how often we're told how neat-o it is.
As a side note: (Yippee!) In the interests of that necessary and productive conflict within sociology, I'd like to very professionally tell the critical sociology sector to bite me.
So, with all this in mind, I have come to think that Public Sociology is probably not a bad thing after all. Really. It's not my thing, and I have little interest in doing it, but I don't have a problem with its presence, so long as it doesn't try to overpower the rest of us in the discipline. Ultimately, every science needs to publicize its findings, and we're no different in that. It is, perhaps, unusual that we're thinking about constructing a dialogue where the public can add to our work, but perhaps that's just one of the unique things about sociology. When a physicist studies an electron, there isn't a great deal that the general public can really add. On the other hand, we don't study electrons. We study social systems, and with a subject matter like that, perhaps there is some benefit in inviting the public to talk back. I don't know how much benefit, since the public frequently has an even worse idea of what's going on than we do, but still there is some benefit to be had. There's no need for this process to be threatening to any of us, and it can definitely do some good.
Now, that being said, I don't think the majority of the opposition to public sociology came out of a fear of the public. Rather, I think the opposition stemmed more from the recent use of the ASA as a political platform. These are, however, separable issues, and we can discuss the concept of politicizing the ASA some other time. Like... next week, maybe? Sounds like fun to me. In the meantime, I give the Drek seal of indifference-shading-to-approval to public sociology in its non-political form, and look forward to seeing what this revolutionary cabal can do.
As for Mathieu Deflem, who I saw speak at the ASAs, I agree with some of his points, and agree with some of his conclusions, but have largely come to disagree with most of what he said. I would, however, suggest to him (should he somehow come across this blog) that he will be much more convincing if he can get his temper under control. Nobody enjoys being yelled at but, more importantly, nobody listens to someone who is yelling at them. How do I suggest Deflem accomplish this task? I have only one suggestion: decaf.