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The Arrogance of Public Sociology

From: Social Forces
Volume 82, Number 4, June 2004
pp. 1639-1643 | 10.1353/sof.2004.0097

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Social Forces 82.4 (2004) 1639-1643

Charles R. Tittle

North Carolina State University

My job is to introduce a little tension into an otherwise harmonious system. Public sociology, along with its cousin policy sociology, are currently very popular. My guess is that the vast majority of the audience is in agreement with Burawoy's call for an enlargement of public sociology. And I suspect that most people in the U.S. today who call themselves sociologists somehow want to be molders of society. It is important, therefore, to challenge some issues implied by the call for more public sociology.

Yet, criticizing Burawoy's argument in a cogent way is difficult because his position is not entirely clear. Because what he means by "public sociology" is somewhat problematic, almost anything I say can be countered by a disclaimer that the object of my comment is not, in fact, part of his position or that it is not what he meant. Nevertheless, I will react to what I understand his points to be and to what I interpret his statements about public sociology to imply.

As I understand it, Burawoy argues that (1) public sociology bears an interactive and mutually stimulating relationship with other forms of sociology, particularly what he calls "professional sociology," (2) public sociology is a desirable activity to be encouraged; indeed, that it is vital to the health of the entire sociological enterprise, (3) public sociology depends on a base of strong professional sociology and that the two are not fundamentally incompatible. Further, from his remarks here and from his writings, I gather that public sociology encompasses many things, including: (1) engagement in political activities to promote somebody's conception (I guess his) of social justice, (2) actively revealing to nonprofessional audiences the knowledge that sociologists think they have or the truths they think they know, (3) orienting our research and writing around moral issues, (4) engaging the public in debate about moral questions based on sociological insights, and (5) helping various "publics" solve problems or gather information relevant to their concerns, or helping to create such publics.

If my interpretation of the meaning of "public sociology" is correct, then a program encouraging sociologists to become more "public" would appear to be a mistake. In my opinion, "public sociology" (1) involves some false assumptions, (2) endangers what little legitimacy sociology has, thereby helping to undermine the chances of sociological knowledge ever being taken seriously in public arenas, and (3) is, in fact, incompatible with good "professional sociology." Moreover, urging "public sociology" is contrary to one of the bases of a good society that Burawoy would probably endorse — participation on a more or less equal basis by all citizens.

Before setting forth my reasoning about these matters, I want to make it clear that I believe in the power of morality. I believe that moral questions are and ought to be at the center of human life, and that moral education is highly desirable. I take a back seat to no one in concerns for human suffering or the state of contemporary societies. Moreover, I believe that sociology and other social sciences hold the promise of providing information and insights that ultimately can be used to manipulate social conditions. My complaint with public sociology does not stem from lack of feeling or from lack of concern about the human condition. Rather, it flows from what I regard as defects in the notion itself.

First, public sociology appears to embrace some dubious assumptions. Advocates seem to think that what is "socially just" is clear and easily agreed upon among people with good will or sociological training. Actually, almost every social issue involves moral dilemmas, not moral clarity. What is or is not "just" is almost never unambiguous. Two examples will illustrate the point. In one of his writings Burawoy lists preventing the spread of disease as one of the goals of a just society and therefore one to be pursued by "public" sociologists. On a superficial level, most people would readily agree. Preventing diseases, however, often involves restrictions on human freedom and hard decisions about allocation of scare products or services. During the rise of the AIDS epidemic, for...

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