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  • Southern windmill:the life and work of Edward Webster1
  • Michael Burawoy (bio)

It is exactly 50 years since C Wright Mills (1959) penned his rendition of the sociological imagination as the interplay of biography and history, or, more actively, as transforming private troubles into public issues. Given the currency of Mills's pithy formula, one might expect sociologists to be all the more conscious of the connection between their own biography and history, or between their own personal troubles and public issues. Yet sociologists can be most obtuse about their position in society, silent as to how their ideas are an expression of the world in which they live, and, thus, naïve about the limits and possibilities of changing that world. So often, it is as if their ideas soar above the context in which they are produced, as if their creativity is a unique and ineffable quality divorced from their own social worlds. Sociologists are guilty of what Alvin Gouldner (1970) once called methodological dualism - that sociological analysis is for the sociologised not for the sociologist who miraculously escapes the social forces that pin down and constrain everyone else.

This asymmetry applies to C Wright Mills himself who harboured all manner of illusions about his self-defined isolation at the margins of academia, unshaped by the forces he described. Moreover, he thought that the analysis of the link between social milieu in which people live and the social structure which shaped that milieu would spontaneously give rise to the transformation of personal troubles into public issues. In other words, he seemed to think that knowledge immaculately produces its own power effects. Although he did have political programmes they were divorced from his sociological analysis. He did not investigate the way sociological imagination has to be connected to political imagination via organisation, [End Page 1] institutions, and social movements if it is to contribute to social transformation. In the final analysis, he shared with the academics he criticised the illusion of the knowledge effect, and thus like them justified his separation and insulation from society.

In this paper I wish to suggest that, because it is a dominated sociology, Southern sociology more easily recognises its own place in society, which sets limits and creates possibilities for sociology's participation in social transformation. Moreover, sociological imagination is no guarantee of social transformation, the turning of personal troubles into public issues, as Mills implies, but this requires in addition a political imagination, forged through collective and collaborative practices with groups, organisations, movements beyond the academy. The expansion of Southern sociology depends on the dialectic of political and sociological imagination.

I will make this argument through the interrogation of the life and work of Edward Webster, one of South Africa's most distinguished sociologists. He is a perpetual motion machine - a windmill. A typical day in the life of Edward Webster might start out with a run on the golf course, interrupted by a conversation with local workers, then a debate on the radio with the head of the trade union federation, moving on to a meeting of SWOP (Sociology of Work Unit that he founded in 1983), and then to a lecture to SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) journalists, who are taking the two week course at the university, to the completion of a scholarly article, to a meeting with NUMSA (National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa) who want him to undertake research on workplace control. Perhaps during the day he will find some time to visit with his grandsons. He gets home late, energised by the day's activities, to be cooled out and debriefed by his wife, the renowned biographer and popular historian, Luli Callinicos.

What marks Webster's sociological practice is not just hyper-activity, but the intimate connection between his academic and his public lives: the one inseparable from the other. The Webster windmill takes in the winds of change - social, political and economic winds - and turns them into a prodigious intellectual engagement. As the winds intensify the windmill accelerates, generating ever higher voltage sociology. Sparks fly, igniting the political will as well as the sociological imagination of all those around him, and thus...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1726-1368
Print ISSN
0258-7696
Pages
pp. 1-25
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-19
Open Access
No
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