Public sociology

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Public sociology refers to an approach to the discipline which seeks to transcend the academy in order to engage with wider audiences. It is perhaps best understood as a style of sociology rather than a particular method, theory, or set of political values. Michael Burawoy contrasted it with professional sociology, a form of academic sociology that is concerned primarily with addressing other professional sociologists.

Burawoy and other promoters of public sociology have sought to encourage the discipline to engage in explicitly public and political ways with issues stimulated by debates over public policy, political activism, the purposes of social movements, and the institutions of civil society. If there has been a "movement" associated with public sociology, then, it is one that has sought to revitalize the discipline of sociology by leveraging its empirical methods and theoretical insights to engage in debates not just about what is or what has been in society, but about what society might yet be. Thus, many versions of public sociology have had an undeniably normative[1] and political character—a fact that has led a significant number of sociologists to oppose the approach.[2]


The term "public sociology" was first introduced by Herbert Gans, in a 1988 address entitled "Sociology in America: The Discipline and the Public." For Gans, primary examples of public sociologists included David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd, one of the best-selling books of sociology ever to be written, and Robert Bellah, the lead author of another best-selling work, Habits of the Heart. In 2000, sociologist Ben Agger wrote a book entitled Public Sociology: From Social Facts to Literary Acts which called for a sociology that addressed major public issues. Since Michael Burawoy's 2004 Presidency of the American Sociological Association on a public sociology platform the phrase has received a great deal of attention and debate.

Debates over public sociology have rekindled questions concerning the extra-academic purpose of sociology. Public sociology raises questions about what sociology is and what its goals ought to (or even could) be. Such debates - over science and political advocacy, scholarship and public commitment - have a long history in American sociology and in American social science more generally. Historian Mark C. Smith, for instance, has investigated earlier debates over the purpose of social science in his book, Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose,1918-1941 (Duke University Press, 1994). And Stephen Park Turner and Jonathan H. Turner showed how the discipline's search for a purpose, through dependence on external publics, has limited Sociology's potential in their book, The Impossible Science: An Institutional Analysis of American Sociology (Sage, 1990).

Public sociology today[edit]

While there is no one definition of "public sociology", the term has come to be widely associated with Burawoy's particular perspective of sociology. Burawoy's personal statement for the ASA elections provides a succinct summary of his position: "As mirror and conscience of society, sociology must define, promote and inform public debate about deepening class and racial inequalities, new gender regimes, environmental degradation, market fundamentalism, state and non-state violence. I believe that the world needs public sociology - a sociology that transcends the academy - more than ever. Our potential publics are multiple, ranging from media audiences to policy makers, from silenced minorities to social movements. They are local, global, and national. As public sociology stimulates debate in all these contexts, it inspires and revitalizes our discipline. In return, theory and research give legitimacy, direction, and substance to public sociology. Teaching is equally central to public sociology: students are our first public for they carry sociology into all walks of life. Finally, the critical imagination, exposing the gap between what is and what could be, infuses values into public sociology to remind us that the world could be different."[3]

Elsewhere, Burawoy has articulated a vision of public sociology that is consonant with the pursuit of democratic socialism. In Critical Sociology, Burawoy writes: "We might say that critical engagement with real utopias is today an integral part of the project of sociological socialism. It is a vision of socialism that places human society, or social humanity at its organizing center, a vision that was central to Marx but that was too often lost before it was again picked up by Gramsci and Polanyi (Burawoy, 2003b). If public sociology is to have a progressive impact it will have to hold itself continuously accountable to some such vision of democratic socialism."[4]

In a slightly different vein, Burawoy and Jonathan VanAntwerpen of the University of California, Berkeley write that their departmental focus on public sociology aims to "turn, as C. Wright Mills would say, private concerns into public issues". The public sociology produced at Berkeley is an attempt to intervene in ongoing public debates over issues such as class and gender disparities and global inequality. Some of this work consists of attempts to refute high profile public scholarship in other fields and reclaim from non-sociologists the debate and explanation of sociological problems.

Likewise, the sociology department at the University of Minnesota also advocates claiming a larger role in public life: "Although good sociological research is often difficult to reduce to a sound-bite, sociologists have an important part to play in providing useful, accurate, and scientifically rigorous information to policy makers and community leaders."[5]

In the UK too, most institutions that provide BA or BSc Sociology degrees now advertise the public/applied nature of the curriculum and/or various key modules that form part of the curriculum: some particularly obvious examples here would include Birmingham City University, Queen Margaret University Edinburgh, Nottingham Trent University, University of Exeter, Cardiff University and Bishop Grosseteste University's newly established BA Sociology programme.

Sociologists have not been alone in debating the "public role" of social science. Similar debates have occurred recently in the disciplines of economics, political science, anthropology, geography and history, and various subdisciplines including political ecology. In an effort to move these various disciplines "toward a more public social science," Craig Calhoun, the President of the Social Science Research Council, has encouraged sociologists and other social scientists to "ask better social science questions about what encourages scientific innovation, what makes knowledge useful, and how to pursue both these agendas, with attention to both immediate needs and longterm capacities.[6] Calhoun has also entered the debate about public sociology, critically evaluating the project of public sociology while acknowledging its specific "promise," and arguing that "how sociology matters in the public sphere is vital to the future of the field".[7]

In the 2004 American Sociological Association Presidential Address for public sociology[8] Burawoy stipulates that the original passions such as, social justice, economic equality, human rights, political freedom or simply a better world to live in; that drives so many of us toward the discipline of sociology, is actually channelled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Also in this work, Burawoy maps out why he feels the appeal of public sociology is so important at this time. He feels that over the last half of the century the political stance of Sociology has drifted in one critical direction whilst the world it studies has moved in the opposite direction. Burawoy proposes that the radicalism of the 1960s diffused itself through the profession and consequently in however dilute form resulted in the increased presence and participation of racial minorities and women. This marked a significant drift in the 1960s that is felt to be echoed in the content of sociology at that time. Thus through this Burawoy marks some examples of this shift in the nature of the way sociology was being approached.

There are many examples of this shift for Burawoy, the study of the sociology of work had turned from processes of adaptation to the study of domination and labour movements. Also in a more general sense the concepts of stratification theory had shifted from the study of mobility within a hierarchy of occupational prestige to the examination of changing structures of social and economic inequality-class, race and gender. Race theory moved from theories of assimilation to the political economy to the study of racial formations. Social theory had allowed, and introduced more radical interpretations of main figurehead writers such as Weber and Durkheim, and also the incorporation of Marx's theory had become a feature; from this standpoint it was also felt that feminism had a both substantial and dramatic impact in certain fields of the subject.

This interpretation of the changes in ideology where sociology is concerned is said to be pulling in the opposite direction in terms of the world changing according to Burawoy. Whilst sociologists reiterate their jargon concerning the ever deepening crisis of inequality and domination; we as the public are flooded with the influx of rhetoric promoting equality and freedom. Burawoy highlights the concerns of a significant drift between the agenda of sociology and the progression of society itself when he acknowledges that over the last 25 years there may well have been gains in economic security and civil rights. However these gains have been heavily counter-acted and reversed by huge market expansion. From this perspective it is felt that the combination of market and state has served to be wielded as a mechanism working against humanity in the shape of what we should term neoliberalism.

There is the criticism that sociologists have become much more sensitive in their approach and focused negatively sometimes, although however, much of the evidence collected does suggest a certain amount of regression in several arenas. Much of these ideas are to be held together by the fabric and fundamental ethos that is hostile towards the idea of 'society'. This idea has antisociological implications in itself. A picture of public sociology versus privatisation begins to emerge through this discourse. Is the market the only solution? Burawoy's fundamental drive is fuelled by his desire to see the concept of public reignited in some way, and not allowed to be another casualty in the storm that has become progression. So for Burawoy the political era of the 1960s saw a shift in direction for the subject of sociology that was to conflict that of the changing nature of the world. Globalization and Privatisation seemed to play a key role in sociology losing its public voice. Burawoy wanted young academics taking on sociology as an interest, or in the shape of academia to use it in their everyday lives; thus fulfilling a certain criteria of pushing sociology's boundaries into the public realm. Burawoy has resonance of talking about public sociology that could be used a revolutionary force for understanding social change.

The future of public sociology[edit]

Following the 2004 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) at which public sociology was introduced and subsequently discussed, there has continued to be interest in the topic. In the last couple of years, numerous books and special issues have addressed public sociology, a few include: The "Public Sociologies Reader", edited by Judith Blau and Keri Iyall Smith; "Public Sociology: The Contemporary Debate", edited by Larry Nichols; and "Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century", edited by Dan Clawson, et al. The ASA meeting in New York City in 2007 likewise contained many facets of public sociology. Some articles presented include: "Constituting a Practical Public Sociology: Reflections on Participatory Research at the Citizenship Project"[9] by Paul Johnston; "1. A New Public Sociology of Punishment"[10] by Heather Schoenfeld; "What Do Activists Want? Public Sociology for Feminist Scholars of Reproduction"[11] by Danielle Bessett and Christine Morton; and "Developing a public sociology: from lay knowledge to civic intelligence in health impact assessment"[12] by Eva Elliott and Gareth Williams. A PhD thesis on public sociology entitled "Making sociology public: A critical analysis of an old idea and a recent debate", written by Lambros Fatsis, can also be recommended as a critical overview of the public sociology debate Contemporary developments include "e-public sociology" a form of public sociology that involves publishing sociological materials in online accessible spaces and subsequent interaction with publics in these spaces.[13]


A significant number of those who practice sociology either as public intellectuals or as academic professionals do not subscribe to the specific version of "public sociology" defended by Michael Burawoy or to any version of "public sociology" at all. And in the wake of Burawoy's 2004 Presidency of the American Sociological Association, which put the theme of public sociology in the limelight, the project of public sociology has been vigorously debated on the web, in conversations among sociologists, and in a variety of academic journals.

Specifically, Burawoy's vision of public sociology has been critiqued both by "critical" sociologists and by representatives of academic sociology. These various discussions of public sociology have been included in forums devoted to the subject in academic journals such as Social Problems, Social Forces, Critical Sociology, and the British Journal of Sociology [1]. Public sociology faces fierce criticism on the grounds of both of its logic and its goals. Its critics claim that it is based on a false premise of consensus in the sociological community, arguing that "it greatly overestimates the uniformity of the moral and political agenda of sociologists." [14] They question the possibility and the desirability of such moral agreement, pointing out that "almost every social issue involves moral dilemmas, not moral clarity. What is or is not 'just' is almost never unambiguous.".[2] Others argue that public sociology is based on an uncritical and overly idealistic perception of the public sphere.[15]

Even stronger critiques come from academics who believe that the program of public sociology will unduly politicise the discipline and thus endanger the legitimacy sociology has in the public dialog.[2] These critics argue that the project of building a reliable body of knowledge about society is fundamentally incompatible with the goals of public sociology: "To the extent that we orient our work around moral principles, we are less likely to attend to theoretical issues. The greater the extent to which we favor particular outcomes, the less able are we to design our work to actually access such outcomes. And the more ideologically oriented our objectives, the less the chance that we can recognize or assimilate contrary evidence. In other words, rather than good professional sociology being mutually interactive with public sociology, I believe that public sociology gets in the way of good professional sociology." [2]

One outspoken critic of public sociology was sociologist Mathieu Deflem of the University of South Carolina, who wrote various papers against public sociology and argued that public sociology:

"is neither public nor sociology. Public sociology is not a plea to make sociology more relevant to the many publics in society nor to connect sociology democratically to political activity. Of course sociologists should be public intellectuals. But they should be and can only be public intellectuals as practitioners of the science they practice, not as activists left or right. Yet public sociology instead is a quest to subsume sociology under politics, a politics of a specific kind, not in order to foster sociological activism but to narrow down the sociological discipline to activist sociology."[16]

In opposition to public sociology, Deflem used to maintain the website,

Applied sociology[edit]

"Applied sociology" and "sociological practice" has come to refer to intervention using sociological knowledge in an applied setting. Applied sociologists work in a wide variety of settings including universities, government, and private practice, using sociological methods to help communities solve everyday problems, such as improving community policing and crime prevention, evaluating and improving drug courts, assessing the needs of inner city neighborhoods, developing the capacity of an educational system, or promoting the development of housing and related resources for aging populations.[17]

Sociological practice is different from pure academic sociology in which sociologists work in an academic setting such as a university with a teaching and pure research orientation. Although there are some common origins, sociological practice is entirely distinct from social work.[18] An increasing number of universities are attempting to gear curricula toward practical sociology in this way. Clinical sociology courses give students the skills to be able to work effectively with clients, teach basic counseling skills, give knowledge that is useful for careers such as victims assisting and drug rehabilitation, and teach the student how to integrate sociological knowledge with other fields they may go into such as marriage and family therapy, and clinical social work.

As defined by the Applied Social Sciences Forum (ASSF), applied Social Science (ASS) seeks to highlight the processes of social and political transformation taking place in a particular society. It is characterized by the operational aspect of the knowledge it produces. Unlike pure academic knowledge, applied social sciences try to steer the debate towards scientific priorities of social and political reform and accompanying social transformations. From this point of view, the applied social sciences can be seen as complementary knowledge that enrich both the action and the academic sciences.[19]

The objectives of ASS are to deepen reflection on practical issues related to their objective, to support the major decision making in society and enable researchers to support their knowledge and enrich the range of possible solutions.[20]

The "action research" is the framework of choice for applied social sciences. Action research can be defined here as a process that involves further intervention by the researcher beyond the return of a single diagnostic assay type, or inventory.

The researcher may, in this way, have several hats within the same search:

  • A role of developer issues, logical actions and issues of different actors,
  • An expert who accompanies the action from his methodology and science role
  • A facilitator role pilot working groups and aims, as and when the progress of its work, its analyzes to confront the realities of stakeholders power feed,
  • A mediator who brings out back and speak different stakeholders of an action system
  • A role of facilitator who can help build collective courses of action relevant while remaining outside issues discussed.

The methodological tools of the SSA are:

  • Qualitative approaches (different types of interviews and / or collective)
  • Quantitative methods using questionnaires and / or literature searches, data processing statistics
  • The analysis of practices
  • Action research
  • Participatory methods

Notable applied and clinical sociologists[edit]

  • Jane Addams
  • John G. Bruhn
  • Elizabeth J. Clark
  • Jonathan A. Friedman
  • Jan M. Fritz
  • C. Margaret Hall
  • Rand L. Kannenberg
  • Abdelwahab Ben Hafaiedh
  • Roger A. Straus
  • Lester F. Ward

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hanemaayer, A., & Schneider, C.J. (eds) (2014). The Public Sociology Debate: Ethics and Engagement." Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press
  2. ^ a b c d Tittle, Charles. 2004. "The Arrogance of Public Sociology". Social Forces, June 2004, 82(4).
  3. ^ Burawoy, M. 2004 American Sociological Association Presidential address: For public sociology. American Sociological Review, 2005, Vol. 70, Issue 1, 4-28.
  4. ^ Burawoy, Michael: "The Critical Turn to Public Sociology", Critical Sociology, Summer 2005.
  5. ^ "The Engaged Department: Public Sociology in the Twin Cities" by Ronald Aminzade, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Footnotes nov. 2004.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Calhoun, C. 2004 "The promise of public sociology". The British Journal of Sociology, 2005, Vol. 56, Issue 3, 355-363.
  8. ^ Burawoy, M. 2004 "2004 American Sociological Association Presidential address: For public sociology" The British Journal of Sociology, 2005, Vol. 56, Issue 2, pages 259–294.
  9. ^ Johnston, Paul. "Constituting a Practical Public Sociology: Reflections on Participatory Research at the Citizenship Project" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, TBA, New York, New York City, Aug 11, 2007. 2011-06-09
  10. ^ Schoenfeld, Heather. "1. A New Public Sociology of Punishment" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), TBA, New York, New York City, Aug 11, 2007. 2011-06-09
  11. ^ Bessett, Danielle. and Morton, Christine. "What Do Activists Want? Public Sociology for Feminist Scholars of Reproduction" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, TBA, New York, New York City, Aug 11, 2007. 2011-06-09
  12. ^ Elliott, Eva. and Williams, Gareth. "Developing a public sociology: from lay knowledge to civic intelligence in health impact assessment" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, TBA, New York, New York City, Aug 11, 2007. 2011-06-09
  13. ^ Schneider, C.J. (2014). Social Media and e-Public Sociology. In Ariane Hanemaayer and Christopher J. Schneider, editors, The Public Sociology Debate: Ethics and Engagement, University of British Columbia Press: 205-224.
  14. ^ Francois Nielsen. 2004. "The Vacant 'We': Remarks on Public Sociology." Social Forces, Vol. 82, No. 4 (Jun., 2004), pp. 1619-1627
  15. ^ Brady, David. 2004. "Why Public Sociology May Fail." Social Forces, Vol. 82, No. 4 (Jun., 2004), pp. 1629-1638
  16. ^ Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. "The Proper Role of Sociology in the World at Large" (letter to the editor), The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 1.
  17. ^ Straus, Roger A, Preface in Price, Jammie, Straus, Roger and Breese, Jeffrey, editors, In Doing Sociology. Case Studies in Sociological Practice, Rowman & Littlefield (2009), ISBN 978-0-7391-3395-8
  18. ^ Straus, Roger A, Using Sociology: An Introduction From The Applied and Clinical Perspectives Third Edition. Rowman & Littlefield (2002), ISBN 0-7425-1662-8.
  19. ^ The Applied Social Science Forum website -
  20. ^ Abdelwahab Ben Hafaiedh: The Applied Social Science today - Tunisian Association of Sociology - Tunis 2001 p 23

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]