what is “public sociology?”


It’s now been a few years since Burawoy’s call for public sociology. I didn’t know what to think because I thought sociology already was public. Isn’t it enough to spend your time studying things like the outcomes of divorce? Or black-white income gaps? Doesn’t the public care about those topics?

Lately, I’ve been giving it some more thought. Here are some different versions of “public sociology” that I could imagine:

  1. Publicity: In this model, you don’t do anything different, but you just make a better effort at explaining yourself to people. “Newsworthiness” is your goal.
  2. Applied work: You switch from basic science research to policy driven work. Public sociology is sociology that tells you if program X makes a difference. If you take this view of public sociology seriously, then sociology quickly veers into social work and public policy studies.
  3. Problem advocacy: You use social science research techniques to draw attention to your personal causes.
  4. “Social problem” research: You do basic science, but on topics you deem politically relevant.
  5. Political selections of theory: I think this is closer to what Burawoy raises in “The Critical turn to Public Sociology.” You study the same things as other folks, but you substitute theories inspired by your political view. E.g, you dump stratification research and go to Marxian class analysis.

Now, as you can easily see, public sociology is complicated and each version has problems. Option #1 is the safest – you don’t really have to anything different, just ask your colleagues to drop the media relations office a line whenever you have a good paper coming out. However, it’s an option that reduces professional sociology to the occasional news headline and talk show clip. #2 is probably a non-starter – too much blurring of disciplinary boundaries. Too bad, a consistent discussion of policy would probably help sociologists get the public hearing economists take for granted. #3 seems dead on arrival if we take value neutrality to be a serious imperative.

#4 actually has a long and distinguished track record. DuBois was probably the most prominent person who pursued #4. Relevance was a key issue for him, but he wouldn’t do any project that didn’t meet the scientific standard of the day. He’s a hero to a lot people who wish to pursue technical advances while being relevant.

#5 is probably what upsets people like Mathieu Deflem, who claims that public sociology is the “fast food of social science.” It’s not hard to where the skepticism comes from – sociology has a really tough time convincing people it’s science. Any explicit linkage to a political agenda guarantees sociology’s relegation to the dustbin of politically charged scholarship. It also encourages people to spend time on political relevance when they should be thinking about normal science. And of course, if your views don’t match the politics of public sociology, you’ll be a very lonely scholar. There’s also the problem that our research findings often contradict our political views, which is a big problem for public sociology #5.

Personally, I see my self living in zones #1 and #4. I’ll gladly share the results of my research with the media, but I also think that it’s good to work on problems that have a normative dimension. We aren’t chemists who study lifeless atoms. We study ourselves. If we don’t derive some knowledge about the world that has moral relevance, we do a disservice to our subject of study.

Readers shouldn’t take this as a call to abandon technical work and run to the intellectual barricades. Instead, we should recognize the sources of our scientific concerns. Ultimately, we build contingency tables and block models to help us understand the world we’ve made. Judging that world is both a technical and ethical effort. Forgetting that our scientific efforts have these dual inspirations could lead us to the dreaded world of useless sociology.

Written by fabiorojas

July 13, 2007 at 12:31 am

Posted in academia, fabio, sociology

10 Responses

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  1. Great one Fabio!

    I, too, would like to subscribe to #1 through #4. However, the only fear I have of “Newsworthiness” is the “who is to blame” underpinning of network news. If “newsworthiness” hews the orthodox “documentary style” of promulgation, I am all for it.


    Brian Pitt

    July 13, 2007 at 1:00 am

  2. I think there are other types of public sociology that expand outside the boundaries of the five areas above.

    I personally see my site as part of the media. So I generally fit closest into #1, but for my it is not just about my own research, but sociological ideas and thinking in general. I see this form of public sociology as an extension of my teaching. I probably not going to ever have a research 1 career, and I don’t really want that, but I know my strength is in teaching. Thus, I see my website as not just about my own research, but promoting sociology (and ethnic and gender studies my other areas) more broadly and helping people access and digest sociolgical knowledge in a way that people in the mainstream media do not have the training to do.

    To me blogging is one of the best forms of public sociology, rather than going to the media to generate attention we become the media. Now this does require some changes in our approach, and it is not without it’s flaws.


    Rachel S.

    July 14, 2007 at 12:22 am

  3. When I came across that public sociology debate I wondered why in North America there was much more of an echo than here in Germany, and my hunch is that academic world and professional practice are much further apart. With seperate associations for the academic sociologists and for the practioners don’t get in each other’s way as much – but this lack of controversy also has its flipside, with academic teaching being very remote from the professional practice the undergrad sociologists should be getting prepared for and with professional associations having their discussions seperate from and uninformed about big issues in academic sociology.

    I liked Rachel’s comment on a blog’s function as media, but would like to make very explicit that it this media may also serve also research tool, as an empirical study tool, as a discusson forum for thesis or findings etc. and that interaction, social relations and structures online are the most natural thing for a sociologist to study. Contrary to a typical German academic perception blogging as a trivial activity, blogs ( & podcasting, videoblogs etc.) by academics and professional sociologists can be quite demanding in creating a public interested for one’s academic interests or object of research, and pls. correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I could observe it, sociology is still lagging far behind adjacent disciplines in creating its public.



    July 16, 2007 at 12:35 pm

  4. Tina said, “but would like to make very explicit that it this media may also serve also research tool, as an empirical study tool, as a discusson forum for thesis or findings etc. and that interaction, social relations and structures online are the most natural thing for a sociologist to study.”

    Yeah, I think that is a good point, and how the blog leans tends (more toward teaching more toward research) is influenced by what the blogger and any outside researchers do with it. I also think on-line discussions and blogs are a great place to develop and refine theory. I’m frequently amazed at how anonimity or psuedo-anonimity impact communication. Some one could very easily take Goffman’s ideas about social interaction and discussion how the meaning of face work has shifted with new technology. And there are of course other examples too.

    And as far as the last point, I really agree with you. There is no way around it sociology has done a reallly shitty job at promoting itself to the public. You can even see this is blogging–the law professors are way ahead of us and so are English professors. Heck there is even a biologist with a very well known blog. Where are all of the sociologists? I’m seeing more blogs popping up, which is good but we have a ways to go.


    Rachel S.

    July 16, 2007 at 4:53 pm

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