Public Sociology (Save Sociology)

This is a page on Save Sociology, an online campaign conducted by Mathieu Deflem, 2004-2006.

Among the most startling recent developments in U.S. sociology has been the advent of so-called public sociology. Though not solely responsible for the woes of contemporary sociology, public sociology is exemplary of the new movement in sociology that wishes to abandon the ideals of science. Here we reveal some of the true nature of public sociology. Please note that this page is no longer updated since the Fall of 2006.

What is Public Sociology?

According to the 2003-04 ASA President Michael Burawoy, who devoted the theme of the Association's 2004 meeting to public sociologies, public sociology is a sociology that "defines, promotes and informs public debate about class and racial inequalities, new gender regimes, environmental degradation, multiculturalism, technological revolutions, market fundamentalism, and state and non-state violence." Additionally, "public sociologies should challenge the world as we know it, exposing the gap between what is and what could be..."

In other words, public sociology is limited to a few specific areas of research. It is not a science oriented at analyzing all of the social world's structures and processes in their complex relations. Public sociology is fractioned sociology. Public sociology is utopian. It is para-normal science as it seeks to challenge the world by an imagined unreal world of "what could be..." Who is to say what could have been...

Why Public Sociology is Neither Public nor Sociology 

Sociology is a social science. It is therefore not and cannot be involved in promoting or defining anything other than scientific knowledge about social life. It seeks to accurately describe and adequately explain the social world on the basis of systematically gathered knowledge. Sociological knowledge abides by standards in matters of methodology and theory, leading to corroborate or falsify insights from sociological research. Sociology is not limited to any specific issues.

Sociological knowledge cannot challenge the world, nor should it. We have philosophy and morality for such tasks. These tasks are critical to the human condition, for which reason they should remain the province of practices of being and becoming that are outside the realm of sociology.

Sociology is always public. The very term 'public sociology' assumes that there can be a sociology which is not. Sociology is a public activity as it takes place in a community of scholars where we meet one another as fellow learners and teachers. Why then the explicit introduction of the term public sociology?

The label 'public sociology,' as it is preached and practiced, is a thinly veiled disguise of a particularistic version of Marxist sociology or rather 'sociological Marxism', as the practitioners themselves call it, a non-sociology that is oriented at being political, not scientific. Public sociologist Burawoy admits as much --at least in the safe confines of his Marxist club-- when he writes in the newsletter of the ASA Marxist Sociology section of his pride in having brought politics into sociology (Burawoy 2003). Discussing recent actions by the ASA, Burawoy proclaims that the ASA has "ventured into political debates about race... The ASA waded even further into politics with an anti-(Iraq)war resolution that was passed in a member ballot with a two-thirds majority." The true face of public sociology is Marx.

Public sociology is politics, not a forum for political discussions in which a plurality of viewpoints can participate, but a particular politics that represents but one specific and singular voice. Contrary to its self-declared objectives, public sociology allows no discussion, no debate. Public sociology cannot be spoken or heard except by itself. Public sociology has no public. It speaks for itself.

What Public Sociology Does 

Public sociology, to the extent that it has been successful in advertising itself for something it isn't, has contributed to undermine the public (!) standing of sociology as an academic discipline. Public sociology enjoys some degree of popularity, a popularity that is not based on arguments but instead on a populist conception of the activities and objectives of sociologists. The profession has politicized. Public sociology is but a consequence. The discipline has managerialized. Again public sociology is but a consequence.

Public sociology does not, pace Burawoy, threaten the legitimacy of sociology "among the powers that be." On the contrary, the powers that be have never thought less of and about sociology and sociologists than ever before. To the so-called powers that be, sociology is virtually dead. Public sociology is --and, I fear, by implication, has made much of the rest of sociology-- totally irrelevant.

As dedicated scientists and committed intellectuals, sociologists can legitimately contribute to their society, but as particularistic critics disguised as public sociologists nobody besides the public sociologists themselves is listening. A relevant sociology requires a resolute commitment to sociology as an academic discipline. Society deserves better and more than public sociology.


The July/August issue of the ASA Newsletter Footnotes contains a letter by me about the political drift in the ASA, followed by a response by Burawoy. Briefly, I argue in my letter that the 2004 ASA resolution process was undemocratic. Burawoy and the ASA Council first instigated the resolution, then passed it unanimously (how long did that debate take!??), and only then allowed the ASA members, as if it is a matter of privilege, to vote! An additional opinion question was asked although it was not supported by a petition. But the ASA Council wants to know what is in members' minds! Most troublesome, the resolution was not preceded by any debate. Not only is no debate allowed, some ASA members are too intimidated to speak out. Ironically, this politicization of politics is not only damaging to the discipline of sociology, it also erodes the human nature and pluralistic nature of morality. In closing, I call on my colleagues to take up the courage to think and act. "Sociologists in the ASA, unite and take over!"

In his response, Burawoy again recounts the resolutions process. But he cannot justify it, as he has no arguments. He suggests legitimacy by bland reliance on legality, most clearly when he states that the resolution was discussed by "our elected leadership," claiming that the Council was "constitutionally obliged to respond." This cop-out is not only absurd, it is downright disingenuous because few years ago, in 1999 when Burawoy chaired the ASA Publications Committee, Burawoy was also obliged to safeguard the confidentiality of the nominations process, but then he had no qualms about purposely violating ASA regulations. Then ASA President Alejandro Portes duly reprimanded Burawoy for "the harm produced by violation of the bylaws" (see Footnotes 1999).

Further, Burawoy maintains that the ASA is "not constitutionally barred from making resolutions that go beyond immediate disciplinary interests." Really? No rule is beyond interpretation. Why then is the ASA mission statement not considered primary to the ASA regulations on the resolutions process? Even if current regulations allow non-disciplinary matters to be discussed in the resolutions, why would it be a good idea to do it? Why has the ASA Council made no effort to remove the existing discrepancy from the regulations? Burawoy's defense is impotent. And again we get the usual abuse of science, most clearly when he argues that "the politics of policy intervention" can rely on "a vast body of research." Really? Vast? Where? Finally, I accept Burawoy's final argument when he writes: "I took my election as a mandate." Indeed, that he did.

Go to the Readings page to read an online copy of the complete letter and Burawoy's response.

The Publicity of Public Sociology 

More striking than the rise of public sociology has been the ease with which it has been widely embraced among sociologists... To be sure, the disintegration of our profession through the thoughtless proliferation of our graduate education is a contributing factor, but more importantly, in my mind, public sociology has benefited from the managerialization of the profession (and the commercialization of the discipline) that has been taking place in recent years.

The influence of public sociology is visible and real. Public sociology has institutionalized itself. Besides the fact that more faculty explicitly mention ‘public sociology’ as an area of interest and expertise, some departments as a whole have also announced a commitment to public sociology. There is of course Berkeley, which now calls itself the “premier home of ‘public sociology’”. But there are and is more. There are more departments that practice public sociology and that, moreover, are explicitly devoted to advance public sociology, not merely housing practitioners of it. Minnesota has instituted an award in public sociology.

Other departments have announced a move towards public sociology in their job advertisements. For example, George Mason University recently posted a job ad that stated that the Sociology Department is working towards “an expanding unit that is dedicated to developing a profile in public sociology.” At Ithaca College, sociologists “with activist or public sociology expertise are especially encouraged to apply.” A job ad posted by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs announced that the Sociology Department has a “long-standing commitment to public sociology.” Probably most distinct in its aspirations has been the Sociology Department at Florida Atlantic University, whose website announces that the Department is “among the new ‘Public Sociology’ departments in the United States that are defining sociology as both a scholarly endeavor and as an activity in the service of humanity.”

Also, some journals have devoted separate attention to public sociology, not to evaluate and discuss its merits, but as exercises in public sociology. There have been special issues in Social Problems, Social Forces, and Critical Sociology. Most striking is the inclusion of a separate section in public sociology in every issue of Social Forces, where Editor Blau has instituted the practice and additionally announced that she excludes from review papers in the areas of criminology, public health, and urban planning.

The ASA has also appointed, without debate, a Task Force to Institutionalize Public Sociology. The Task Force has set up a website (which not too many people contribute to) and an email listserv, but its other accomplishments are unknown. It mostly seems involved in attempting to secure that sociologists should get tenure because of their activitism, not their scholarship. The ASA publication Footnotes also has a special section in public sociology.

The one recent good news with respect to the institutionalization of sociology has been the appointment of a new Editor at Social Forces. The change in editorship has brought about that the section on public sociology has been abolished.

Go to the next page on Save Sociology: Readings