Letter to the Editor ("The Proper Role of Sociology in the World at Large")

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a letter published in The Chronicle Review, October 1, 2004, p. B17.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. Letter to the Editor (“The Proper Role of Sociology in the World at Large”). The Chronicle Review, October 1, 2004, p. B17.

It is hard to find words that are sufficiently appropriate and not unacceptably harsh to react to Professor Michael Burawoy’s statement that sociology must now sell out to political activism (To Advance, Sociology Must Not Retreat, The Chronicle Review, August 13, 2004). It is simply beyond belief to have to read anyone lamenting the dedicated work of all those who practice sociology as a science, those who —in Burawoy’s words— “just stick” to the search for the truth. In sociology and in any other science, there is nothing more noble nor demanding than the pursuit of the truth...

Our academic activities involve many high-quality and useful activities, such as the building of a critical mass of knowledge, the construction and testing of theories about the real world, and the relentless development of many avenues through which we spread our wealth of insights to students and others. Burawoy is not criticizing anything about academic life except the caricature he has willfully constructed in order to propagate public sociology as the only viable alternative to a sociology that would be sheltered from any critique and self-reflection. This intellectual perversion itself is strategic as much as is the manner in which public sociology has gained in popularity by shutting down possible avenues for dialogue and democracy on these matters.

The public sociology that Burawoy advocates 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. That this activism is predominantly leftist in orientation is residual to the broader issue of the true agenda of public sociology.

It would be becoming for Professor Burawoy to at least admit that as a proponent of sociological Marxism he does not want to tear down the ivory tower; he is merely trying to paint it red.

See related writings on public sociology.