The War in Iraq and the Peace of San Francisco: Breaking the Code of Public Sociology

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a paper in Peace, War & Social Conflict, Newsletter, 2004.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. "The War in Iraq and the Peace of San Francisco: Breaking the Code of Public Sociology." Peace, War & Social Conflict, Newsletter of the ASA section, November 2004, pp. 3-5.

Now that the ASA meeting on public sociology that was held in San Francisco in August is over, it may not be unwise to reflect on the enduring legacy of the meeting and its impact for the role and position of sociologists, especially those interested in the study of war, peace, conflict, and other highly contentious aspects of society. With some 5,560 people attending, the San Francisco meeting was the most popular ever. It may also have been the one that did least to advance the field and most to destroy the vision of sociology as an academic discipline. As these perversions of our discipline by the invasion of so-called public sociology have been most clearly revealed since the Association in 2003 passed a resolution against the War in Iraq, fellow members in the Peace, War and Social Conflict section will be particularly well placed to address some of the scholarly and professional concerns that arise from these developments. I here offer a position that can and hopefully will be discussed.

Sociology is a science devoted to analyzing society. It pursues the discovery of truth on social matters. While social issues have deeply moral and political repercussions, and while people have very strong feelings about what their society should be like, sociology takes the human stance towards society (how to best organize society?) as a starting point to develop a resolutely academic approach (what are societies like and why?). The truly revolutionary nature of sociology, like that of any science, lies in its ability to transcend the ethical-political divisions that characterize our normative perspectives about society. Sociologists therefore seek to develop systematically a body of knowledge that uncovers what the world really looks like, whether we like it or not. Science recognizes no force stronger than the truth. Sociology respects the moral discourses that exist on such important issues as human rights, war and violence, racial and gender inequality, law and criminal justice, and any other social matter. The diversity that exists on the organization of these matters are at the heart of societies. But sociologists take no sides. Or do they?

The ASA meeting in San Francisco was a painfully clear indication of the fact that many sociologists have lost the courage to take up the objectives of sociology. Under the leadership of 2003-2004 ASA President, Michael Burawoy of the University of California at Berkeley, the Association has instead of seeking to develop and practice sociology resorted to a populist perspective of subsuming sociology under a quest for justice and popular activism. Heralded under the banner of public sociology (a benign-sounding label that conceals the particularistic politics and sociological Marxism advocated by the ASA President), sociologists attending the meeting were asked to restrict their research agenda narrowly to certain themes that pertained to a conception of justice. Less politically controversial but not necessarily less important topics were ignored. That included the sociological study of war, peace, and conflict, for the invited speakers at the plenaries were not even skilled to address these issues sociologically, instead proclaiming their personal opinions on related (important) normative questions. Public sociology is not oriented at analyzing any or all of the social world’s structures and processes in their complex relations. Thematically alone, public sociology is but a fraction of sociology.

The advocates of public sociology also encouraged sociologists attending the meeting not to merely investigate but to “challenge” the world. Sociologists, in other words, were asked to not be sociologists. They were asked not to study the complex dynamics of social issues, but to evaluate and critique them. Instead of inviting top-notch sociologists to tell us of the very best of their sociological work, the San Francisco meeting’s thematic sessions were devoted to the political crusades of non-sociologists and activists with very specific political agendas. It is not primarily relevant that most of these agendas were leftist in orientation. It is more troublesome that some sociologists have now abandoned the ideal to have the courage to think independently and without emotion on the basis of expertise in order to unravel the truth despite of any normative fads or fashions.

With the currently popular wave of activist sociologists, a substantial part of sociology has rendered itself more irrelevant today than ever before in the now more than hundred-year history of the discipline. Whereas the roots of scientific sociology are deeply imbedded in our society’s commitment to advance humanity, many sociologists have betrayed the very mission of the science they promised to nourish and practice. However much we may regret it, today it is often true that sociologists are mere activists in disguise. That is an insult to sociology as much as to the vibrant activism that is practiced by many members of society. Based on a misguided call for sociologists to engage in a debate on ethical values, sociologists have more than ever before opened the door to be chastised for doing things they simply are not meant to do. When it comes to values, sociologists can claim no expertise, for in ethical debates all members of society can freely and equally participate (Deflem and Cole 2004). That also and particularly applies to the reality of social problems and contentious issues such as war and social conflict. Among the participants of democracy there are no experts. To judge the morality of questions surrounding war, peace, crime, law, and politics, we do not need sociology, but sociology is needed to analyze the dynamics and patterns of these questions.

But instead of searching for the truth in matters of society, public sociologists are engaged in an ethical discourse as a foundation for their work. Sociologists are now encouraged to inject their ethics in their work and to draw conclusions not on the basis of evidence and research, but on the basis of the rightness of certain ethical ideas. Rally against injustice, show how upset you are, how really upset you are, and you will find an audience that will take your wise words into account! Really?

Last year, a resolution passed in the ASA that condemned the war in Iraq. Because the resolution implied a political position, a group of about 100 sociologists signed a letter of complaint that an ethical violation had been committed by passing a resolution that cannot be justified on the basis of sociological knowledge. Yet, because the existing procedure of the ASA resolutions process does not explicitly prohibit non-sociological resolutions, the complaint was dismissed. An ill-conceived legalism is all the ASA leadership has to justify its actions.

The ironic consequences of the Iraq War resolution are many (Deflem 2004a). The resolution has in effect ended any option for analysis by sociologists of war and peace. For the ASA, after all, the matter is now resolved. The ASA’s actions on the war in Iraq are also less than democratic in their implications, as members in the ASA who do not agree with the resolution —in a free society, dissent is more than a possibility— are on normative grounds no longer represented in the organization they chose to join for professional reasons.

To the extent that the platform of public sociology has been embraced, U.S. sociologists have rendered themselves less challenging and more irrelevant than ever before in the now one-hundred year history of the profession. By explicitly disrespecting the diverse ethical attitudes that exist among people, public sociologists are far from challenging the world, instead isolating and insulating themselves from the people they ought to serve. Public sociologists betray the very mission of sociology. Public sociologists are activists. They do not want to tear down the ivory tower; they are merely trying to paint it red (Deflem 2004b).

There is urgency for sociologists and their various publics, whether they be students, political activists of all kinds, policy makers, and people of all walks of life, to recognize the true potential of sociology as an academic discipline. In a rapidly moving and turbulent world that is uncertain in its future, a sociology committed to the truth is needed more than ever. With war and conflict as constant factors of our era, a sociology of war and peace that observes and explains accurately is needed more than ever. Society and all of its members deserve and need sociology as an academic discipline.


Deflem, Mathieu. 2004a. “There’s the ASA, But Where’s the Sociology?” Public Forum letter. Footnotes, the ASA Newsletter, July/August, p. 9.

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

Deflem, Mathieu, and Stephen S. Cole. 2004. “Sociologists as a Group Should Not Get Involved in Political Controversies.” Presentation at the ASA meeting in San Francisco, August. Audio copy available online:

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. "The War in Iraq and the Peace of San Francisco: Breaking the Code of Public Sociology." Peace, War & Social Conflict, Newsletter of the ASA section, November 2004, pp. 3-5.

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