Comment (on public sociology)

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a comment in Contemporary Sociology 34(1):92-93, January 2005. 

Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2005. “Comment.” Contemporary Sociology 34(1):92-93.

The Editors of Contemporary Sociology have started a new series of exchanges in public sociology (CS 33:5:ix-x). Presumably a way to institutionalize public sociology, this effort accompanies the ‘Task Force on Institutionalizing Public Sociologies,’ an appointed committee that was created in the American Sociological Association earlier this year. As much as I regret the decision by the ASA administration to favor one kind of sociology over others, I question that it can be the proper mission of a general journal sponsored by the ASA to restrict its scope to the agenda of only one branch of the sociological practice. From both a scholarly and a professional viewpoint I can see no justification to such a decision other than that it rhymes with the particular ambitions of the editors themselves. But ought journal editors not edit for their readers rather than for themselves, and ought they not edit for all readers rather than only one group, even and particularly if that group claims popularity?

If public sociology has succeeded in infecting the minds of a majority of contemporary sociologists, whether because of the silence and complacency on the part of its critics or by means of a strategically manufactured consent based on the absence of a dialogue about public sociology, who will protect the minority? Besides, of what is popularity a guarantee? Surely not of the quality of scholarship. From a sociological viewpoint, moreover, it is rational to hypothesize that the raison d’ĂȘtre of public sociology’s popularity may well be a function not so much of any political counter-movement (as its practitioners might think), but more so of organizational developments in the sociological profession, especially the managerialization of the ASA that has gone hand in hand with the rise of public sociology as much as it has led to the opening of an ASA online store.

Most disturbing is the inability of public sociology to articulate its own program without provoking contradictions, both logical and practical. The very term public sociology assumes there is a sociology that is not. Its invented counterparts likewise have phantom status. Or is there really an unprofessional sociology? Are there really “objective social scientists with little concern for the practical uses of their work,” as the CS editors put it? When has anyone ever heard sociologists refer to themselves as such? And if they never have, on what authority are these labels applied?

The practical contradictions of public sociology are many. Public sociology cannot ask questions besides the narrow contours of its underlying program, both in a thematic sense of what is being addressed as well as formally with respect to the questions that are asked. The first installment of public sociology in the pages of Contemporary Sociology involved two companion reviews of Fahrenheit 9/11. Both reviews are sympathetically critical no less, but they are nothing but movie reviews nonetheless. The themes in Michael Moore’s film are adopted as sociological questions, rather than that sociological questions are asked about them. The reviews discuss matters of social importance, but not from a sociologically meaningful perspective. Public sociology, again, spoke only to and for itself. Perhaps, from the viewpoint of public sociology, such practices are allowed because we can play “varied roles as sociologists.” Yet, by definition alone, as sociologists we can play only one role, while we can —and, indeed, we should— play multiple roles besides our sociological work. Whether these extra-professional roles are informed by our sociological scholarship or not need not question their legitimacy.

On the merits of public sociology, the editors tell us, convergences are taking place, such as between the ASA and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Although the SSSP has not formally embraced public sociology, it is more telling about the status of sociology today that the two organizations can be argued to exist so peacefully side-by-side. And it is not problematic indeed to suggest that there is presently an intimate and kind elective affinity between the two organizations, which have otherwise different (albeit complementary rather than contradictory) ambitions and trajectories. To the extent that this marriage did take place and the union is a happy one, what does that say about the ASA and its activities, including its journals?

See related writings on public sociology.