In the last couple of days, I have received many queries about the public understanding of sociology chair that I proposed here. What follows is a set of answers to those questions.
1. Why even have such a thing?
a. There have been chairs in the public understanding of science, sponsored in various ways, for the last quarter-century. The occupants of these chairs have been generally very media-friendly but differ quite substantially in the interpretation of their remit. Yet, the overall effect has been to raise the profile of the natural scientist in the general public and perhaps even to provide nuance to the perception of scientists. An important feature of this development is that professional scientific bodies have never attempted to ‘recall’ such a chair-holder, even when, say, Richard Dawkins overstepped what many saw as appropriate for a scientist to say.
2. But isn’t this even more reason NOT to have such a chair in sociology?
a. On the contrary, if sociologists cannot find people to trust as competent spokespersons, even when they say things that many practising sociologists would disagree with, then the point of having such a chair would be defeated. The strength of having such a chair comes at least as much from an ability to display publicly what it means to think ‘sociologically’ as from an ability to represent ‘what most sociologists think’ about various topics.
3. But doesn’t the very idea of this chair go against the spirit of most sociological research, which is about revealing the complexities of social life that emerge from engaging empirically with real people?
a. Most sociological research does indeed do this, but the need for the chair arises from a general unclarity – both inside and outside the discipline – about what is especially ‘sociological’ about this research. Thus the ideal chair-holder would be someone who is familiar with the diversity of the field yet able to present any bit of it as distinctly ‘sociological’. This means that any prospective chair-holder would have to want to see the field better integrated than it currently is.
4. But your conception of the chair seems to presuppose a univocal conception of ‘sociology’ that really doesn’t exist – if it ever has…
a. You may be right. However, turning this point into the last word on the matter runs the risk of calling into question the viability of ‘sociology’ as the name of a discipline – as opposed to a market signal for a variable range of courses that students might find attractive in different universities.
5. But what could possibly be such a univocal conception of ‘sociology’?
a. Well, it’s back to Durkheim, really: Society is sui generis. To think sociologically is to think in terms of how what people think and do contribute to some collective fate shared by all of them, regardless of their individual differences. The nation-state has been historically in the business of promoting this idea as the default mind-set of citizenship. But with the rise of globalization and neo-liberalism, the public availability of this idea is much less secure – and hence there is a greater need for a ‘public understanding of sociology’ that reinvents Durkheim’s original concerns in a new key for a new time.
6. But isn’t this what Michael Burawoy’s call for a ‘public sociology’ is all about?
a. No. On the contrary, I see ‘public sociology’ as a policy that would let the discipline’s research priorities be driven mainly by the agendas of those in society whose voices have not been traditionally given their due. Of course, there is nothing wrong with redressing long-standing social injustices. However, the task of sociology as a discipline is to conceptualize – and promote – an idea of ‘society’ in terms of which it makes sense to say that certain groups have been systematically disadvantaged by virtue of the activities of others. Ideas of justice and (dis)advantage only make sense in relation to some normatively bounded sense of ‘society’. And it is at this second-order level that sociologists need to be publicly understood.
7. So how should someone think about whether this chair is something worth pursuing – since you say it could go to people at virtually any stage in their career?
a. Here’s a litmus test. If you think that Margaret Thatcher has turned out to be way too effective when she declared in 1987 that ‘there is no such thing as society’, then you appreciate the job ahead of you. Demonstrating that ‘society’ exists above and beyond the voluntary associations and familial ties of individuals is not an easy sell in 2015 Britain. But that’s what the chair would need to do.