In this essay, Wolfgang Streeck, recounts an experience of being at an international social science conference a few years where Michael Burawoy issued his famous call for ‘public sociology‘. Streeck recalls being struck by the paradoxical situation faced by sociologists in the early 21st century: while there has never before been so many people “well trained in analysing and explaining the social life”, the most powerful leaders produced by that most sociologically sophisticated generation had been George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. In spite of the “star-studded social science departments from Harvard to Stanford” there was a “progressive decay of the politics and economy of the United States” which continues to this day.
Thus he asks – does US sociology have a problem of demand? Within the ‘quality newspapers’, there is regular input from psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and, of course, economics. Even what were relatively marginal branches of economic theory (e.g. behavioural economics and neuroeconomics) received media coverage, with their marginality and novelty seemingly a sufficiently interesting ‘news hook’ to justify their inclusion in some publications. But where is sociology? Why is it absent? At best reports of sociological findings on certain topics make themselves known but not the rationale, theories, methods or methodologies underpinning these conclusions. Rather than summarising his analysis, we thought we’d highlight his key question instead. In our view this is the most important issue facing contemporary sociology. Why is this the case and how can we fix it?
“Why is sociology absent in public debates … why do sociologists have so little confidence in their work that they talk about it only to each other, rather than to the world at large?”