The Paradox of Sociology

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?”

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7 replies »

  1. I also heard Burawoy speak a few months ago regarding public intellectuals. And I was struck by a few things during and after. 1. I think there’s an embodiment of expertise (“rightfully” or not) by him and many others within academia, not just sociology, that creates a (perceived and real) barrier to the accessibility for the public. 2. I think you are absolutely correct to question why much of sociology seems to have hang ups with making material accessible to the public, as I did while hearing him speak. 3. The emphasis of quantitative approaches only also adds to the perceived and real barriers, as again, this pushes “expert knowledge.” 4. To not embody more of qualitative methods, including ethnography, is foolish because these are methods that can give voice to the public, the underrepresented. Yet, these are not necessarily the methods that are celebrated at the forefront. 5. Even today, there are discriminating practices within the field of sociology that are astonishing, because it’s sociology! I’m talking about racist, classist, and sexist practices that prevents field of sociology from being representative of the composition of the society and social issues that we tackle.

    This is certainly not to dismiss the level of knowledge that is required to perform the studies quantitatively, qualitatively, or theoretically, but the way we present these materials (as we self regulate through journals, awarding/not awarding graduate degrees); what we deem as academic or scholarly, and the lack of effort to actively engage with the public in both production and distribution of our works is what is ultimately detrimental to us as sociologists. What are we if we are unable to utilize our work to engage with the public? What are we if we are not self-reflective enough to understand that everything we do is colored by the lens through which we view the world ourselves?

    I also understand the frustrations that occur when speaking to non-sociologists, as I often do. I’ve encountered individuals (some academic, some not) that do not truly understand what sociology is, what it does, or the its value. I have been dismissed by non-sociologists despite my own extensive training because that’s not how they see the world. But I think this is part of that vicious cycle where it becomes part of the reason why some sociologists become insular and do not want to engage with the public. And I would say the reaction should be opposite. How do we expect people do understand the sociological perspective, without accessibility to the works?

    I could go on and on disjointedly as I have been doing so far, but I have to get to campus.

    • not disjointed at all! really interesting response šŸ™‚ would you be up for writing it up as an article for the site? wouldn’t need to be much longer than it is at present

      • Hello SI,

        Sorry to reply so late, I had a minor surgery and it’s been hazy. If I were to write one, should I send it through the regular channels? Please let me know.


  2. It’s an difficult problem, one that has been vexing to me in light of my recent forays into the “public” of the on line world. I am a “non-sociologist,” i.e., ABD in a faculty of education, but my work is nonetheless (I hope) sociological informed, my position is slightly different. In general, there is the matter of a field specific habitus generated in a field in which much capital is accrued by those able to engage students and publics without pissing them off. I find that I can be this person (indeed, that I am just such a person when I get out of bed in the morning), but also that being so mitigates against being an public intellectual or teacher educator who makes use of the more “critical” traditions in sociology. As an example, few familiar with the sociology of education would dispute the connection between middle class values and dominant pedagogy in schools. To bring this up with pre-service teachers, however, is to invite the disdain of the majority of one’s students who closely identify with these same values. Put simply, to be critical in this sense is quite often be seen as an poor teacher and to find oneself on the wrong side of students evaluations of instructors. In sum, one will not only have upset students (sign of bad teacher #1) but most likely a file folder full of poor job performance reports.

    To extend this analysis to my participation in the on line world, I’ve recently made a decision to read and engage in the blogosphere on a topic directly related to my area of study, Mainland Chinese society and education. I thought that I had some knowledge and/or wisdom to bring to the conversation, but it didn’t take long for my comments to be labelled “high horse intellectualism,” “poncy BS,” and for me personally to be shouted down as a “Professor” and referred to by my full name in replies. I’m not quite sure what this last bit means in the on line world, but I certainly felt like I was being scolded. Perhaps this was my fault for hitting home runs off of minor league pitchers, but I didn’t realize that pointing out racist or orientalist arguments (as opposed to calling out racists) would be particularly offensive. Indeed, as a would-be sociologist, to not bring the sociological imagination to bear on these topics feels like a betrayal of duty. Still, the teacher feels guilty.

    Now, one might argue that what I’m pointing out is a need to be a highly skilled critical educator, but I don’t think that being such a creature could ever eliminate the contradictions that arise in the mashing together of these two quite different fields/disciplines. Another possibility is that I’m conflating two different creatures: public intellectuals and teachers.

  3. “Another possibility is that Iā€™m conflating two different creatures: public intellectuals and teachers.”

    I think there’s definitely a difference between the two — is the difference getting wider with time though?

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