In a fascinating paper from 2008, Michael Burawoy wrote an Open Letter to C. Wright Mills. You can read it online here but I wanted to share this insightful passage which stood out to me:
But recognizing the link between social milieu and social structure does not mean crossing the line, turning personal troubles into public issues. Knowing that my unease or malaise is due to anomie in society, or knowing that I’m without a job because I live in a world of unregulated capitalism does not necessarily lead me to turn my personal trouble into a public issue. In fact, knowing the power of social structures is just as likely to paralyze as to mobilize. Indeed, sociological insight may even be universal but that would not guarantee bringing personal troubles into the public sphere. This is your first scholastic fallacy— that knowledge is liberating. Today, following Michel Foucault, we are more likely to follow the bleak hypothesis that sociological knowledge is disabling, incapacitating, a form of control. I know you saw that sociology could be used to serve power, as in your article “A Marx for managers”, but you thought that if sociologists were independent then their sociological imagination was liberating. Not necessarily so.
I’ve written about this as the ‘fallacy of amelioration’: the notion that all it takes to solve social problems is the improved circulation of expert knowledge concerning their resolution. It’s a surprisingly common assumption and I’m surprised to find myself agreeing with Burawoy that Mills ascribed to a version of it. This surprises me because this concept is one I came to from reading the latter’s work about professional socialisation. I see the fallacy of amelioration as one that goes hand-in-hand with the tendency to slip so readily into unintelligibility so pithily identified by Mills. It’s a professional conceit, emerging through years of training that don’t quite ensure a secure social status, allowing the sociologist to ignore the messy and ambivalent business of politics by arming them with the confidence that these problems would be solved if only people would listen to us.