What does public sociology have to say about sociologists who are ‘merchants of doubt’?

What does public sociology have to say about sociologists who are ‘merchants of doubt’? This is the question I’m slightly obsessing over after discovering that Peter Berger, famous for his work on social construction and the sociology of religion, worked as a consultant for the tobacco industry. As Source Watch details, he was tasked with establishing that “anti-smoking activists have a special agenda which serves their own purposes, but not necessarily the majority of nonsmokers”:

He served as a Tobacco Institute consultant. While at Boston College, Berger, (as quoted in tobacco industry newsletter “The Tobacco Observer,”) described tobacco control proponents as “fanatical.”[1] Berger attended Philip Morris executive meetings [2] and participated in the multinational tobacco industry’s Social Costs/Social Values Project, created to refute the social costs theory of smoking and to help reverse declining social acceptability of smoking. He was a contributing author to the industry-financed book Smoking and Society, edited by another tobacco industry consultant, Robert Tollison.


This is critical sociology deployed on behalf of the powerful: pulling back the veil on a group pursuing an ideational agenda and claiming they act out of sectional interests. What other examples are there of prominent sociologists acting in this capacity? How should these cases inform our conception of public sociology?

Categories: Committing Sociology

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2 replies »

  1. Here in Brazil, our former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who used to be a leading leftist sociologist responsible for explaining what the so-called “Dependence Theory” meant for Brazilians, i.e. he somehow had helped develop this theory while he was in exile in Chile (at CEPAL) in the mid-1960s, even though he was the son of an old Army General, he turned out to be something of a fraud when he became Brazil’s president in the 1990s; for one thing, he was crazy enough to ask Brazilians to “forget what he had written as a sociologist”… So sincere on his part, isn’t it?

  2. Chilling indeed.

    Thomas McLaughlin wrote “Street Smarts and Critical Theory” and looked at how it is taken up by right wing activists.

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