“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
– Karl Marx, XI Thesis
(Marx & McLellan, 1977, P173)
Several years ago, I was tucked away in a small section of the rather grand main arts library at Bangor university (or Hogwarts as we imaginatively called it) with several peers. There was a thick snowfall outside complemented by extremely high winds, and with none of us in any mood to freeze to death, we decided it best to raid the vending machine and make ourselves comfortable.
Zero prizes for guessing what a bunch of Sociology students talk about when there’s no alcohol around, everything’s a sociological debate, we can’t help ourselves. For example, when someone asked if anybody had seen the latest episode of Game of Thrones, before any of us could even attempt a Jon Snow impression, we were discussing Bourdieusian concepts of power and suffering (see Bourdieu, Accardo, & Ferguson, 1999 and Swartz, 1998). When I mentioned my disdain for Iphones, in the time it takes to download an app, we were engaged in theories of globalisation, and the darker perspectives of a world seemingly beyond control (See Beck, 2000, Giddens, 2002 and Scholte, 2003). We shared childhood memories, nice ones, like when Mars Bars didn’t cost 65p, but before you knew it we’re talking about articles on poor policy, and the rise of foodbanks (see Coe, 2013, Cribb, Joyce, Phillips, & Hood, 2013).
Along with developing skills in the art of “structured procrastination” (Carrigan, 2016), I discovered early in my studies that conversing with peers on various theories, and hearing the sociological imaginations of others at work is a truly beautiful thing. It also shouldn’t be stuck in university libraries.
Erving Goffman once said “Sociology is something that you do, not something that you read” (Smith, 2006, p4) Ok he said it to a colleague in defence of his methods, and I, like him am not closed to the dangers of misinterpretation. However, was Comte’s religion of humanity (Comte & Bridges, 2001), not attempting to guide Society in a better direction? Did Durkheim’s study of suicide not endeavour to resolve the philosophical with Sociological means, or in short, use Social Science to challenge existing assumptions? For me Sociology was never only about understanding issues within society, but providing the means to change them, so it’s perhaps unsurprising I now find myself studying the MA Public Sociology at NTU.
Burrawoys assertion to bridge the “growing gap between sociological ethos and the world we study” (Burawoy, 2005 P1) and to establish “a dialogical relation between sociologist and public in which the agenda of each is brought to the table, in which each adjusts to the other.” (Burawoy, 2005 P9) are just two aspects which spoke to me as a sociology student. However, it’s important to be aware that Public Sociology has drawn a lot of negative criticism, and I’m not without questions.
The sociologist typology for example (for those unfamiliar please visit https://goo.gl/7AGx5Y which provides an excellent brief overview and various other helpful media) can seem quite puzzling. Using this typology I would probably consider myself to be something of a hybrid, occupying multiple aspects across each quadrant (self-interest, Moral Vision, critical, policy etc.) yet with the ethos of a public sociologist, so I’m just left asking, could I not just call myself a ‘Sociologist’ and let my CV and work do the rest? Additionally, public sociological concerns aren’t exclusive, so I’m with Craig Calhoun in asking what is “the value of dividing up the field… I too want sociology to engage and be informed by the concerns of many publics, shape debates in the public sphere, and demonstrate its public worth. But I think these are tasks for sociology in general “(Calhoun, 2005, P2).
Heavier critiques of Public Sociology centre around assumptions of shared moral values (or perhaps an idealistic notion all sociologists wish to ‘change the world’) and threats to the legitimacy of knowledge (Nielsen, 2004, and Tittle, 2004.) It is even suggested that “only professors and doctorate-level researchers have the accumulated knowledge and research of an academic discipline to offer. They alone have the rigorous methods to prove or disprove ideas that have gained currency.” (Brint, 2005 p48) which is unfortunate for any fans of Jane Addams and anyone opposed to elitism. But concern is understandable for any discipline, especially regarding legitimacy of knowledge (more Brian Cox’s less Gillian McKeith’s ). As Sociologists we should embrace criticism, challenge assumptions, and remain open to every avenue of exploration. Buechler tells us that sociology “requires a sceptical and restless quality of mind”(Buechler, S. 2008 pIX) and I tend to agree.
Nevertheless, if public sociology can be accused of making assumptions, the same could be said of its detractors, not least those whose pugnacious elitism adds little to the debate. I would also suggest knowledge isn’t just being questioned, it’s being ignored completely, “people in this country have had enough of experts” declared MP and former secretary of state for education Michael Gove (Portes & Menon, 2016.) In the last 2 years human impact on the earth has forced environmental experts to declare a new epoch (Carrington, 2016) yet the response from the US presidential elect is that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” (Trump as cited in Harrington, 2016.) This should be of high concern to the academic community in general, and another reason to rethink our approach, and consider Burawoy’s concern for sociology’s public irrelevance.
“If sociology is to thrive, it needs a stronger public presence. Sociology has an unconvincing presentation of self, and is wracked by a marked inability to establish and manage a coherent and public face. In many respects, sociology is all but invisible to the public eye, dominantly overshadowed by its social science brethren—psychology, economics, and political science.” (Boyns & Fletcher, 2005, p5)
Public Sociology is understandably making waves because it challenges the status quo and presents a new way of doing things. The idea that interacting with the public (other than to research them) and opening the doors to our beloved discipline will somehow bring it to ruin demonstrates both an outdated and frankly elitist concept, but perhaps more worryingly very little confidence and faith in the knowledge we create.
I personally hope to see a wider spread awakening of the sociological imagination in others, and to combat some of the issues which sociology has created in its attempts to preserve the Ivory Towers, perhaps a widening of the doctrine as it were, and certainly through more financial ease of access to higher education (class it seems is overlooked in aforementioned discussions of knowledge authority). Much like the activist sociologist Lisa Mckenzie, my childhood was spent growing up on a council estate of an ex-mining town in the East Midlands, during a period which had witnessed multiple economic recessions (1980- early 90s) and dare I say many errors in social policy. My mother was a divorcee who worked two jobs, and until my early teens we shared a house with my grandparents. As the first person in my immediate family to attend university, I accept that University education has not always been this accessible, and still isn’t for many attempting to access top UK institutions. However, this is changing (extremely slowly and perhaps not as I would have hoped), so perhaps sceptics towards the concept of widening access could find a little comfort in the fact that some of the public are already proving themselves capable of forming their own narratives, and there can be much value to having the researched become the researcher.
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