A big thank you

 

Many thanks to all who attended and helped to make last week’s symposium such an engaging and productive event. I wanted to take the opportunity to thank some of the particular people and organisations who helped to make the event possible, through various contributions of funding, time, and facilities:

  • BSA Activism in Sociology Forum
  • BSA Early Career Forum
  • Nottingham Civic Exchange
  • Nottingham Conference Centre
  • NTU catering, estates and marketing
  • NTU Critical Public Sociology Research Group
  • NTU Department of Sociology
  • POW Nottingham
  • Renewal Trust
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Warwick
Thanks to the speakers:
  • Andrea Lyons-Lewis
  • Bea Giaquinto
  • Daniela Scotece
  • Eric Baumgartner
  • Evelina Bondareva
  • Hannah Shoesmith
  • Katy Sian
  • Kehinde Andrews
  • Sharon Hutchings
  • Taelor Martin
  • Teodora Todorova
  • Tom Vickers
Thanks to Phil Wane and Andy Sutton for their help with photography and filming.
And thanks to the organising group:
  • Andrea Lyons-Lewis
  • Anisa Mustafa
  • Craig Lundy
  • David Dahill
  • Emma Craddock
  • Nick Foard
  • Richard Pickford
  • Ricky Gee
  • Sarah Lawther
  • Sharon Hutchings
  • Stefanie Petschick
  • Teodora Todorova
  • Tom Vickers
  • Yesmean Khalil

A report of the event and other materials will appear here soon.

Tom Vickers

Why study Public Sociology? David Dahill, MA Sociology student, Nottingham Trent University

“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.

References

Beck, U., & Camiller, P. (2000). What is globalization? Cambridge, UK : Polity Press: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P., Accardo, A., & Ferguson, P. P. (1999). The weight of the world: Social suffering and impoverishment in contemporary society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Brint, S. (2005). Guide for the perplexed: On Michael Burawoy’s “public sociology.” The American Sociologist, 36(3-4), 46–65. doi:10.1007/s12108-005-1016-y

Burawoy, M. (2005). For public sociology. American Sociological Review, 70(1), 4–28. doi:10.1177/000312240507000102

Calhoun, C. (2005). The promise of public sociology. The British Journal of Sociology, 56(3), 355–363. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2005.00065.x

Carrigan, M. (2016, June 9). Tag: Procrastination. Retrieved January 7, 2017, from https://markcarrigan.net/tag/procrastination/

Carrington, D. (2016, August 31). The Anthropocene epoch: Scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth

Coe, S. (2013). Feeding the family: Are food prices having an effect? Nutrition Bulletin, 38(3), 332–336. doi:10.1111/nbu.12044

Comte, A., & Bridges, J. H. (2001). System of positive polity, or treatise on sociology, instituting the religion of humanity. Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum.

Cribb, J., Joyce, R., Phillips, D., & Hood, A. (2013). Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2013. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Giddens, A. (2002). Runaway world: How globalisation is reshaping our lives. London: Profile Books.

Harrington, R. (2016, November 9). President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t believe in climate change. Here’s his platform on the environment. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://uk.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-climate-change-global-warming-environment-policies-plans-platforms-2016-10

Marx, K., & McLellan, D. (1977). Selected writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McFalls, J. A., Engle, M. J., & Gallagher, B. J. (1999). The American sociologist: Characteristics in the 1990s. The American Sociologist, 30(3), 96–100. doi:10.1007/s12108-999-1012-8

McKenzie, L. (2015). Getting by: Estates, class and culture in austerity Britain. United Kingdom: Policy Press.

Mills, W. C., Gitlin, T., & Mills, C. W. (2000). The sociological imagination (40th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Nickel, P. M. (2010). Public sociology and the public turn in the social sciences. Sociology Compass, 4(9), 694–704. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00319.x

Nielsen, F. (2004). The vacant “we”: Remarks on public sociology. Social Forces, 82(4), 1619–1627. doi:10.1353/sof.2004.0083

Portes, J., & Menon, A. (2016, July 19). You’re wrong Michael Gove – experts are trusted far more than you. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/09/michael-gove-experts-academics-vote

Scholte, J. A. (2003). Globalization: A critical introduction. Basingstoke, Hampshire: St. Martin’s Press.

Smith, G. (2006). Erving Goffman. London: Taylor & Francis.

Swartz, D. (1998). Culture & power: The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tittle, C. R. (2004). The arrogance of public sociology. Social Forces, 82(4), 1639–1643. doi:10.1353/sof.2004.0097

Townsend, P. (1992). Poverty in the United Kingdom: A survey of household resources and standards of living. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Public Sociology and the Role of the Researcher: De Montford University, 29th March

On 29th March NTU’s Sharon Hutchings and Tom Vickers delivered a workshop of part of a symposium at De Montford University, titled ‘Public sociology and the role of the researcher: Engagement, communication and academic activism’. Below they reflect on the event.

We were excited to learn this event was being organised, even more so considering that it complements another event we are organising at NTU on 29th June. Hopefully these two events can contribute to strengthening networks between public sociologists, in the Midlands and beyond.

The keynote speaker for the event was Mark Carrigan, well-known for his book Social Media for Academics and the blog http://sociologicalimagination.org/. Mark focused on the dangers of social media for academics, changing the academic habitus and rewarding antagonism and individual confrontation. He suggested the solution may be the development of more of our own collective online platforms, to offer a less individualised approach to social media. Significantly, Mark also argued that we need to question the idea that social problems are simply the result of a lack of social knowledge – suggesting that for public sociology to influence change we need to think more broadly than dissemination.

The other papers presented through the course of the day were thought-provoking and of a very high academic standard. Of note was the Pecha Kucha session with highly engaging presentations – the ethics of participatory research in pornography, sexuality and migration and personal accounts  from a Turkish academic and journalist, both now political exiles, a stark reality when freedom of expression is denied.

The final workshop, delivered by Tom and Sharon set out to create opportunities for dialogue on critical appreciations of public sociology. Four short provocations were offered  and colleagues selected one to focus their conversations on. This resulted in engaging and thought provoking challenges to the naming of public sociology and how we might meet those challenges in the current higher education context.

The event demonstrates the growing interest in public sociology, and contributed to emerging networks. It also reinforces our view that despite the volume of discussion of public sociology over recent years, the field is still at an early stage and much more discussion, reflection and sharing of experiences is needed.

For further coverage of the event see: https://twitter.com/hashtag/BSAPublicSocDMU

Public Sociology

Jason Pandya-Wood, Director – External Partnership & Engagement, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University

Public sociology awakens and empowers the sociological imagination by connecting what we study, and how we study it, with the social issues and challenges faced by the communities we are part of.

Why Public Sociology?

“Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problems of history making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles – and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations. Within that range the life of the individual and the making of societies occur; and within that range the sociological imagination has its chance to make a difference in the quality of human life in our time.” (Mills 1959: 226[1])

C Wright Mills urges us to understand ourselves and our societies in a particular way: sociologically. When we try to rise to this challenge we are confronted with some difficult questions: What and who is sociology for? Why does it matter? Can sociologists shed light on the world around them and also act in ways that seek to change social conditions?  In his presidential address to the American Sociology Association on Public Sociology, Michael Burawoy argued that classical sociological theory both articulated social conditions and suggested alternatives:

“Karl Marx recovered socialism from alienation; Émile Durkheim redeemed organic solidarity from anomie and egoism. Max Weber, despite premonitions of “a polar night of icy darkness,” could discover freedom in rationalization and extract meaning from disenchantment. On this side of the Atlantic W. E. B. DuBois pioneered pan-Africanism in reaction to racism and imperialism, while Jane Addams tried to snatch peace and internationalism from the jaws of war. But then the storm of progress got caught in sociology’s wings. If our predecessors set out to change the world, we have too often ended up conserving it.” (Burawoy 2005: 5[2])

As Burawoy alludes to in his speech, sociology appears to have lost its engaged and radical potential. It has become as much a victim to the tides of modernity as the political, social and moral systems, institutions and structures it studies. It is more professionalised, part of the mainstream, and often obsessively introspective:

 “…the original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic rankings, intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step.” (Burawoy 2005: 5)

In the recent book Punk Sociology, David Beer argues that mainstream sociology (or ‘prog sociology’ as he calls it) can be accused of building its own systems of technical and linguistic expertise that in turn creates the condition where sociologists compete to develop their ‘virtuosity’. This detaches the discipline from meaningful engagement with the social conditions of our time. As a consequence, this sociology:

“…is likely to be hard to engage with, for other sociologists, academics in other disciplines, and for the wider audience. Often these audiences have little interest in technique.” (Beer 2014: 45).

But Beer goes on to insist that people can understand and want to  engage with  “substantive ideas about the social world.”

Public Sociology in Burawoy’s’ hands is a way of ‘regenerating sociology’s moral fibre’ (2005: 5). It is a deliberate attempt to nurture communication between sociologists and publics to encourage reflexive knowledge and collaborative action. Public Sociology engages with diverse publics, and reaches beyond the university enclave “to enter into an ongoing dialogue with these publics about fundamental values” (Zussman & Misra 2007[3]). It “strikes up a dialogic 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: 9).

.