Beyond Car Park Sociology: Recovering the Roots of Public Sociology

By Steve Fuller

In 2006, John Holmwood and Sue Scott announced a special issue of the British Sociological Association journal Sociology devoted to ‘Sociology and Its Public Face(s)’. This was in the wake of Michael Burawoy’s 2004 presidential address to the American Sociological Association on the need for ‘public sociology’. I drafted a several hundred word piece on this topic which I never completed. I won’t repeat it here, except to say that it took the form of an archaeology of the concept of public sociology. I identified four strata in order of increasing historical depth:

  1. Overcoming current institutional barriers between sociology as an academic discipline and as a resource for public life, given professional disincentives to ‘go public’ by seeking validation from non-academic sources. This situation leaves the impression that sociology’s response to the neo-liberal audit culture has been to narrow – not expand — its sense of social responsibility. This is the starting point for Burawoy’s critique. 
  2. Overcoming sociology’s structural contradictions in relation to the processes of social reproduction, whereby sociologists and their research are easily co-opted into what C. Wright Mills popularised as ‘the military-industrial complex’. This was the ‘reflexively critical’ sociology promoted by Mills and Alvin Gouldner of the 1960s and ‘70s. 
  3. Overcoming society’s stereotyped self-understandings (so-called ‘folk sociology’) which prevent a full appreciation of the contributions made by all of its members. Battles fought against discrimination based on ‘race’, ‘class’ and ‘gender’ at the most general level in the post-WWII generation – encompassing the rise of cultural studies and feminism – would count as ‘public sociology’ in this sense.
  4. Overcoming tribal loyalties which prevent people from identifying with ‘society’ in the sui generis sense, whereby their cognitive and moral horizons would encompass at least everyone inhabiting their nation-state, if not all of humanity, regardless of relevance to their everyday lives. This sense of ‘public sociology’, tied to, say, Durkheim’s ‘moral education’, UK Fabian socialism and US Progressive liberalism, was integral to the legitimation of the modern welfare state in the first half of the 20th century.

Clearly ‘public sociology’ has represented many different, partially overlapping and partially contradicting, ideals. However, what these four iterations share is a claim on the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ of sociology as a discipline. Contrary to Burawoy’s somewhat misleading original presentation, the phrase ‘public sociology’ should be heard not as one among many kinds of sociology but as sociology in its true form. In other words, for sociology to be true to itself, it needs to be explicitly oriented to ‘the public’ in some sense. The challenge then is to make explicit the relevant orientation. In what follows, I shall focus mainly on the alternative visions of ‘public sociology’ advanced in (1) and (4).

Burawoy likes to portray sociology as a promoter of ‘civil society’, which mediates the domineering tendencies of both the state and the market. His Tocquevillian rhetoric is touching but slightly beside the point. If sociology as a discipline were to become really keen on promoting ‘civil society’, it would be much more actively, enthusiastically and even aggressively engaged with the media – both the mass media and the more devolved spheres of digital media. But this is not really what interests Burawoy. He is thinking about ‘civil society’ as the place where those whose interests are not readily represented by the ruling political and business classes can be given voice. In private conversation, I have disparaged this vision as car park sociology. In effect, the discipline becomes the collecting point for society’s disenfranchised ‘others’. ‘Public sociology’ thus becomes the sociology of the public defender. The discipline itself has no positive identity or agenda. Indeed, sociology’s own historical self-understandings as a field – as represented by, say, the field’s founding theorists – largely pose obstacles to the realization of Burawoy’s vision of ‘public sociology’.

I see Burawoy’s vision of ‘public sociology’ as a pendulum swing to the opposite end from where ‘public sociology’ began, which was as a propaganda campaign for nation-state consolidation, whose politically correct name was the ‘welfare state’. Burawoy’s case is helped by the general decline in the ‘nation-state’ ideology among even those in charge of it. In other words, due to its specific policies, our neo-liberal state is easily seen not as incorporating, integrating or even co-opting different groups in an enhanced, coherent society but as contributing to the removal of any such prospect. This shift in the image of the state in relation to the society it governs – from including to excluding ‘others’ – is probably what makes Burawoy’s detachment of sociology from the nation-state seem plausible.

Unfortunately, sociology as a discipline cannot do much more than register (or ‘park’) the concerns of these excluded groups, as long as it remains independent if not alienated from more powerful players, either the state or business. All that is left to academics are periodic episodes of ‘witnessing’ in conferences, which may morph into sporadic public protests and impact statements at the next iteration of the Research Excellence Framework.

In conclusion, it is worth emphasizing that a common point of departure for Durkheim, the Fabians and the US Progressives in the early 20th century was the felt need to make the idea of ‘society’ in its ontologically robust nation-state sense vivid to the people whom they regarded as its members. Their problem was rather like the one Marxists routinely face when they try to get disparately placed workers to self-identify as members of a ‘class’ which then will have the power to free them as individuals. In both cases, characteristically sociological self-understandings require active social construction by those promoting them.  

Unlike Burawoy’s ‘public sociologist’, who mainly provides intellectual resources to people with standing grievances, this original kind of public sociologist takes to the classroom and the media to bring to life new and emerging collective identities in which the audience can participate, presumably to the greater good of all. Whether ‘the greater good of all’ is served will depend on the interplay of these activities with those in a position to materialize them (aka Power).

True to their Roman namesake, the Fabians famously argued for playing ‘the long game’, focusing on the next generation (hence the founding of the London School of Economics) and the monitoring of ‘upward mobility’ through regular surveys. To be sure, by the late 1950s, this vision started to be satirized as ‘meritocracy’. However, even the satirists accepted the robust idea of ‘society’ constructed by the Fabians, which was why their satire stung. It’s not at all clear that such satire would have the same effect today because the robust idea of society is no longer so much in play. That epitomizes the problem facing sociology’s relevance both inside and outside the academy. 

Steve Fuller, University of Warwick.O

One thought on “Beyond Car Park Sociology: Recovering the Roots of Public Sociology”

  1. Thank you Steve. This is seeing ‘public sociology’ differently from Burawoy’s point of view. I hope that in future the practice of public sociology in developing countries can be further explained given the realities experienced which either enable or inhibit this practice in these countries.

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