The Practice of Public Sociology: Common Practice or Wishful Thinking?

By Lambros Fatsis

Public sociology has established itself firmly as a buzzword that frequently slips from sociologists’ lips, especially since Michael Burawoy popularised, but did not coin, the term in his 2004 presidential address to the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco. Indeed, a lot of “us” would consider ourselves passionate advocates, if not active practitioners, of public sociology. Resisting what seems like an empty gesture of self-flattery however, it is worth pondering over just how “public” has our scholarship really been, and how publicly engaged have we actually become as a result of what seems like little more than a niche debate within sociology and some of its disciplinary neighbours, like criminology, where similar concerns linger (see herehere, and here). Without wishing to doubt our noble intentions, it nevertheless seems worthwhile to think critically about whether we engage in public sociology at all; yielding pliantly, as most of us sadly do, to the RE(F)-ification of scholarship by prioritising what counts (number of publications and citations) over what truly matters (quality of content/argument and critical thought).

At the risk of sounding unkind, I fear that public sociology has, to this day, amounted to little more than a mere rhetorical gesture or a self-righteous posture, rather than a defining feature of our daily scholarly lives; not least because it is institutionally discouraged in favour of the more managerially-inspired push to demonstrate “impact” and create opportunities for “social enterprise”. Institutional pressures aside however, public sociology is also undermined by our own indecision about (a) what we mean by it, (b) whether we do it at all, (c) how to best practice it, and (d) whether we are truly willing to commit ourselves to it in ways that go beyond a mere symbolic attachment to a utopian flight of fancy.

What is it?

The term “public sociology” is routinely evoked as a shorthand to describe a bewildering variety of related ideas and propositions, whose very breadth makes public sociology extremely resistant to a clear definition, let alone a sharp focus. While most contributions to the debate stress the need for a kind of sociological scholarship that engages non-academic public audiences, it remains unclear whether we are referring to a specific disciplinary subgenre, a form of activism, or a certain attitude towards our subject matter which nudges us towards raising questions of immediate public relevance. There is, of course, no pressure to limit our search for or indeed practise public sociology in the aforementioned ways alone, but it does seem important to be able to clarify what public sociology means to us, as well as demonstrate how and whether we practice it at all; lest we are accused of investing in an idea, or discursive trope which has no specific empirical referent or any real grounding in our professional practice.

Do we “do” it?

Using “public sociology” as the name for what we do when we write articles, blogs and social media posts, teach relevant courses, or discuss the term in academic journals and conferences, runs the danger of automatically assuming that all such activity amounts to doing public sociology, or that it is us who ultimately decide what counts as public sociology instead of the audiences we address. If we understand public sociology to be something that feeds on actual involvement instead of mere assertion and debate, the manner in which we currently approach both the idea and the practice of public sociology seems somewhat problematic as it treats public sociology as something that we do to rather than with “publics”, let alone in public. To critically evaluate our engagement with public sociology, we may have to decide where we place the emphasis on, and what we prioritise when we talk about or do public sociology. In short, do we aspire to a public sociology, or a public sociology?

Echoing Simmel’s careful distinction between a ‘perfect society’ and a ‘perfect society’, a similar dilemma confronts us when we imagine ourselves as ambassadors of public sociology, without specifying whether we prioritise its public or its sociological function. This is not to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive, but to encourage us to admit to ourselves and others where we place our emphasis when we make claims about how much public sociology we actually commit (to). To put it bluntly, brandishing public sociology as an emblem of public participation is one thing, but bringing it down from its lofty and exclusive station to transform it into something tangibly public is quite another. The question then remains, how much of each of those two things do we positively engage with, and what can be done to tilt towards more public participation and less self-referential navel gazing.

How to do it?

Like most types of innovative social action, there are no instruction manuals on how to become public sociologists. Some tentative suggestions can nevertheless be offered as an attempt to sensitise us to public sociology as a necessary dimension of our professional practice, while also establishing it as a civic endeavour and a form of direct community engagement. One such example of just how public sociology can flourish as a public practice is through the establishment of and participation in various Free Universities, and “sociology clinics” that have emerged in many parts of the world. As a volunteer in one such initiative, the Free University Brighton, I can speak from personal experience about the visible difference that such community-based projects make as hubs of creative, imaginative, and critical scholarship and active civic engagement.

Such projects don’t simply offer free education (without charge), but also free education from the techno-bureaucratic/managerial confines of mainstream university institutions. In so doing, such educational-cum-civic initiatives gradually become “u-diversities” by attracting adult students of various ages and backgrounds, while also sharing in and shaping the social, cultural, and civic life of the very communities we live in. What such examples of public sociology as a public practice show, is the difference we can make both as sociologists and citizens by using any influence we have to create the conditions and make room for knowledge production and civic education in public. Instead of merely lauding public sociology as a gesture of intent, or a palliative to our guilty conscience for being sheltered in our professional cocoons, it seems imperative to export and establish it as a reality that lives and can be experienced in public, beyond mainstream or social media circuits and formal academic forums.

Is that public sociology?

At the heart of any discussion of public sociology as a “practice”, lies the uncomfortable question of whether public sociology is merely used as a cipher for a wide array of activities that are public and are being done in public but have nothing to do with sociology per se. If the overarching aim of public sociological practice is to involve sociologists in community work or activism, what is distinctly sociological about such engagement, and why is the term “public sociology” needed to refer to what could otherwise be described simply as civic engagement? Until we can somehow demonstrate that we bring something uniquely sociological into our encounter with our public(s), then public sociology loses much of its analytical potential and participatory currency. Unless of course public sociology is thought of as a sales pitch, or a fig leaf which conceals the fact that our professional practice may no longer be infused with public concerns; to the point that when we do something (in) “public”, we feel the need to call it public sociology.

For all our claims to sociological thought as a skill for democratic citizenship, which ties, what Blumer called, ‘sensitive perception’, ‘creative imagination’, and ‘adroit conceptualisation’ to public issues, are we really suggesting that sociologists have the monopoly of such intellectual faculties? If so, we need to somehow prove that. If not, we may have to admit that the more we think about public sociology, both as a descriptive term as well as a civic endeavour, the closer we come to recognise it as an empty shell, whose only function is to make us feel better for doing so little of what we claim to value so much. As an ardent supporter of the principles behind the idea of public sociology, and a committed interdisciplinary social scientist, I have no choice but to rethink my practice when making bold claims and have nothing to declare. What about you?

Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton. This article gives the personal views of the author, not the position of the institutions he works or volunteers for. The arguments presented here should be read as afterthoughts on ‘The Practice of Public Sociology’ conference organised by The Sociological Review’s Early Career Forum in Manchester on the 24th of November, 2016.

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