Rethinking Public Sociology


“Public Sociology” has been all the rage in left-wing circles. The notion harkens back to neo-Marxist conceptions of “praxis” whereby theory and research should be applied for political ends, to serve the revolution!!! Yes, ah, the revolution. Thanks. In reality, it often gave way to irresponsible and often poorly constructed attempts to influence policy. A classic example is the embarrassing report the ASA did some years back on crime. In contrast to a multi-volume interdisciplinary effort put forward by the American Academy of Science, some glorified secretaries at ASA put together a 100 page double spaced glossy. Great. That makes us look like scholars, eh? Everyone should listen to us! I’m all for sociology having more of a voice in public policy, but sometimes there needs to be a clear dividing line between research and advocacy, separating politics from social facts and theorizing. And, mostly, I feared how public sociology would be used.

Those on the left were confident that an increased focus on public sociology would mean that activist scholars could pursue political commitments AND have these be valued by the discipline (and by their home universities). So, political opinion writing and consulting could be put on your vita along with articles in peer-reviewed journals. You really want that? Really? Think about that, now. Are you sure? Really sure?

Unfortunately, my fears have come true. As I suspected, public sociology would fall primarily into the hands of right wing partisans. While left wingers can hardly get their political opinions into minor league blogs–or can publish in Contexts (which nobody reads, except for other left wing activist sociologists), right wing sociologists are becoming valued public intellectuals! Great. Lefties “publish” in Crooked Timber, while Christian nationalist sociologists are plastered on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and secular right wing sociologists find easy outlets in the NYT. Wonderful. Predictable. So, what is public sociology doing? It’s advocating early marriage, railing against socialism, and claiming that contraception is the cause of teen pregnancy and unwed births.

Thanks Lefties!! Great Job! The reason why this is predictable is that right wing political and religious organizations have superior resources and low-cost access to big media mouthpieces. Left wing sociologists have never realized that there are lots of conservative sociologists, and they benefit from close associations with far right wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation. So, they have full blown media brochures politicizing and stretching their legitimate sociological findings, press conferences hailing their work, speaking tours at colleges and civic and political groups–all of this paid for by grants from right wing foundations. Oh, and let’s not forget those web sites with Glamour Shots pictures!!! There they are, your right wing boys wearing their little tweed jackets posing for a professional photographer. They have their hair parted on the side, in that little Ted Haggard way. Oh yeah. Public Sociology. Let’s keep it in the men’s room where it belongs.

6 Responses to “Rethinking Public Sociology”

  1. ryan Says:

    No links? I want pictures…

  2. sherkat Says:

    No way, man. No gay Christian porn on this blog.

  3. Conrad Hackett Says:

    I get that you dislike public sociology that you consider shoddy or conservative or both. But what do you think the clear dividing line should be between research and advocacy?

    There was an interesting email exchange in my old department recently about the last part of our work in which we have chance to discuss possible policy implications of our research. One scholar mentioned that he has written a couple of books with policy chapters at the end that led to congressional testimony, which was then written up into op-eds, and which eventually informed legislation of the topics of his books. Does this cross the clear dividing line between research and advocacy? At what point? What harm is done by having a well-informed scholar opine about policy issues?

    I don’t think the ideological bias of social scientists in the opinion pages of leading national papers is as one-sided as you suggest. For example, Barbara Ehrenreich had a long piece in the NYTimes last weekend. And while Paul Krugman is an economist, he is no conservative. Do you think that Ehrenreich or Krugman have crossed the line?

    Of course, we sociologists will disagree about how sociological research should guide public policy. It is not uncommon for these disagreements to be aired in the national media (often via responses to provocative editorials). I am in favor of well-informed debates in our papers.

    Like you, I am also nervous about public sociology. However, I am more nervous about the consequences of imposing the clear dividing line you suggest.

  4. sherkat Says:

    I’m not saying that scholarship shouldn’t inform policy, particularly for scholars working in areas where research is easily translated into directives and procedures which improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public works. Bravo to the scholar whose research informed policy, that’s she should be doing (and Ehrenrich and Krugman).
    I am saying that political activity shouldn’t count on your scholarly record, and that scholarly records need to be examined carefully. When someone writes a book intended to solidify conservative Christian predjudices, or to enable their further political mobilization, it should not be treated as a scholarly work. At best, it should hold the same place as a textbook on a scholarly record. The same thing is true with grants. Some money is dirty money. It’s not given to foster scholarship, its granted because one pays fealty to a political movement. It’s no different than having a rich uncle (which also shouldn’t count), and, since it can taint true scholarship and draw time away from genuine projects, dirty money is more of a conflict of interest than a feather in the cap. People are working for political movements, getting paid for it, then counting what are essentially paid-for propaganda reports as “scholarship.”

  5. Conrad Hackett Says:

    Someone can list whatever they want on their CV. However, when it comes time to hire, grant tenure, or bestow other types of disciplinary recognition, I doubt that doing public sociology on behalf of conservative causes tends to generate a lot of disciplinary rewards.

  6. The Court Giveth, and the Court Taketh Away….. | Iranianredneck's Weblog Says:

    […] against him for promotion to full professor because of his religious and political beliefs. This is exactly the shit that I predicted would happen long ago. Adams is now a full time right wing ideologue, and has been long before Regnerus came out of the […]

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