What Do 'We' Know That 'They' Don't? Sociologists' versus Nonsociologists' Knowledge

By Mesny, Anne | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

What Do 'We' Know That 'They' Don't? Sociologists' versus Nonsociologists' Knowledge


Mesny, Anne, Canadian Journal of Sociology


I am a sociologist performing sociology in a business school. I teach sociology but also management courses to students that include managers. My research interests in the field of management imply that I study people in organizations, often managers and executives, who also constitute a primary "public" I try to reach through my research. In terms of Burawoy's division of sociological labour, I am not sure in which one of the four quadrants I belong. I suspect any pretense I might have to contribute to a critical sociology would be met by suspicion since little "moral vision" can be expected from someone working in an institution so enmeshed in "market tyranny" (Burawoy 2005: 24). Some might doubt that professional sociology can be produced in this context, for "the management literature is full of pop sociology ..., much of it so poor that every six months yet another new analysis becomes a brief best-seller" (Gans 1989:5). That leaves me with the prospect of policy and public sociologies. Most sociologists would likely see what I do as some version of policy sociology, in the sense that I work "in the service of a goal defined by a client" (Burawoy 2005:9), the client being, in this case, the firms that management scientists usually study, rather than the state. My possible attempts towards "public sociology" would also be closely examined in light of the likeliness that I would be "hostage to outside forces" and "tempted to pander and flatter" my publics (Burawoy 2005:17).

Yet I believe that this particular position as a sociologist is an interesting vantage point from which to reflect on the current place of sociology in today's society, and to engage critically with the debate, recently renewed by Burawoy, about the relationship between sociology and its "publics." The "outside-the-box" attribute of such a position, to some extent, eases the grip of the "vested interests in disciplinary structures" (Braithwaite 2005:351).

Doing sociology in a business school context forces one to reconsider on a more or less continuous basis some of the issues which are at the core of the public sociology debate. For example, the issue of the status of our publics, and about their power and resources, takes on a renewed significance when we are talking about managers in small or big corporations, who are far from being the "underdogs" that sociologists are used to studying (Barnes 1979:34; Barrett 1984:4). The issue of whether sociologists should be concerned by the uses and usefulness of scientific knowledge is also cast in different terms in the field of management studies, which seems to be under higher pressure than sociology to produce useful and usable knowledge, defined here in a clearly instrumental way. The competition that we face, as social scientists, for the representation and elucidation of the corporate world is also more intense in management studies than in other sociological subfields and the "pop management" literature is indeed very alive (Mazza and Alvarez 2000).

Finally, the dissemination of academic knowledge in the "public sphere" has a very dynamic character in the field of management studies, which forces us to reflect upon the many ways by which knowledge issued from scientific research is incorporated into the practice of management. In this regard, the debate in management studies about knowledge "transfer" between management scientists and management practitioners has been continuous for years (Baldridge et al. 2004; Rynes et al. 2001) and interesting parallels can be made with the uses of sociology's instrumental knowledge (Hodgkinson, Herriot, and Anderson 2001).

To clarify or reposition some of the controversies generated by Burawoy's defense of public sociology and his vision of the mutually stimulating relationship between the different forms of sociology, my aim in this paper is to go back to the debate's epistemological core--the nature of sociologists' and nonsociologists' respective knowledges of the social world, and the relationship between them. …

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