Sociology and Its Publics -- Whither Sociology?: An Introduction

By Matthews, David Ralph | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Sociology and Its Publics -- Whither Sociology?: An Introduction


Matthews, David Ralph, Canadian Journal of Sociology


This "Special Issue" has been prepared to coincide with the quadrennial meeting of the International Sociological Association in Montreal July 1998, which is the first time that body will hold its general meeting in Canada. The original inspiration for this issue came from Dr. Susan McDaniel, the previous editor of The Canadian Journal of Sociology who invited me to take on the task of editing it. I undertook to do so because I agreed with Dr. McDaniel that an occasion when several thousand sociologists from around the world were meeting in Canada was a good time for this journal to devote an issue to sociology's relationship to its various "publics." Moreover, as this was to be the last such ISA meeting before the start of the new millennium, it seemed to be a particularly appropriate time that such a Special Issue also consider the future role of sociology as we enter into what appears to be a very uncertain future for our discipline.

This Special Issue itself has been three years in the making. The "Call for Papers" was issued in 1995. Appropriately, it was not only circulated to the subscribers of this journal but was one of the first general announcements circulated by the ISA using its newly created list of members' e-mail addresses. As a result, not only Canadian scholars but those from a wide range of countries submitted manuscripts for review, and much of the ensuring period has involved a time consuming process of evaluation, re-writing and re-submission. While the nine papers included here were the ones ultimately chosen by reviewers as most deserving of publication, and even though they collectively have resulted in an issue which is more than double the usual length for this journal, there were many other quality contributions which could not be included. Hence, I thank not only those whose articles appear here for their good humoured perseverance in response to both the comments of the anonymous reviewers and myself, but also the considerably larger group of persons worldwide who submitted papers not accepted for inclusion. Let me also take this opportunity to thank the sociologists worldwide, many known to me only through their published works, who so willingly gave their time and offered imaginative insights to those whose works they reviewed.

At the time that I developed the "Call for Papers" for this "Special Issue," two books on the "policy" role of sociology had just appeared in the United States. They were Sociology and Its Publics (1992) edited by Halliday and Janowitz, and Sociology and the Pubic Agenda (1993) edited by William Julius Wilson. Both works contain papers examining sociology's relationship with a range of its "user groups" including students, employers and other professionals. As the Editor's introductory essay in each volume might be expected to convey the general sense of the issues underlying this area, they are worth summarizing here. As I read these, the underlying theme of both is that sociology has not developed the "voice" that it might have deserved in shaping the pubic agenda. In his introductory paper, Halliday seems particularly pessimistic about this, virtually lamenting that "sociology has no generally accepted authority or "knowledge mandate" over a particular set of problems that it can legitimately claim as its own" (1992: 12), and he discusses at length the problems which arise in maintaining a distinct "professionalism" while working either for the state or private "clients" (1992: 15). He concludes that "sociology's vulnerability to external influences might not be so vexing if its internal conditions were more resilient" (1992: 38) and suggests that the papers following in the volume indicate that "sociology is a fragile and uncertain discipline" (1992: 39).

In contrast, Wilson's introductory essay adopts a more positive view. He argues that claims "... concerning the fall of sociology are overstated" (1993: 3) and supports this view with figures showing a slight increase in sociology department enrollments in the United States.

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