Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

The Three Axes of Sociological Practice: The Case of French Quebec

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

The Three Axes of Sociological Practice: The Case of French Quebec

Article excerpt

Public sociology is all too often presented as the polar opposite of the detached, purely objective observation of society (Clawson et al. 2007). Such a portrayal is misleading, for it gives credence to the idea that academic sociology is torn between two extremes, the political and the empirical poles. In this article I will not contest this divide from within. I shall not, for instance, claim that sociology is inherently politicized, each epistemology necessarily proposing a different ontology (Blau and Smith 2006). Considering the problem differently, and referring to a historical period spanning from the late 19th century to about 1980 (Fournier 1986; Warren 2003), I propose a three-faceted portrait of sociology. In my view, the discipline is structured around not two but three fundamental axes or dimensions: professional, descriptive, and political, embodying three essential aims. In turn, these constitute the respective roles it can play in academia and society depending on the specific publics it seeks to address. In his much debated ASA 2004 presidential speech, Burawoy (2005) claimed that public sociology should be defined by its audience, whether academic (professional, critical) or extra-academic (policy and public). Without directly challenging this view, I intend in this paper to illustrate how the scholar's individual positioning offers a slightly different perception of public sociology than the discipline's external dynamics.

The question then becomes: From whom are academic sociologists seeking recognition? Acting as professionals, they try to attain prestige and approval by accumulating social or symbolic capital. If they serve science for science's sake, they find in the advancement of knowledge its own reward. If they adopt a political stance and seek to transform society through activist strategies, they measure the value of their work on a different scale yet again. Therefore, as I demonstrate below, the dilemma depicted in this article--juggling these three axes, aims, and roles--is one which affects not only the discipline as a whole but also those generations of Quebec's sociologists who have attempted to balance these dimensions in their scholarship. Such a historical perspective serves three purposes. First, by talking about three dimensions or axes of sociology, it puts a new "spin" on the debate between professional, scientific sociologists on the one hand and the public sociologists on the other. Second, it adds a historical element to a debate which often focuses almost exclusively on the contemporary aspects of the problem. Third, it contributes to our understanding of the place that sociology occupies in French-language Quebec, where the "public sociology debate" has been around in one form or another since the very beginning. The lessons one can draw from the understanding of its unfolding will serve as a reminder that sociologists' public engagement depends on specific historical conditions much more than it does on personal preferences. The willingness to participate in Quebec society's debates has always been linked to different schools of sociological thought and the broader social conditions affecting the work of social scientists. Personal "commitment" and "sacrifice," as suggested by Burawoy (2005:25), may not be considered enough by those who know the complex progression of public sociology in Quebec.

Three Fundamental Axes of the Sociological Craft

Before I describe how they played out in the course of Quebec's development, let me briefly describe the three axes that structure academic sociologists' activities. I acknowledge the simplification that such a short presentation entails but it serves as a starting point for better understanding how French Quebec sociologists have historically tackled the professional, critical, and "positivistic" dimensions of their position. What is at stake here is not so much a "division of labour" (Burawoy 2004:1611; 2005:9-11) among interdependent sociologies, but a "structural division" related to the relative autonomy of three specific social fields (Bourdieu 1975): societal, institutional, and scientific (Fournier 1985:418). …

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