Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Professional, Critical, Policy, and Public Academics in Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Professional, Critical, Policy, and Public Academics in Canada

Article excerpt


Amitai Etzioni tells the story of an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University in the late 1940s who published a movie review in a New York newspaper. Paul Lazarsfeld immediately called his young colleague onto the carpet. "Both Merton and I hope that this movie review you wrote is the last one." Under his breath he added, "The last thing we need is another C. Wright Mills" (Etzioni 2003:54).

Lazarsfeld, who earned a doctorate in applied mathematics from the University of Vienna, held scientific aspirations for sociology. In his view, popularizing the discipline, let alone politicizing it, stunted its growth as a science. His opinion did not stop him from working with the US State Department to identify opinion leaders in the Middle East, which may have helped the CIA overthrow the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953. However, Lazarsfeld's opinion did put him on a collision course with Mills. Mills saw the sociological imagination as an intellectual and ethical frame of mind that encourages the empirical analysis of society and the advancement of human freedom and reason, including opposition to colonialism and neocolonialism. Lazarsfeld did his best to discredit such views throughout the 1950s and until Mills' death in 1962. He declared White Collar a "very dumb book," branded The Sociological Imagination "ridiculous," and publicly denounced Mills when the opportunity to do so arose. In 1961, he conspired with Talcott Parsons and Seymour Martin Lipset to have the International Sociological Association retract its invitation to Mills to give a keynote address at the 1962 ISA meetings in Washington, DC. For his part, Mills gave as good as he got. He declared "abstracted empiricism" intellectually bankrupt, writing that Lazarsfeld might perfect research methods but could not produce ideas. Practitioners of abstracted empiricism, Mills concluded, were doomed to become state functionaries and corporate drones, abandoning thinking for measurement. Mills was hardly predisposed to Lazarsfeld's mindset, having failed his statistics exams at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (Summers 2006).

Even if the details of the Lazarsfeld-Mills feud are news to some readers, the broad outlines of the dispute will undoubtedly have a familiar ring. As with the performances of Christmas mummers in 19th century rural Newfoundland, the dramatis personae change over time, but the structure of the conflict that animates the play remains much the same from one season to the next. Intellectual upstarts proclaim that the professionals have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. The professionals note how social and political motives inevitably bias research and delegitimize the discipline in the eyes of the public. The upstarts unearth evidence of the professionals themselves putting sociology to political use. The rhetorical winds cause the flames to gutter and then extinguish. The great questions, though engaged, remain unanswered. Exit ghosts. Enter the new generation for the next performance.

Normative questions about appropriate extra-disciplinary and disciplinary roles do not concern sociologists alone. They extend to all intellectuals. Almost every decade witnesses the publication of a synthetic overview of the sociology of intellectuals in which the author laments the failure of the field to advance much beyond prescriptive arguments about what intellectuals ought to do, and argues, largely in vain, for improved theoretical and empirical analyses of the social bases of intellectual life (e.g., Brym 1980; 2001; Karabel 1996; Kurzman and Owens 2002). Bigger stage. Same play.

Burawoy's recent intervention combines normative and theoretical elements (Burawoy 2005a). His theoretical advance is typological, identifying a fourfold intellectual division of labour among sociologists. Professional sociologists engage in programs of scholarly research that generate instrumental knowledge intended for an academic audience. …

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