Engaged, Practical Intellectualism: John Porter and "New Liberal" Public Sociology

By Helmes-Hayes, Rick | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Engaged, Practical Intellectualism: John Porter and "New Liberal" Public Sociology


Helmes-Hayes, Rick, Canadian Journal of Sociology


INTRODUCTION

The debate initiated by Michael Burawoy's 2004 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, "For Public Sociology," has been a "public good" (2005a; see also 2004a; 2004b; 2004c; 2005b; 2005c; 2005d; 2005e; 2005f; 2005g; 2006; 2007a; 2007b; 2007c; 2008a; 2008b; 2008c). Burawoy provoked sociologists around the world into revisiting the fundamental question "What is the nature and purpose of the discipline?" and the variety of responses they have crafted is remarkable. For me, one thing stands out when you consider them together: whatever the views individual scholars might hold, the discipline as a whole is deeply, inherently, and unavoidably political. Certainly Burawoy's vision of a "legitimate" public sociology is animated by a politicized critical sociology. Given this situation, many of his critics have commented on the fact that it incongruous for him to call for a rejuvenated, highly politicized public sociology and simultaneously claim that such an entity could realistically involve relationships of "synergy," "reciprocal interdependence," and "organic solidarity" with the other three types (or "faces") of sociology, including professional sociology (2005a:15, 18; see also Burawoy 2008a:437, 443). They have regarded it as incongruous because it is axiomatic--part of the conventional wisdom of the discipline--that professional sociologists cannot accept the politicization of the research process. Were they to allow values to intrude into the research process, they would be unable to legitimately don the coveted mantle of science. Put differently: in order to remain scientific, professional sociology must stand in an unalterably adversarial relationship with the value-laden radical/critical sociology that constitutes the basis for Burawoy's vision of a properly constituted public sociology. And the negative, sometimes vitriolic, response from professional sociologists makes this clear (Deflem 2004; 2007; Tittle 2004; Boyns and Fletcher 2005; Brint 2005; Turner 2005; Smith-Lovin 2007; Stinchcombe 2007; Massey 2007; see also Burawoy 2007a:244-6).

In response to this backlash, Burawoy has tried to convince professional, mainstream sociologists that the doctrine of "sociology as a science" is outmoded, reflecting an historically specific set of material/intellectual conditions that no longer exists, and rendering scientific sociology inappropriate and unviable as a model/modus operandi in the 21st century. His critics remain undeterred. They reiterate their basic claim--any professional sociologist who violates the principle of value neutrality, who engages in the kind of "value science" that Burawoy called for, would be a scientist no more--and argue that more and better science, not less, is the way to go. The discipline, it seems, remains locked in a standoff--resolutely political, irremediably divided.

It might be more fruitful for those who share Burawoy's political-scholarly views to spend less time trying to convert their opponents and more time thinking about what kind of public sociology they should be doing; that is, they should try to answer the following inextricably interrelated questions: What would a practically feasible, morally defensible social democratic society look like? What would a properly constituted social democratic public sociology look like (methodology, value orientation, vision of "practical utopia," etc.)? Or, taken together, and phrased differently: What kind of public sociology would best serve what Burawoy refers to as humanity's "universal interest" (2005b:319)? Were they to do so, and by their intellectual and practical activities succeed in helping to create some pockets of humanity and democracy, then (as Marx suggested in the second and eighth "Theses on Feuerbach" [1978]) the question would answer itself in practice rather than via scholastic speculation. That said, a degree of speculation, much careful reasoning, and extensive debate are essential to the public sociology project. …

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