Public Sociology in Print: A Comparative Analysis of Book Publishing in Three Social Science Disciplines

By Mochnacki, Alex; Segaert, Aaron et al. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Public Sociology in Print: A Comparative Analysis of Book Publishing in Three Social Science Disciplines


Mochnacki, Alex, Segaert, Aaron, McLaughlin, Neil, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Michael Burawoy's (2004; 2005) argument for a revitalized public sociology stands as both a normative vision for and a theoretical diagnosis of the discipline. However, most of the discussion that has emerged in its wake has engaged the normative issues while failing to empirically ground the debate in sound social science knowledge concerning the practical dynamics of public academic work more generally (McLaughlin, Kowalchuk and Turcotte 2005: McLaughlin and Turcotte 2007). Serious efforts at assessing the usefulness of Burawoy's model, the opportunities and risks his vision of public sociology offers for the discipline in Canada, require sustained theoretical and empirical research. While a truly reflexive sociology must be willing to rigorously analyze the discipline of sociology itself (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992; Gouldner 1970; McLaughlin 2005), we fear that the "excitement" of a debate on public sociology could easily devolve into polemics rooted in professional self-interest and pre-existing political commitments. More empirical data on the state of public sociology (and public intellectualism, more generally) is needed if such a situation is to be avoided. In this paper, we report the findings of a comparative analysis of book publication as a measure or operationalization of public academic work by scholars from three disciplines: sociology, political science, and economics.

Burawoy presents a four-category model of sociological labour divided along the axes of audience (internal and external) and knowledge types (instrumental and reflexive). Traditional scholarly research is the work of professional sociology, producing instrumental knowledge for academic audiences. Professional sociology concerns itself with methodological, theoretical, or empirical puzzles arising out of its own research program. Critical sociology is likewise directed towards an academic audience, but its knowledge is reflexive, engaging the moral and normative aspects of the discipline and the epistemological assumptions of existing research programs. Policy sociology generates instrumental knowledge that addresses problems defined by clients outside the academy. Finally, public sociology produces reflexive knowledge about issues significant to a particular public. According to Burawoy, the trajectory of one's sociological career may lead into any or all of these quadrants at various times, with the work done in each quadrant serving to contrast and complement the work within the others. The image conveyed is of a discipline whose vitality rests on the balance of these four diverse facets, and it is this image that has inspired the ensuing debate.

McLaughlin, Kowalchuk and Turcotte (2005) argue that the debate regarding public sociology should be more empirically grounded. They identify two major problems with Burawoy's model of public sociology. First, Burawoy's key concepts--critical, reflexive, and public--are ambiguous and open to multiple competing interpretations (1). Second, his model does not put enough emphasis on the role institutional context plays in sustaining the four types of sociological work, something that is emphasized in Burawoy's discussion but disappears in the knowledge versus audience table.

Putting these larger issues in the background for the moment, we would like to move the debate in the direction of analyzing different genres of "doing" public sociology. Specifically, we offer a theoretically informed empirical analysis of book publishing in three social science disciplines in Canada. This complements an analysis of op-ed writing offered elsewhere in this special issue (Kowalchuk and McLaughlin, this issue). While the debate over the normative issue of whether sociology should be more public or not is important, it runs the risk of devolving into a purely rhetorical struggle over who is more reflexive, public or critical. This gives us little useful information about what sociologists actually do during their professional working days. …

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