Public Sociology in Canada: Debates, Research, and Historical Context

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

Public Sociology in Canada: Debates, Research, and Historical Context


Helmes-Hayes, Rick, McLaughlin, Neil, Canadian Journal of Sociology


INTRODUCTION

In "For public sociology" and other essays, Michael Burawoy acknowledges that the national sociologies of countries other than the US (e.g., Brazil, Norway, South Africa) differ substantially from the US case. The balance and dynamics among the four types of sociology, the timing and phases of the historical development, and the challenges that face the discipline are some of the many ways sociology differs from country to country (2005a:20-22; 2005c:382-4, 2005d:423-4). Canada is a particularly interesting case because of its geographic proximity and strong economic and cultural ties to the United States. Canadian sociology has been deeply influenced by American sociology, but has always stood in an uneasy intellectual and political relationship to the US version of the discipline (Hiller 1982; Brym with Fox 1989; Cormier 2004; McLaughlin 2005). A serious discussion of the possibilities and challenges for a public sociology in Canada requires an analysis of the historical and sociological specificity of the Canadian version of the discipline, something we offer in this introduction as well as in the following papers. We begin this introduction by summarizing the argument in Michael Burawoy's "For Public Sociology" essay to give Canadian readers who have not followed the controversy a basic sense of the issues at stake.

We then briefly examine selected aspects of the history of Canadian sociology--English- and French-language--to highlight some ways in which Canadian sociology differs from its US counterpart. Next we review the historical context within which earlier traditions of "engaged" sociology in Canada developed. This provides a background for the papers in this special issue of the CJS. Since it is difficult to talk about the possibilities for a public sociology in the United States or Canada without an appreciation for the larger national institutional, cultural, and historical environment within which intellectuals work, we provide a brief overview of the Canadian public intellectual debate. Finally, we give a brief introduction to the papers we have assembled here. They are diverse in method and style. Some are conceptual, others polemical, and a good number are built on empirical and historical research. Whatever their differences, however, they share a purpose--to remind us that sociology matters outside the walls of the academy and that we need to think carefully about its place in the public sphere. Certainly we think the papers gathered here give Michael Burawoy provocative and scholarly material to respond to in his essay that closes out this special issue.

Burawoy's Public Sociology Agenda

In his controversial 2004 ASA Presidential Address, "For Public Sociology," and a series of essays, commentaries, rejoinders, etc. written before and since, Michael Burawoy claims that sociology, particularly American sociology, is going through "dark times" (2005a:5). The world is likewise in dire straits. Over the past quarter-century, he argues, neoliberal economic political philosophies and practices ("market fundamentalism"), in particular the privatization of much that once lay in the public sphere under broad societal control, have exacerbated racial, class, and gender inequalities, reduced economic security, eroded civil rights, contributed to environmental degradation, and abetted the establishment of oppressive states in some parts of the world (2005a:7; see also Burawoy et al. 2004:125). The academy has not escaped the gloom; pressures brought to bear by government cutbacks and market forces have threatened "the very idea of the university as a 'public' good" (2005a:7).

To solve these problems, Burawoy says, we need to "resuscitate" the public sphere, to put "the social" back at the centre of the polis. In his view, this can be done only through a combination of open dialogue among and progressive action on the part of a range of "publics," many of which have been heretofore oppressed, unrecognized, and/or without voice. …

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