What is Public sociology? Explained


  1. Introduction
  2. History
  3. Today
  4. Future
  5. Criticism


Public sociology is a subfield of sociology that focuses on expanding the discipline's disciplinary boundaries in order to engage with nonacademic audiences. It's better to think of it as a sociological style rather than a specific method, theory, or set of political values. The term has been widely associated with University of California, Berkeley sociologist Michael Burawoy since his 2004 American Sociological Association (ASA) presidential address, in which he made an impassioned call for a disciplinary embrace of public sociology. Burawoy contrasts public sociology with "professional sociology," a type of sociology concerned primarily with addressing other academic sociologists, in his speech.

Burawoy and other proponents of public sociology encourage the discipline to engage with pressing public and political issues. These include discussions about public policy, political activism, the goals of social movements, and civil society institutions. If public sociology is considered a "movement" within the discipline, it aims to revitalise sociology by leveraging empirical methods and theoretical insights to contribute to debates not just about what is or has been in society, but also about what society might become in the future. As a result, many versions of public sociology have an undeniably normative and political character, which has prompted a number of sociologists to criticise the approach.


Herbert Gans coined the term "public sociology" in his 1988 ASA presidential address, "Sociology in America: The Discipline and the Public." David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd (one of the best-selling sociology books ever written), and Robert Bellah, lead author of another best-selling work, Habits of the Heart, were two primary examples of public sociologists for Gans. Sociologist Ben Agger published Public Sociology: From Social Facts to Literary Acts in 2000, four years before Burawoy's ASA address, calling for a sociology that addressed major public issues.

In his book The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (2015), Northwestern University race scholar Aldon Morris argues that W. E. B. Du Bois was practising public sociology long before the term was incorporated into the mainstream disciplinary vocabulary, and that scientific racism prevented Du Bois' contributions from being recognised by the discipline for nearly a century.

Morris claims that during his time at Atlanta University, a historically black college, Du Bois established the first real sociology department, predating the Chicago school's "scientific revolution" (who are often credited with turning sociology into a rigorous, empirical social science). To emancipate American blacks from the tyrannies and oppressions built into the racist fabric of American society, Du Bois believed that robust empirical sociological research was required. Du Bois used inductive research to deconstruct and delegitimize social Darwinist, biological, and cultural deficiency explanations for racial inequality, which were not based on empirical evidence and instead relied on grand deductive narratives with no scientific basis.

Du Bois and his colleagues used the scientific method and rigorous empirical inquiry to turn sociology into a true social science committed to empirical investigation, as well as to use their findings to liberate, empower, and emancipate American blacks from racist oppression.

Questions about sociology's non-academic purpose have resurfaced as a result of debates over public sociology. Public sociology raises questions about what sociology is and what it should (or could) achieve. In American sociology and American social science in general, such debates (over science and political advocacy, scholarship and public commitment) have a long history. For example, historian Mark C. Smith investigated earlier debates over the purpose of social science in his book Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, , while Stephen P. Turner and Jonathan H. Turner argue in their book The Impossible Science: An Institutional Analysis of American Sociology (1990) that sociology's search for purpose has limited the discipline's potency through reliance on external publics.


While there is no single definition of public sociology, the term has become synonymous with Burawoy's unique sociological perspective. 

The following is an excerpt from Burawoy's 2004 ASA presidential address, which summarises his understanding of the term:
"As mirror and conscience of society, sociology must define, promote and inform public debate about deepening class and racial inequalities, new gender regimes, environmental degradation, market fundamentalism, state and non-state violence. I believe that the world needs public sociology - a sociology that transcends the academy - more than ever. Our potential publics are multiple, ranging from media audiences to policy makers, from silenced minorities to social movements. They are local, global, and national. As public sociology stimulates debate in all these contexts, it inspires and revitalizes our discipline. In return, theory and research give legitimacy, direction, and substance to public sociology. Teaching is equally central to public sociology: students are our first public for they carry sociology into all walks of life. Finally, the critical imagination, exposing the gap between what is and what could be, infuses values into public sociology to remind us that the world could be different."

Elsewhere, Burawoy has articulated a vision of public sociology that is consonant with the pursuit of democratic socialism. In Critical Sociology, Burawoy writes: 

"We might say that critical engagement with real utopias is today an integral part of the project of sociological socialism. It is a vision of socialism that places human society, or social humanity at its organizing center, a vision that was central to Marx but that was too often lost before it was again picked up by Gramsci and Polanyi. If public sociology is to have a progressive impact it will have to hold itself continuously accountable to some such vision of democratic socialism."

As Mark D. Jacobs and Amy Best write, 

"The mission of public sociology, in Michael Burawoy’s formulation, is to strengthen the institutions of civil society against the encroachments of both state and market." 

Indeed, according to Burawoy, sociology's political stance has shifted to the left since the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, while neoliberalism's all-encompassing influence has dragged the rest of the world to the right. Following Reaganomics, the state and the market have begun to collaborate to promote market fundamentalist ideals, with the state's role in redistributing resources and providing social welfare services being replaced by one of creating economic opportunities for business. Unless the discipline embraces his call to unashamedly engage with the world's diverse (and at-risk) publics to achieve some greater good, thus resisting the perverse allure of neoliberalism, this, he believes, will have devastating consequences for civil society, the very subject of sociology itself. One example is the massive increase in adjunct professors in universities, and the impact this has had on professors' ability to publish articles that would give them credibility in the eyes of not only the general public, but also within their own discipline.

Even in the face of such adversity, many sociologists believe that sociology has the potential to develop an alternative paradigm to the market fundamentalism at the heart of Burawoy's critique. The sociological discipline is dynamic and ever-changing, with a long history of incorporating new theoretical and empirical insights into its analyses, frequently with the goal of empowering marginalised groups. Indeed, the sociology of work has progressed from the study of adaptation to the study of dominance and labour movements; stratification theory has progressed from the study of mobility within a hierarchy of occupational prestige to the study of changing structures of social and economic inequality along the axes of class, race, and gender; and the sociology of race has progressed from theories of assimilation to those of political economy to the study of racia.

Sociologists aren't the only ones who have debated social science's public role. Similar debates have recently occurred in economics, political science, anthropology, geography, and history, as well as various sub-disciplines such as political ecology. Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council, has encouraged sociologists and other social scientists to "ask better social science questions about what encourages scientific innovation, what makes knowledge useful, and how to pursue both these agendas, with attention to both immediate needs and long-term capacities" in an effort to move these various disciplines "toward a more public social science." Calhoun has also weighed in on the public sociology debate, critically assessing the project while acknowledging its unique "promise," and arguing that "how sociology matters in the public sphere is vital to the field's future."


Following Michael Burawoy's vision of public sociology, which he introduced during his presidential address at the American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in 2004, there has been continued interest in the subject. Several books and special issues on public sociology have been published in recent years, including:
  • Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century (2007), edited by Dan Clawson, Robert Zussman, Joya Misra, Naomi Gerstel, Randall Stokes, and Douglas L. Anderton; 
  • Public Sociologies Reader (2006), edited by Judith Blau and Keri Iyall Smith; 
  • Public Sociology: The Contemporary Debate (2007), edited by Larry Nichols.
  • Public Sociology and Civil Society, Governance, Politics, and Power (2013), by Patricia Mooney Nickel;  and 
  • Public Sociology: From Social Facts to Literary Acts (New Social Formations) (2nd edition, 2007), by Ben Agger.
The 2007 ASA meeting in New York City included many facets of public sociology, building on the conversation started by Burawoy in 2004. Many of the talks directly addressed the public sociology debate, such as: "Paul Johnston's "Constituting a Practical Public Sociology: Reflections on Participatory Research at the Citizenship Project"; Heather Schoenfeld's "A New Public Sociology of Punishment"; and "What Do Activists Want?" by Paul Johnston. "Developing a Public Sociology: From Lay Knowledge to Civic Intelligence in Health Impact Assessment" by Danielle Bessett and Christine Morton; and "Public Sociology for Feminist Scholars of Reproduction" by Danielle Bessett and Christine Morton "Eva Elliott and Gareth Williams are the authors of this piece.

 "Making Sociology Public: A Critical Analysis of an Old Idea and a Recent Debate" Lambros Fatsis' doctoral thesis on public sociology, can also be recommended as a critical review of the contemporary disciplinary debate about public sociology, incorporating such developments as "e-public sociology" into the scholarly discussion. E-public sociology is a type of public sociology that entails publishing sociological materials in publicly accessible online spaces and then interacting with the public in those spaces.

The public sociology debate is having far-reaching implications for how many sociology departments teach and practise sociology, with several reorienting their programmes to include elements of public sociology. The University of Minnesota's sociology department, for example, has begun advocating for sociology to play a larger role in public life by providing "useful, accurate, and scientifically rigorous information to policymakers and community leaders." In the fall of 2008, George Mason University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology began offering a doctoral degree in sociology, grounding its two specialisations in Institutions and Inequalities and Sociology of Globalization in a context of public sociological praxis.


A sizable number of those who practise sociology as public intellectuals or academic professionals do not subscribe to Michael Burawoy's particular version of "public sociology" or to any version of "public sociology" at all. The project of public sociology has been vigorously debated on the web, in conversations among sociologists, and in a variety of academic journals in the aftermath of Burawoy's 2004 presidency of the American Sociological Association, which put the theme of public sociology in the spotlight.

Burawoy's vision of public sociology, in particular, has been criticised by both "critical" sociologists and academic sociologists. These various discussions of public sociology have been published in academic journals such as Social Problems, Social Forces, Critical Sociology, and the British Journal of Sociology in forums devoted to the subject.

Both the logic and the goals of public sociology have been heavily criticised. Its detractors argue that it is based on a false premise of sociological consensus, claiming that "it greatly overestimates the uniformity of sociologists' moral and political agenda." They raise doubts about the feasibility and desirability of such a moral pact, pointing out that "Almost every social issue entails moral ambiguity rather than moral clarity. It's almost never clear what is or isn't 'just.' ".. Others argue that public sociology is founded on an idealistic and uncritical view of the public sphere.

Academics have made even harsher criticisms, claiming that the public sociology programme will overly politicise the discipline, jeopardising sociology's legitimacy in public discourse. These critics argue that the goal of public sociology is fundamentally incompatible with the project of building a reliable body of knowledge about society: 
"To the extent that we orient our work around moral principles, we are less likely to attend to theoretical issues. The greater the extent to which we favor particular outcomes, the less able are we to design our work to actually access such outcomes. And the more ideologically oriented our objectives, the less the chance that we can recognize or assimilate contrary evidence. In other words, rather than good professional sociology being mutually interactive with public sociology, I believe that public sociology gets in the way of good professional sociology."
One outspoken critic of public sociology was sociologist Mathieu Deflem of the University of South Carolina, who wrote various papers against public sociology and argued that public sociology:
"is neither public nor sociology. Public sociology is not a plea to make sociology more relevant to the many publics in society nor to connect sociology democratically to political activity. Of course sociologists should be public intellectuals. But they should be and can only be public intellectuals as practitioners of the science they practice, not as activists left or right. Yet public sociology instead is a quest to subsume sociology under politics, a politics of a specific kind, not in order to foster sociological activism but to narrow down the sociological discipline to activist sociology."

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