It seems that the majority of writing on public sociology is a reaction to Michael Burawoy. This post will not break from this tradition. In fact, much of this post is a reaction to one of his earlier pieces on public sociology, entitled “For Public Sociology” (2005). I have defined public sociology as a dialogical relationship between publics and sociological knowledge. In this case, the public sociologist ought to address issues worthy of public interest, and bring any analyses of such issues to the public’s attention. This can be accomplished in several ways. The public sociology may choose to engage with a community though participatory action research, or interactive discussions. Regardless, a truly tangible connection is forged between the community and sociological research. With this connection comes the potential for positive, social change. Following the spirit of C. Wright Mills (1959), relationships such as these can transform private troubles into public issues.
Interestingly enough, Michael Burawoy seems to disagree with this assertion. Much of his writing on public sociology categorizes public sociology as a “critical” aspect of sociological inquiry, which is chiefly concerned with “the public image of sociology, presenting findings in an accessible manner, teaching the basics of sociology, and writing textbooks”. It is strange that such a category can be referred to as “public sociology”. According to this qualification, a public sociologist can only reach a public through teaching and publishing. Many publics are overlooked in this process, such as those outside of the university and those who do not have access to newly published books and articles. These overlooked publics are comprised of individuals who would benefit most from public sociology – the socially and economically disadvantaged.
I would like to suggest a reinterpretation of public sociology. Public sociology should not be thought of as simply critical. It should also be considered instrumental. Strangely enough, Burawoy (2005) has labeled “traditional sociology” as instrumental. In my opinion this is far from a reality. Traditional sociology, as defined by Burawoy (2005), is concerned with sociological research that defines theories, concepts, questions, and puzzles. While this may be “instrumental” to academics within sociology, it is far from instrumental to those existing outside of the academy. Sociological research is often difficult to access or interpret outside of the university. This negates the possibility of public application without the aid of a sociologist. This is why public sociology is highly instrumental – it has the potential to address private issues via centuries of systematic study and analysis. Thus, private troubles can be transformed into public issues if addressed within a community setting. After all, sociology does insist that structural forces drive and shape individual interactions. As such, behaviors tend to be linked in patterns, causing large numbers of individuals to experience common trials and tribulations. Public sociology can link these experiences and foster social movements to eliminate them.
Burawoy must be given credit, however. In his 2005 article “The Critical Turn to Public Sociology”, he argues that sociology must focus on organizing itself in a way that is conducive to the development of publics. For me, this is the essence of sociological instrumentalism – a discipline that can unite disadvantaged individuals with publics, consolidating and mobilizing political power for the people…a true “sociology for the people”.
Joshua Tuttle is a doctoral student of public sociology at George Mason University. His thesis was quantitative examination of the effects of race, gender, and socioeconomic status on Roman Catholic religious commitment. His research interests include religion, social inequality, and globalization. Public sociology projects that he has worked on include the Wilmington’s Youth Enrichment Zone and the Feast Downeast Project.
This article originally appeared in Josh’s blog, Sociology for the People, on Feb6, 2012