Public Sociology and the Custodianship of the Social

Richard Courtney war einer der Redner in der Session “Public Sociology and Social Imagination” (Research Network 29 Social Theory) auf dem Kongress der Europäischen Gesellschaft für Soziologie am 27. August in Prag. Mit seinem Blogbeitrag „Public Sociology and the Custodianship of the Social” beginnt eine Serie von Gastbeiträgen. Weitere Gastautorinnen und Gastautoren sind herzlich willkommen. Es ist gegenwärtig noch nicht möglich, einen komplett zweisprachigen Auftritt des  „Public Sociology Lab“ zu realisieren. Gleichwohl werden immer wieder Blogbeiträge auf Englisch veröffentlicht werden, um dem Tunnelblick einer rein deutschsprachigen Debatte von Anfang an zu vermeiden. Der Blogbeitrag von Richard nimmt seinen Ausgangspunkt ebenfalls beim Begriff und Mantra des soziologischen Vorstellungsvermögen.

Public sociology is more than a politicised version of sociology. It is an effective method for sociologists to display their ‘custodianship of the social’. The ethos of public sociology as envisaged by Burawoy is not new – it is a re-imagining of C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination. In this text Mills identified that a main thrust of sociological work is to ‘make private troubles public issues’. This has become a mantra for sociologists that socialises individual experience into history and contemporary social relations. In doing so, sociologists become custodians of the social.

This mantra has been easily applied to minority and marginal issues such as racial and ethnic discrimination, class shame, and even domestic violence, as it is a medium through which inequality and difference (broadly conceived) are sociologically explored. In doing so, sociologists are conjuring a unique social ontology that embeds individuals within a wider historical and social milieu; a consequence of which is that the effects of attitudes and opinions of one group’s freedom of expression can be for other people a cage of oppression and forced inequality. One only need to look at how pro-life attitudes in the U.S have negative consequences for women whose personal freedom to choose is limited by the freedom of expression of other groups. In this case not all ‘voices’ can be seen as equal, but different. In this not all voices want sociology to arbitrate their private troubles into public issues.

It is these types of dialogues that pose a challenge to public sociology, precisely because as defined by Burawoy, public sociology is about dialogue and it seems disingenuous to validate some claims, whilst dismissing others. In his ASA address, Burawoy states that public sociology can work equally well with worker’s rights groups as it could with Christian fundamentalists.

I want to argue here that this is not the case, because the world-views promoted by libertarian groups is substantially divergent from that conjured by the sociological imagination, which is why many sociologists seek to validate claims that have a left-field flavour. Throughout, the U.K, Europe, and the U.S there is a rising tide of libertarian political claims. It is not the presence of these groups within (and slightly outside) public space that should matter to public sociology, but the degree to which a libertarian world-view becomes projected across public space and issues such as migration and austerity are accepted as understood as monolithic by the general public, i.e. that migration is bad, and austerity is good. The problem is that libertarianism prizes autonomy at the expense of social ways of knowing the world, and instead claims that the world should first and foremost be conceived as a collection of individuals and families kept together in solidarity by their own quite stringent self-regulation, itself an austerity value – the solidarity is what constitutes negative evaluations of migration. This renders sociological knowledge that registers the social and cultural origins and consequences of behaviour, action, and attitudes as redundant, making dialogue impossible. We learn nothing from a dialogue where what we are saying is not being heard!

What is missing in debates about public sociology is a reflection of the theory, methods, and practice that can inform the way in which we can confront libertarian political claims and engage those who espouse them in some semblance of meaningful dialogue. It is not about correcting people’s view of the world, but understanding and theorising how their opinions are socially formed and communicated across public space. A main part of this is to reflect on what we mean by concepts such as the public, and the social etc. In order to do this public sociology needs to go beyond the initial theories of why public dialogue is good, but focus on how we respond to arguments fed back to us from those who may disagree with how we classify and talk about the social. This means that we need to have an explicit to deploy when conducting public sociology; these can repertoire of methodologies include comparative and group life history interviews/seminars, dialogic workshops where we actively enable argumentation, and participatory action research. It is in this way that we could emphasise the transformative outcomes of public sociology.

I want to conclude with an emphasis upon the role of the sociologist as one who is the custodian of the social. This concept exists within the discipline as a ‘phase-space’ to borrow a term from complexity theory, where there are multiple definitions, but most share a common feature in that they see the social as something distinct from individuals. Within this conception of the social are various normative aspirations, such as social justice and social rights and we need to be explicit about its normative features when feeding back to our public partners. This is indeed the strength of public sociology as it reveals to the public what is often regarded as arbitrary and hidden beneath the surface in conventional ‘professional’ sociology.

In my own research I have confronted many people, who are often members of or sympathetic to ‘far-right’ parties. Their opinions have included holocaust denial, anti-immigration, pro-war against the Islamic world, the abolition of the welfare state, and forced euthanasia for disabled children – all of these are completely at odds with how I view the world, but when I was honest and articulate about my values a trust emerged – it was this that fostered a dialogue about how we should make peoples’ private troubles about the above opinions public issues – it created a reflexive environment that illustrated the transformative capacities of public sociology as it challenged them to re-articulate their opinions.

Richard Courtney

Richard Courtney

Richard Courtney is a lecturer in the School of Management, University of Leicester. His main research has been about heritage and identity, and the ways in which this is managed at a public level by local and national governance. He has published on working class heritage and its perceptions of immigration and public sociology more generally. You can follow Richard on Twitter @Courtneyist

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