Sunday, August 14, 2005

Who Ya Gonna Call — a Social Scientist?

Not likely — except possibly an economist. People do seek advice from them — but no longer from , as they did in the 1950s. I’ve heard lots of theories about the declining importance of sociology in public affairs. Some say the long skid began when the discipline started favoring quantitative research methods, which don’t lend themselves to every kind of inquiry. Others blame the decline on the radical that prevailed among sociologists in the 1970s, when we talked more to each other than to the wider society. In any case, when government leaders seek advice about societal problems, the first person they think of consulting is rarely a sociologist. What will it take to turn that around?

The sociologists are gathering now in Philadelphia for their annual — which reminds me that I’ve never discussed last year’s wonderful presidential address by Michael .(See his photo above.) Addressing a packed auditorium in San Francisco, he stirred us up and made us root for what he called “.” Burawoy distinguishes among four different orientations that can be found in his discipline: the professional; the critical; policy; and public sociology. The two middle types can get along together without difficulty; hot disputes occur only between “professional sociologists” and “public sociologists.” I belong to the latter category, so I was delighted with Burawoy’s speech because I’d never heard my orientation praised before by a ranking colleague.

Amitai may be the best-known public sociologist in North America today. In his memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, he recounts the disapproval that he incurred for his way of working. Shortly after assuming his first academic position at Columbia University, he was summoned to the office of an eminent professor, Paul Lazarsfeld, who berated him for publishing a movie review, since the Columbia faculty didn’t “want another C. Wright .”

Nevertheless, Etzioni continued writing on every political or social issue that he cared about. For example, he criticized the US program — especially the expensive “moon-doggle” that was being pursued at the time. He argued that lots of human needs could be solved with that money, whereas the knowledge that NASA would generate would help no one. He also became active in criticizing the ongoing arms race. He kept submitting op-ed to newspapers, proposing solutions to various societal problems but most of them were never printed.

Eventually people did pay attention. For a while he worked at the , and then he started a community-building social movement. This “communitarian” orientation attracted a following, including the Clintons. Its philosophy can be summarized by John F. Kennedy’s famous admonition: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That is, Etzioni places as much emphasis on as on rights.

Public sociologists engage with the various publics that constitute a society. They support and participate in civil society, including politically. According to Burawoy, the object and value of political science is the state and the defence of order. The object and value of economics is the market and its expansion. And the object and value of sociology are and its resilience. This insight seems to be catching on. There’s now a web site for public sociologists; I just found it today and immediately registered on it.

Sociologists who take the “professional” orientation typically disapprove of those who do advocacy and activism. They base their disengagement on a famous article by Max Weber, who considered it academically questionable to combine with scientific research. Yet in our day, “hard” scientists are far more engaged than social scientists. For example, I have been active for 24 years in Science for Peace — which has many physical scientist members but very few social scientists. Why? Having been involved in creating the atomic bomb — and then being unable to prevent its use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists consider it their duty to participate in determining the use of all discoveries. Many sociologists are still too innocent, believing it is possible to let the world take its course without any intervention on their part. If you want to be a public sociologist, I invite you to join Science for Peace and to work with us on .


Anonymous rex said...

Who'm I gonna call? All my earthmates! We should all be researching, all the time! And I don't mean controlled 'scientific' experiments! I mean 'searching again' (&again&again) until at last (if ever) we stumble upon what works to make our life together better&better for everyone!
To help us in our searching, I want to teach (all who like to sing) the words for my new round (the tune for which is not quite fixed yet): "A stupid mistake by a saint or a maniac with no sorrow can make of this wonderful world of ours a wilderness wasteland tomorrow!"
Then we can all get busy living our lives on the highest moral ground we can imagine! Of course, as an integral aspect of our 're-searchng', we must also be as acutely aware as we can be of the consequences of what we do, because whatever we do will affect us all! So, if we notice which of any of our ways might make life worse, we must try to make a quick course correction as we continue our search (& keep on keeping on!)!
If you want a song for that, there will soon be one on my website ( "How o how can we be more acutely aware of what ever is, without indifference or judgment, but with our hearts all on fire?"

8:29 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

I'm not much of a singer, Rex, but I expect you can recruit quite a chorus to perform your new song.

And I want to echo your suggestion that we “make a quick course correction as we continue our search.”

I saw a wonderful example of that in the op ed piece by Anthony Doob and Rosemary Gartner in today’s Globe and Mail. They answer the question everyone is asking these days in Toronto: What caused this new upsurge in shootings in our city? Some writers blame it all on the importing of guns from the United States. They show that, on the contrary, it’s the result of Canadians’ own foolish policies, starting several years ago. (They don't mention Mike Harris, but that's the government that wreaked all this trouble.) There were budget cuts from all the educational and social services that are known to steer troubled youths away from trouble and into productive lifestyles. Now we're paying the price. And there is no easy fix for it now. It's too late. If we have learned a lesson, we can fix what's broken that would perpetuate these troubles in the next generation of children. Hooray for these fine public sociologists! They have years of research experience behind their belts and we should pay attention to them.

3:08 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home