Public Sociology Research Paper Starter

Public Sociology

(Research Starters)

This article examines the concept of public sociology within the historical context of the development of sociology as a discipline. Michael Burawoy's ideas of public sociology of are reviewed along with many of the comments made by other sociologists about his ideas. The short-lived radical sociology movement is explained along with the long history and some of the accomplishments of applied sociology. Some of the challenges that sociologists face in making their research more widely known are discussed. The emergence of pop science and pop psychology are reviewed with examples of celebrity scientists.

Keywords: Applied Sociology; Burawoy, Michael; Classical Sociology; Pop Science; Project Camelot; Public Sociology; Radical Sociology; Research Ethics; Self-help Movement


Sociology as an academic discipline and professional pursuit has had a long and interesting history. Evolving from a relatively conservative study of society, sociology has gone through many changes including a radical stage in the 1960s and is presently undergoing continuous self examination. The latest movement is toward a multi-faceted discipline and a push toward public sociology, led in an evangelistic manner by Michael Burawoy. Burawoy took the position that sociology should move from a strictly formal academic orientation to a purpose-focused public sociology. As a discipline, sociology should provide professional policy-oriented theory development and research that is moderated through critical sociological analysis and that would eventually help build a better society.

Sociology simultaneously emerged in universities in continental Europe, England and the United States. The early emphasis of sociology varied from country to country and was largely influenced by the pioneers of sociology in their different nations. Early notables included Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and William Graham Sumner who were all going in their own direction of inquiry and formulation of theories of society (Hamilton, 2003). Sociology became more firmly established as academic discipline in the late 1800s (Acker, 2005). What emerged during those earlier years of sociology is what is now often referred to as classical sociology. The goal of the classical theorist was to develop and support theories that could explain the workings of society or some aspect of society (Gibbons, 2007). This was done through both the development of theory and testing of theories through empirical research.

American sociology has had a long and impressive list of contributors, who in their own time had significant impact. These include Alexis de Tocqueville, Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, Robert Morrison MacIver, W. E. B. Dubois, Robin M. Williams Jr., W.I. Thomas, Pitirim Sorokin, C. Wright Mills, and dozens of others. Sociology departments at Columbia University and the University of Chicago were well established by the early 1900s. The social environment in which these departments were growing was far different than the universities in Europe. New York and Chicago provided a human laboratory of social change, industrial expansion, and economic growth the likes of which had never been seen on such a vast scale. These cities provided almost all the things that sociologists love to study, with a myriad of social problems which needed to be addressed. These environments help to shape the future of American sociology (Halas, 2001).

With the emerging twentieth century as historical context, and the rapid changes in American society, many sociologists in the United States conducted research that helped to achieve positive public outcomes and provided a better understanding of social problems (Noy, 2008). This pragmatic focus continued and a considerable amount of the research and analysis performed by sociologists has been relevant to near-term and long-term societal issues (Brint, 2005; Light, 2005).

Radical Sociology

At various times in the history of sociology, observers and sociologists alike have been concerned over a lack of status for the discipline as well as fragmentation in the development of theory (Szymanski, 1970; Denzin, 1997). The lack of a central personality for sociology and the social movements of the time led several sociologists to social activism in the 1960s and 1970s. They transformed their realm of work into radical sociology, which focused on social change and social justice issues. Radical sociology was more a perspective than an actual subcategory of Sociology. Much of this work was focused on feminism, ecology, or race issues (Wallerstein, 2006).

Radical sociology ended up confronting the then-accepted norms and viewpoints about power and equality in the United States. Much of the work of C. Wright Mills was rooted in very strong sociological observation and analysis was well as his ideology toward injustice. His famous work The Sociological Imagination, was a compelling manifesto to mobilize sociologists to work for justice and the public good. His books White Collar and The Power Elite provided a model by which to analyze social structure and social institutions (McKee, 1970).

One of the most aggressive efforts to establish a department of sociology rooted in radical sociology at a major university occurred at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri during the late 1960s. The short-lived effort was riddled with conflict. Most of the professors in the department were eventually fired or left on their own accord after confrontations with university administrators. There was also a heated controversy over the thesis work of Laud Humphreys, who eventually published a book Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sexual Encounters in Public Places based on his research in Saint Louis (Etzkowitz, 1989).

Sociologist Michael Burawoy contended that the radical sociology of the 1970s failed (Katz-Fishman & Scott, 2005) while others disagree, pointing out some of the excellent work that was done by sociologists during this time (Chase-Dunn, 2005).

Public Sociology

Michael Burawoy's 2005 presidential address to the American Sociological Association advanced his argument as to the role of sociologists in society and the concept of public sociology. One of the main points Burawoy made was the importance of moving sociology outside of itself as a professional discipline and into a position that could more directly benefit societies and interaction within them (Tittle, 2004; Kalleberg, 2005; Holmwood, 2007).

Michael Burawoy (2005) took the position that sociology should move from a strictly formal academic orientation to a purpose-focused public sociology. As a discipline, sociology should provide professional policy-oriented theory development and research that is moderated through critical sociological analysis and that would eventually help build a better society (Turner, 2005). Some argue that Burawoy's position was too narrowly focused and asked for further research as to how professional, critical, policy, and public sociologies could be harnessed for the greater good of both the discipline and of society (McLaughlin, et al., 2005). Followers argued that Burawoy's position was an effort to re-engage sociology as an academic discipline that addressed public concerns rather than just the development of social theory (Boyns & Fletcher, 2005; Etzioni, 2005; Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2005).

The debate over Burawoy's vision of public sociology continues to be fueled from many different perspectives (Ericson, 2005). Beyond the nuts and bolts arguments about methods and structure is the macro issue of what direction sociology as a discipline will take and whether it will be able to stand alone or become the servant of power as has economics and political science (Aronowitz, 2005). The view that the future of sociology is highly dependent on how much sociology can contribute to society and how those contributions are viewed by various publics was shared by many activist sociologists (Tittle, 2004; Calhoun, 2005).


Sociology for the Public

Efforts to move sociology away from theory development and into a problem-solving mode are not new at all (Whyte, 1998; Mandel & Howson, 2009). In many ways sociology has long been public and the new movement to make it more public may not necessarily change much in terms of how sociologists do things (Zurcher, 1970; Brady, 2004).

Unfortunately, many students become frustrated after time because sociology in its purest form tends to be removed from current events or conditions. Some remove themselves from academia and use their knowledge of sociology in becoming activists, researchers, or writers (Gaines, 1998). They use their knowledge and skills as consultants, experts, and as agents for change working as public social scientists (Hadas, 2007). Historically, applied sociology is an approach to sociology wherein the practitioner works from an advocacy position, provides problems solving support, or assists in public policy development (Neeley, 2008). Sociologists have long studied social problems (Leedham & Eitzen, 1994) and this helped to attract many students to sociology as a discipline because of the potential opportunity to better understand the social aspects of the world as well as to attempt to improve the quality of societal life (Luschen, 1992; Gaines, 1998; Bonacich, 2005). Applied sociology is not just geared toward solving social problems. It can also include consulting to organizations or conducting research for private companies where sociological concepts and research methods can help address strategic or tactical issues (Wimberley, 1998).

As an academic discipline sociology has reshaped itself to adapt to the changing world by increasing the number and expanding the scope of specializations that sociologists can pursue (Starr, 1983). This in turn expands the "publics" that sociologists can serve. Some publics have had concerns for or have been stakeholders in environmental issues and urban problems. Newer fields opening up to sociological research include architectural studies, taxation and public fiscal management, and forensics research.

Project Camelot

Debates about public sociology will continue and among the issues that are yet to be resolved is how broadly or how narrowly a public will be defined and what rules or principles will govern engagements with the publics. But debates about the type of research that sociologists should be involved in and the ethics that govern researcher responsibility are nothing new to sociology. One of the dramatic episodes in the ongoing debates occurred during the 1960s and is now known as Project Camelot.

The focus of Project Camelot was Latin America. The project was sponsored by the United States Army and managed through American University. The ultimate goal of the project was to establish a model that could help predict social change in developing countries; especially changes that may be produced as a result of insurgency (Oppenheim, 1969). Some viewed this project as an espionage mission.

As word about the project spread there was considerable negative reaction from academic sociologists and other social scientists. Several observers as well as participants denounced the project and the scandal was afoot (Adams, 1968). As a result the debate about ethics in social science research accelerated. Central to this ethical debate is the issue of covert research, where the subjects of the research have no knowledge of the research, the purpose of the research, and especially knowledge as to how the results of the research may be used (Burgess, 1983).

As the debate continued, the American Sociological Association released a code of ethics in 1968 (Bailey, 1988). Since then research funders, administrators, directors, and university departments and boards of ethics have been setting stricter ethical standards and in many cases require reviews of research for ethical considerations before projects are initiated (Alderson & Morrow, 2006).

Underutilization of Sociological Research

The work of sociologists continues to lag behind in both recognition and utilization at the policy level compared to the work of economists and political scientists (Woolcock & Kim, 2000). The ethics issues that surfaced after Project Camelot and the professional response to the issues may have contributed to this lack of utilization. Sociologists clearly want a high ethical standard applied to research and not all government projects (especially those funded by the military or spy agencies) are ready for such scrutiny.

Many applied sociologists that focused on social research for the purpose of directed social change have been defamed as idiosyncratic social engineers that were guided by their own biases or misdirected by the biases of their employers (Klein, 1982). This could also be part of the reason that sociology and sociologists are not held in high esteem by policy makers or the public at large (Seperson, 1995).

The type of research that sociologists can actually accomplish is a limiting factor in the marketability of sociology as a discipline. In the late 1900s and early 2000s there have been very few large well funded studies that have amassed volumes of data to analyze. On the other hand, there have been numerous smaller studies that individual or small groups of researchers have completed with little or no outside funding (Lidz & Ricci, 1990). The smaller projects were undertaken as matter of interest to the researchers and perhaps a matter of connivance because an opportunity was readily available.

The lack of consistent funding for sociology has had considerable impact on the discipline and has probably contributed to the growing number of specializations — or what some call fragmentation — of the discipline (Turner, 2006). The tendency toward specialization also indicates that sociologists have had to be more individually resourceful or entrepreneurial in order to support their research efforts. The scarcity of funding has also probably contributed to the use of mixed methods of data collection and analysis which is rather common in applied social research (Bryman, et al., 2008).


Sociology in the Media

There may be desire on the part of some sociologists to do public work be it through applied sociological research or perhaps more in the Burawoyvian sense of engaging and communicating back and forth with a public. However, in general, sociology holds little interest for the reading public (Ritzer, 1998). Sociologists and social scientists (for the most part) have never really gained extensive public exposure or media coverage. Very few sociologists find stardom through media attention of their work or research and often those that do get attention (as some did during the Clinton sex scandal) are accused of not doing serious scholarly work or of seeking publicity (Ewer, 1979; Schwartz, 1998). Concerns about media coverage of sociological research have validity in that many media outlets are seeking content that is geared toward, or can be interpreted in a manner that appeals to their particular audience. This can result in selective or less than accurate presentation of research results (Walum, 1975; Siebel & Smith, 2009).

Celebrity Practitioners

There have been several scientists and intellectuals that have drawn considerable public interest to their work and to their fields of study. Carl Sagan, a physics professor, brought astronomy and the cosmos to the general public through books and television shows. He created excitement and expanded interest in his work among a wide public including professionals from many fields as well as tens of thousands of people outside the professional disciplines (Dyson, 2007).

Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who brought the world the concepts of Future Shock, hyper-change, and the future of war, certainly addressed many social issues and explored, in their own manner, many sociological concepts. But they considered themselves futurist and their work, although popular with the general public, met with criticism from some sociologists even while it received moderate praise from other sociologists (Kover & Huber, 1972).

Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson brought the discussion of...

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