On the cunning of academic reason: About Michael Burawoy’s Concept of Public Sociology

Public sociology and professional sociology

In 2004, British sociologist, Michael Burawoy, delivered the Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, which greatly impacted of the field of social sciences worldwide, giving rise to significant feedback and sparking much debate.[1] His presentation was intended to be polemical: it called on sociologists to free themselves from the academic seclusion that was increasingly defining them and to reestablish ties between the academic community and the wider society. Burawoy challenged his colleagues to reject the notion that sociology could and should be an insular and inward-looking science, confined to the academic world and a restricted scholarly audience. Instead, he argued for what he calls a “public sociology”, which would try to establish contacts with society and address extra-academic audiences. For Burawoy, social scientists should do more than simply produce knowledge; they need to share with the public the fruits of their academic research, explaining its relevance and application to civil society. They should take knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles.

According to Burawoy, the need for public sociology is proving to be increasingly urgent and its practice made all the more difficult due to the constantly expanding separation between sociologists and their publics, dating back to the 1960s.  Burawoy claims that sociologists have moved to the left while the “world” – an analytical category whose extreme fragility and almost total lack of relevance for sociology cannot go unmentioned – has shifted to the right. For this reason, he explains, the knowledge produced by social scientists resonates less and less in the extra-academic world and falls more and more on deaf ears. For Burawoy, the role of the social scientist is precisely to not allow oneself to be satisfied with this state of affairs; faced with these facts, few would be tempted to desert the battlefield. On the contrary, the troops must be rallied and solutions found, and in order to do so, sociology’s moral fiber, so prevalent at the inception of the field, needs to be reinvigorated. In other words, we must recapture the attitude that characterized the approach of authors such as Durkheim, Weber, Marx or even W. E. B. Du Bois, who always combined their sociological approach with a desire to transform the world and for whom scientific and moral enterprises were indistinguishable.

In his paper, Burawoy contends that the public sociology on which he pins his hopes cannot be viewed, as has often been the case throughout the history of sociology, as an enemy of traditional professional sociology. In the past, there have been frequent disputes between the champions of academic sociology and advocates of a more public-oriented sociology, with the former systematically dismissing the latter as being ideologists, essayists, and quasi-scientists, while in turn being accused of producing pedestrian, self-sustaining work, of little interest to anybody and of limited social significance. Yet for Burawoy, these squabbles are baseless, born from misunderstanding and need to be put behind us. In his opinion, public sociology should complement professional sociology, not oppose it. Public sociology is defined by Burawoy as a mobilization of academic (i.e. academically controlled) knowledge in the public sphere. Moreover, it constitutes a public intervention by the sociologist who, by interacting with social movements, associations, etc., draws on his understanding and insight to study how society functions, the roles of different institutions, potentially far-reaching political transformations, and so on.

For Burawoy, therefore, there can be no public sociology without professional sociology, and it is the latter that provides the conceptual frameworks, methodologies, and knowledge that will be used to engage in dialogue with the extra-academic audience. Consequently, professional sociology is not the enemy of public sociology but the sine qua non of its existence, providing the latter with both legitimacy and expertise. For Burawoy, therefore, public sociology is nothing more than professional sociology publicized: “At the heart of our discipline is its professional component. Without professional sociology, there can be no public sociology”[2].

What certainly explains much of the success that his paper received from the international social sciences community is that Burawoy defuses the potentially critical and problematic aspects of the very notion of public sociology. The questions of the relationships established between the University and the world that it studies, and, in particular, the relationships between social sciences and politics, between analysis and criticism of civil society, are not conceptualized by Burawoy as potential bases for a challenging analysis of professional sociology. Burawoy raises the question of the purpose of scientific enterprise (Why do we write? What is the purpose of social science?) and of its audience (For whom do we write? Who comprise the legitimate audience for sociology or history?) but these problems seem not to challenge the traditional workings of professional sociology. Burawoy chooses not to examine the stylistic practices and modes of analysis that are promoted in the academic field, its internal regulatory procedures, the evaluation and ranking of knowledge and ideas, the organization of scholarly production, the selection and circulation of knowledge, the types of subjectivities that it creates, and so on. None of that is discussed: on the contrary, it is all accepted, ratified, legitimized. It even constitutes for Burawoy the core of the discipline and forms the basis for public sociology. Academic modes of production and writing are not questioned or criticized, and the problem of the ever-widening gulf between the academic and extra-academic realms is only mentioned in terms of circulation, reception, and diffusion. Burawoy limits himself to the following questions: How can sociology engage in conversation with its publics? Where should sociologists look for them? What should the terms of that conversation be?

The Boundaries of the University

In fact, the reason why Burawoy never calls into question the academic rules and procedures that frame the production of knowledge is because he is a faithful champion of the academic ideology of research and the vision of the world that it tries to impose, one whose influence is not unique to sociology but found in almost all traditional disciplines of the Humanities. Burawoy’s thesis is built entirely on an unquestioned and implicit system of binary oppositions – academic/extra-academic; internal/external; social scientists/their publics; professionals/novices; scientific community/civil society – and the only problem posed is that of figuring out how to move from private to the public sphere. From here on, he completely glosses over one critical problem, that of the mapping of this boundary line, in other words, of knowing who belongs to the scientific community and who does not, of knowing who is a member of a “peer group” and who is just a member of the “public”. More precisely, what Burawoy does by conforming to the dominant representation of the academic institution is that he swaps the purely institutional boundary between the University and the world for one that separates scientists from non-scientists, specialists from non-specialists, professionals from amateurs, even the competent from the incompetent.

And yet, can we legitimately juxtapose, as though it were the most natural thing, “academics” and “non-academics”, and pretend that the former belong to the “scientific community” and the latter to the “general public”? Is not this vision based on a normative and restrictive definition of the concept of peers and scientific community, which unquestioningly accepts one and only one point of view, that of the University (and in so doing, turns a deaf ear to other points of view)? Does this not entail arbitrarily excluding from the space of legitimate scientific discussion all those who are not part of the University? Why should the scientific field be limited to the academic field? And why would writers, artists, political militants, or members of other disciplines not constitute a viable audience? Besides, in a way, is not identifying the scientific community with the University, which systematically precludes the non-academic public by painting them as incompetent and lacking cultural legitimacy, partly responsible for the separation that, much to Burawoy’s regret, exists between the University and the outside world?

Burawoy’s text is presented as a critique, driven by a desire to shake scholars out of their old habits; in reality, it simply perpetuates the very same practices. In fact, it implicitly reaffirms, while appearing to be critical (thus, making it all the more effective), everything that constitutes belonging to the academic community or, more exactly, all the values that contribute to the creation of that community as an entirely separate profession, one founded on depriving non-academics of the right to participate and to have a voice in legitimate scientific discussion.

But, to my view, the task of a critical evaluation of the workings of academic disciplines cannot be limited to asking how to reunite the University and the world that it studies, or how to build bridges between those who belong to institutionalized fields and those who do not. In fact, what we should be focusing on is understanding how this boundary is established, the consequences for the University of separating the world into insiders and outsiders, and, in particular, the purpose and legitimacy of such an approach. In this way, we could construct intellectual tools that would allow us to fight against the feelings of illegitimacy and incompetence that, for those excluded from the educational system, so often generate belief in the University, in academic titles, and particularly in its hierarchical structures.

The purpose of critical thought cannot be to perpetuate the belief among members of the academic community that they hold the monopoly on the legitimate production and evaluation of knowledge. Rather, it should be to promote and facilitate the emergence of communities open to new ideas and discussion, independent of affiliation and professional boundaries, where everyone feels legitimately entitled to speak and reason in his or her own name.


[1] Michael Burawoy, “For Public Sociology”, American Sociological Review 70 (2005): 4-28.

[2] Ibid. p. 15.

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