Public sociology

I am about to try and persuade some of my colleagues to contribute to a blog devoted to public sociology. This is intended to be a response to a growing tendency for individuals and groups to develop specialist expertise in areas of concern or interest to them. A good example of this is where environmental movements wish to challenge the use of some forms of technology and even some of the scientific assumptions underlying them. This often takes the form of invoking the cautionary principle on the basis of the incompleteness or partiality of the science. Other examples are movements involved in public health and medical issues that want to challenge policy or the scientific models underpinning the policy, for example the ‘medical model’ of disability or the imposition of ‘professional’ perspectives that ignore or marginalise the views and experience of users, clients or customers. I have also noticed that friends and family members are increasingly going to their doctors and consultants armed with the results of research they have done in order to understand what the Doctor is saying and engage in an informed discussion about their condition and possible strategies. This is also true of interactions with financial advisers and the tax authorities. In fact there is an official drive in this direction with the government providing web based services like ‘the Expert Patient’ and other information sites and an increasing exhortation to all to be proactive in taking responsibility for our own lives.

It seems to me that it could be of significant benefit for individuals and groups to have a source of reliable knowledge about how societies work and the social processes that form the context of their experiences and problems and have, often pretty invisible, impacts upon their lives. It is a commonplace in sociology that the unintended consequences of intended actions often have a far greater  impact on outcomes than those intended and hoped for. These unintended consequences are often due to the way individual and group actions and behaviours connect with, reverberate through and rebound from much broader social contexts and processes. C. Wright Mills claimed that sociology is the study of the ways individual lives are linked to the historical development of social structures. To quote from his book The Sociological Imagination (1959):

It is the political task of the social scientist — as of any liberal educator — continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work — and, as an educator, in his life as well — this kind of sociological imagination.

Something if this is hinted at in H G Well’s commentary on Mr Polly’s predicament (and many of the petty bourgeoisie of the time):

I come back to Mr. Polly sitting upon his gate and swearing in the east wind, and I have a sense of floating across unbridged abysses between the General and the Particular. There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding, seeing clearly the big process that dooms millions of lives to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstance […] and, on the other hand, Mr. Polly sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned, confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it were, nettled in greyness and discomfort [..]. (H G Wells. The History of Mr Polly 1910 Chapter 7 Part III).

The man of understanding, who can provide the ‘General’ contex to Mr Polly’s ‘Particular’ circumstances in Well’s story is a social scientist of some sort.

The public sociology blog would hopefully have a number of contributors with different areas of research expertise.  The intention would be to write informative posts aimed at what might be called ‘the intelligent lay person’ and would be of interest to other sociologists and inquisitive members of the general public. Posts would be a mixture of short reports and observations on current research, opinion pieces and short commentaries on current news and issues where a more sociological perspective might add to understanding. Hopefully contributions will be made by research students as well as established academics and scholars. As a blog of course it will be possible for readers to post comments and hopefully this will be a good way for practicing sociologists to engage with and discuss issues in a public and relevant way.

Another impetus behind this idea is a recent edition of the Times Higher Education Supplement that had a couple of articles on the diminishing role of public academics and intellectuals and their increasing irrelevance. The vacuum they are leaving is rapidly being filled by populist journalism and celebrity opinion makers. The edition in question is that of May 28th 2009.

In a leader article, Go public to prevent extinction by Ann Mroz, she claims that “knockabout popular debate appeals to few scholars, but if intellectuals disappear from the public eye, academia may suffer”. Another article in the same edition is a commentary on a talk given by Professor Harris of Oxford University at a seminar marking International Academic Freedom Day,  Freedom fighters ‘when it suits’, where he  argued that the current challenges to academic freedom were threats in which the academic community was complicit. Academics protect their work from external criticism, he said, and specialisation is used as a barrier behind which academics and their colleagues can hide. The full text of his address is available online.