Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Public Sociologists for Sale?

I had a frightening job description sent to me, which I thought was particularly relevant to public sociology. In red, "Make $12,000 in 3 months this summer!" - as much as I make as a t.a. in 9 months to put this in the perspective of a graduate student. The request was for an applied literature review to see the usefulness and reception of a crowd control device.

The United States Air Force (USAF) has developed a non-injurious, non-carcinogenic “energy beam” device which may provide US forces with a non-lethal capability in military operations other than war (peacekeeping, peace enforcement, humanitarian operations, area denial, crowd control, etc.). The energy beam uses non-ionizing millimeter wave technologies to deposit energy in the top 0.3mm of the skin. An almost immediate sensation of heating and irresistible pain is experienced by a targeted person; targets can readily determine the direction from which the unseen energy comes and respond by moving out of the beam’s path or moving away from the beam. With redirection or withdrawal of the energy beam, the painful sensations cease and the person is left unharmed. Extensive animal and human testing on the bioeffects of the energy beam has already been conducted.


This brings up many questions for consideration. But I'm just going to focus on public sociologies. Clearly, this involves an interface between sociological inquiry and publics. Also, it involves state-military funded research with a predetermined agenda, which Burawoy contends often happens with policy sociology. However, I'm not convinced that this type of work can be classified as policy sociology.

There are a number of social sciences questions that need to be addressed. How will targets, bystanders, other members of the (sub)culture/nation, and global observers react to use of this technology? What perceptions and attributions are likely? How would use of such a technology influence rumors and conspiracy theorizing? What will various audiences likely think (cognition), feel (emotion), or do (behavior) in response to use of such a “futuristic” technology?


It seems to me these questions could be used for political spin, perhaps some policy questions, but more so for strategy and actual implementation of technology. This, I fear, could also be lumped into public sociologies, which was supposed to be the liberatory-applied critical sociology.

I could have applied to this job. I could have done a critical literature review answering all of these questions from the perspective of the subaltern, which is actually what was requested. All of this would AND COULD be turned around and used AGAINST activists and resisters.

This brings us to something I think needs debated. We may do work that we intend to be critical and emancipatory (on our most optimistic days). However, our work could be put together at any point in time in a literature review covering the subjects we study to use against or to control them. What then?

What do we make of Burawoy's classification scheme now? To me this complicates the picture, which might help make his argument stronger in response. The promise of public sociologies has much more to be debated.

26 Comments:

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Brayden said...

Creepy. It's hard to believe that the government is even funding a project like this.

My first thought as I read your last point is that our research always has the potential of influencing the focal group of study, negatively or positively. Scholars who study social movements aren't necessarily finding better ways for movements to organize and attain outcomes. Findings may also be used by groups of a different political orientation to mount a counter-movement. We can't predict how our results will be used or if they will facilitate our personal political cause. This is one reason for why we shouldn't design our research agenda based solely on our political views, although it should certainly be one input.

It's a little different though when you are employed by an agent that has a specific agenda with which you disagree. You know how they are likely to use your research findings. Taking employment from an organization that has objectives that are in direct opposition to your own personal political views may not be a very smart personal investment, but it isn't necessarily bad public sociology. What is bad public sociology for you may be good sociology for someone else. Although the median political view of sociologists is likely to be somewhere left-of-center, we can't assume that all sociologists subscribe to the same values and political beliefs. In that sense there is no objectively bad public sociology.

 
At 7:06 AM, Blogger Goesh said...

Somehow I am reminded of the Hippy movement of the 1960s. When it became commercialized, the true believers simply moved away. In fact, they had a mock funeral in San Francisco for the demise of the ideology.Psuedo sociology has been around for quite some time and will continue because the quest for legitimacy is a powerful force in human affairs. It can be a creative venture in and of itself, generating all kinds of cottage industries, large and small. Perhaps when Sociologists are directing the particle beams, the world will be a better place, eh?

Maybe the attempt to divest ourselves of moral judgement in research and applied theory is nothing more than the quest for legitimacy. When applause takes the form of grant money, in any endeavor, the paid audience is the only vehicle through which we can legitimize our efforts. This is a sobering thought until one attempts to broach the subjects of this forum in traditional public arenas. Just imagine the looks one would get in most any setting by asking if being an agent of change negates the theory behind the change. Try sparking a conversation over that at happy hour some time. Those of you in the academic arena need to count your blessings - at least some in the audience have elected to hear you out and are not being subjected to the subtle forces of product consumption.

 
At 10:56 AM, Blogger Erin said...

First a bit of an aside, it was great to discover through your comment Brayden that there are a few other sociology blogs out there. For which we now have links as well!

My "what then?" question was somewhat loaded. I think there are some arguments and theoretical leanings that are more easily co-opted than others for those interested in critiquing the status quo. Essentialism is an easy target.

For example, in "Saving the Males: The Sociological Implications of the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel" (2000)_Gender and Society_, Michael Kimmel points out that because of the essentialist undertones in Carol Gilligan's work, the Citadel asked Gilligan to testify to keep women out, "to which she responded with an amicus brief filed on behalf of Shannon Faulkner" (p. 501).

So my questions are: shouldn't we attempt to consider the ways in which our theoretical arguments explain empirical phenomenon that could ultimately be used in opposition to our political stance? If our work is used politically for a cause with which we disagree, do we have a responsibility to speak out against the way our work is being utilized, as Gilligan did? In her case she was able to respond to a court case. With this type of literature review, one may never know how their work is being used, which suggests a greater sensitivity to the ways in which particular arguments can be co-opted. While we obviously can't control the way in which our work is used, we can attempt to anticipate some potential misuses of our work, heading them off initially - historian David Roediger is good at this.

Good/bad public sociology, right, no objective standards to measure. But I guess this calls for a serious discussion of "publics" and in whose interest public sociology should aspire.

 
At 12:20 PM, Blogger Goesh said...

Censoring the ideological guerilla:
The challenge offered in your querry carries with it inherent risks, the prinicpal risk being loss of audience. In addressing the need to speak out and question the end results of a Sociological work, its application, one's political agendas become attached, whether intended or not. It is not a matter of choice. As such, one might best focus on the delivery of the counter message, or that which will silence the voice(s)of challenge.

Perhaps a course in Clandestine Sociology may be in order, with passwords and secret grips and hand signals necessary for admission. "Pulling Academics From The Ivory Tower 101" ? Sounds like a real catchy title to me. Damn right people should speak out in a critical manner and seek to influence the target of research and applied theory. In today's climate of antagonism, it is
the tie that binds our Social fabric, and may well be its only salvation.

 
At 1:23 PM, Blogger Brayden said...

Good stuff Erin. I'm glad to see more sociologists in the blogosphere. Those pesky law and philosophy professors still have us vastly outnumbered, but with the addition of a few more Prairie Sociologies we'll catch up.

I definitely agree with you on the point that we should speak up when our research is used to further a cause with which we do not necessarily agree. Unfortunately, our empirical findings do not have the same normative weight for everyone. Sociology, in my opinion and I'm often wrong, needs to find a stronger philosophical basis for offering critiques of existing social orders. I've spoken about some of these problems on my own site. See, for example, http://www.braydenking.com/weblog/archives/000190.html

I'll stop now before I really go off on a tangent.

 
At 11:10 AM, Blogger Erin said...

For anyone interested, under Public Sociology papers on Burawoy's site, there is some discussion and clarification of classification issues in the Boston College Symposium article in _Social Forces_.

 
At 10:53 AM, Blogger Goesh said...

Burawoy, in one of his discourses, comments that the world has become more reactionary, and goes on to say, "to put it crudely, market tyrannies and state despotisms have deepened ineqaulities..." - speaking of crude, I note the inequality of existing control of the current lucre of energy, crude oil, does indeed remain in the hands of the few. Talk about a duanting task - the alchemy of juxtaposing the tonnage of literature sustaining the Radical, the Policy, the Public and Professional Sociologies of the West with one text, Al Qu'ran.

 
At 1:40 PM, Blogger rowan said...

I believe the nice little phrase of " non-ionizing millimeter wave" refers to microwave technology.
What Are Microwaves?: "Microwave radiation (at 2450 MHz) is non-ionizing, and in sufficient intensity will simply cause the molecules in matter to vibrate, thereby causing friction, which produces the heat that cooks the food." Or skin...

It refers to a weapon system that has been under construction through DARPA. There was an article by Antony Barnett of the Observer/UK (11/3/02) Army's Secret 'People Zapper' Plans: "Britain has been involved in secret talks with the United States over the development of so-called non-lethal weapons, including lasers that blind the enemy and microwave systems that cook the skin of human targets."

Looks like they can "scale it down" to serve as a crowd "deterent" - Hah!

It is important that sociologists and other scientists and researchers watch out for getting sucked into these types of programs. Frequently, researchers for the military are only given a piece of the project to work on without knowing what the larger project is. This means that people may unknowingly lend their skill to what they might personally or professionally find unethical. It helps not at all that the military (and intelligence agencies) frequently use convoluted or deceptive language.

 
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