Sociologists, Sociologies, and Groupthink
Man, it's nice to have Ehrenreich writing op-eds! Groupthink, duh! But I wish she would've talked more about why groupthink was so critical in making (rather than allowing) the past two years happen. Where's the power in the discussion? Groupthink without power sounds innocuous.
Here is a good opportunity to bring up something has been annoying me about the poor distinctions being made in anticipation of the ASA conference this summer about public sociologies. From various corners of the blogosphere as well as other discussions on public sociologies, the debate is being framed as public vs professional (c’mon a binary?). Not only this, but in terms of sociologists rather than sociologies.
This annoys me on many levels. First sociologists rarely occupy solely any corner on the theoretical 2x2 table that Burawoy offers as a way of understanding the discipline of sociology analytically. If you think you do, congratulations – here is your label. (There are many reasons he suggests understanding sociology in such a way, which he has stated thoroughly should those displeased with the suggestion read what he has to say and then debate the approach rather than ridicule the suggestion outright.) Therefore, it would likely be inaccurate in most cases to actually label someone as a professional OR public without proper qualifications – unless you are Jane Addams, who by the way also did academic work and so also deserves some qualifications– but, if the label fits, wear it.
Sociologists often do many types of sociologies. For those of you who consider yourselves strictly “professional” sociologists, that’s cool – your choice – (and in my most polite and irreverent tone to the more rude arguers) stop knocking others of us cavalierly for showing it worthwhile, and indeed necessary, to not ONLY talk to each other in scientific jargon (which by the way is fine for certain purposes - I like my Bourdieu-jargon as well as anyone) but ALSO deem it important to communicate sociological knowledge to the actual people with which we identify (beyond those with PhD’s). This is not so different than the way Du Bois practiced sociology, who I think most can agree threw the field of sociology forward.
Secondly, this is a tired debate. It is more interesting to finally grant that public sociologies are relevant to the discipline and contribute to the creativity and innovation of sociology, as well as keeping us connected to various publics in pertinent ways as individuals and as sociologists. And then, finally, debate who in the heck are our publics. If this isn’t your bag, once again, that’s cool. Do your analysis in your office, like most of us admittedly do. I doubt most sociologists are personally offended if you do as this is what we (or maybe just I) grew up dreaming about (well at least the part about having an office with a giant old desk with papers scattered everywhere and built-in bookshelves lined with great books I can masterfully recall on command and don’t forget the picture window looking over some grassy knoll where students are debating, perhaps I was a strange child, I also had a Broadway dream I won’t go into, suffice it to say hopefully some part of the office thing still works out), except when you start dogging colleagues for deeming it important to get out there and practice sociology in other ways.
I don’t think it will be surprising for most sociologists that we don’t all come from privilege and that some of us have a deeply personal stake in promoting the interests of particular groups with which we experientially identify. This is often a source of our inspiration, which cannot, and arguably should not, be separated from the way we do sociology. Again think of Du Bois. And first and foremost, for sociological knowledge to mean a thing to most publics, it has to be relatable not so esoteric that only the scholars in our sub sub areas of the discipline understand our jargon.
So as much as Michael Moore is at times like fingernails on a chalkboard, you can’t exactly ignore him. But thank goodness. At least he offers alternatives and debate with other ways of questioning that are too often determinedly squelched by, among other things, groupthink. He encourages looking at social structures and power and how they affect the lives we live, like whether votes of particular groups of people are counted. Whatever you think about him and the questions he chooses to ask in his voice-overs, he is an organic intellectual (in the Gramscian sense) that people respond to rather than ignore, promoting in some broad sense a sociological imagination.
So, see you in San Francisco.