From Public to Action Sociology: A Core Tension

By | April 30, 2014

On 24 and 25 April this year I attended the 10th Norwegian Health Sociology Workshop at Trondheim. It was actually my eighth visit, during each of which I have been asked to give one of the keynote addresses. Organized by Aksel Tjora, these are wonderful events, a mix of festival and conference, and a chance for Annette and I to catch up with old friends from Norwegian sociology. Last year Carl May and Cathy Pope came, this year Sue Ziebland; so this workshop is a chance to get to know English colleagues better too.

This blog is about my choice of topic for my talk and for a confession or two about work in progress/issues unresolved. One tension in particular preoccupies me. But enough of this preamble.

I started by querying the unthinking adoption of Hume’s is-ought distinction. (the subject of an independent blog) on my website. As Therborn has recently insisted, the study of ‘in-equality’ is normative. To recall Ryle’s playful terminology, ‘inequality’ is a boo word: we are against it. My own writings against health inequality, however, have been described as ‘provocative’, no doubt because they assign prepotent causal efficacy to (those with, structured) wealth and (therefore) power. But of course no such accusations are levelled against those who research, write about and argue for maximally effective interventions against, say, anorexia or domestic violence. So context clearly matters.

Having established, to my satisfaction at least, that sociological research is often normative, sometimes provocatively so, sometimes not, I rehearsed my six sociologies. These comprise Burawoy’s four types (professional, policy, critical and public), plus my additions: action and foresight. Readers will be familiar with Burawoy’s typology. My argument for action sociology is that this is a logical and moral extension of public sociology: it ‘must’ kick in – we ‘must’ engage and act – when public sociology in particular is ignored, shunned, rubbished, subverted or repressed by our governing oligarchy and its allies. My argument for foresight sociology is that it should also be part of sociology’s brief to deliver credible (e.g. sustainable, green, just) ‘alternative futures’.

I reiterated my corresponding ideal types of sociologist. Thus the practitioner of professional sociology is a scholar; that of policy sociology a reformer; that of critical sociology a radical; that of public sociology a democrat; that of action sociology an activist; and that of foresight sociology a visionary. Then, circuitously approaching the point of the talk, I associated types of theorising with each of these. I associated the scholar’s professional sociology with cumulative theory; the reformer’s policy sociology with utilitarian theory; the radical’s critical sociology with meta-theory; the democrat’s public sociology with communicative theory; the activist’s action sociology with strategic theory; and the visionary’s foresight sociology with speculative theory. Ok, I admit this is complex, also that these categories of theory might have turned out differently. But there is a point to these characterisations.  

It is necessary to take a step back in time in order to advance two steps, so please bear with me. In a previous life, actually in a paper published in Sociology in 1996, I drew on Habermas to contend – against postmodern usurpers who were thick on the ground at the time – that we sociologists must hold our nerve and come out for a discipline firmly rooted in a ‘reconstructed’ project of modernity. The point of sociology, in other words, remains to answer – I would aver as scientifically as possible – ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about social phenomena, if no longer as Bauman’s ‘legislators’, then with more authority than that invested in his ‘interpreters’. Pushing on, I tied the ongoing sociological project to lifeworld rationalisation. Sociology, in sum, derives its rationale from an aspiration to make as plain and public as possible how we live and why we live this way rather than another. In Habermasian terms, sociology is/must be a form of communicative action oriented to consensus.

The tension or difficulty arises – and I admitted it in Trondheim and threw it open to debate – in my characterisation of the theory of the activist’s action sociology as strategic. If, as I have maintained, we sociologists cannot, logically and morally, submissively throw in the towel when ventures into the democrat’s public sociology are accosted and ridiculed by the well-funded Machiavellianism of the governing oligarchy, this would seem to leave us between a rock and a hard place. To continue to ‘tell truth to power’ in these circumstances is either to forsake communicative for strategic action or to fight with one hand tied behind our back. Or is it? I remain unsure. Does sociology win or lose by staying resolutely communicative? Or does this question only have bite with, say, bourgeois, tamed or harmless sociology?

I remain committed to all six sociologies alluded to here. But is my suggestion that there is a potential clash or contradiction between public and action sociology of consequence? Blogs allow us to think aloud, which is one of their very real virtues. Let’s keep this between ourselves; any guidance welcome.






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