Types of Action Sociology/Sociologist

By | March 9, 2016

I have elsewhere added two further types of sociology to Burawoy’s quartet. I have also suggested that each of his four and my two might be associated with a particular type of sociologist and of reasoning. Thus: professional sociology is associated with the scholar and cumulative theory; policy sociology with the reformer and utilitarian theory; critical sociology with the radical and meta-theory; public sociology with the democrat and communicative theory; foresight sociology with the visionary and speculative theory; and action sociology with the activist and strategic theory. My apologies for repeating stuff proposed and defended in other blogs!

This effort, written at my window seat in the TCR bar in, appropriately enough, Tottenham Court Road, picks up on the family of concepts around action sociology (I am in fact on my ‘plan B’ perch, my normal seat being, inappropriately, occupied by strangers). I want to suggest that action sociology and sociologists come in different shapes and sizes, even though all are committed to strategic action.

It is as ever concepts rather than the words and phrases used to stand for them that matter. But maybe a terminological statement at the outset would be expedient. I suggest there exist three discernible sub-types of action sociology and action sociologist. I shall label them as follows: co-opted action sociology and the ideologist; status-quo action sociology and the bystander; and oppositional action sociology and the subversive.

Co-opted action sociology, represented by the ideologist, denotes an engagement that is consciously and wittingly in line and at one with the ruling orthodoxy of the day, in the era of financial capitalism with the governing oligarchy or plutocracy and its ideology of neo-liberalism. In Habermas’ terms, what we have here is an example of ‘distorted communication’. This is in my view a perversion of the sociological project.

Status-quo action sociology, represented by the bystander, is a more complex phenomenon. Many sociologists contributing to professional, policy, critical, public and foresight sociologies quite understandably and legitimately bypass perspectives, phenomena and topics that challenge the status quo of the day (highly focused ethnographic investigations into café or bar society for example). Action sociology and its paid-up activists, however, fall into a different category: there is necessarily a certain loss of innocence. One fights for what calls the governing oligarchy/plutocracy to account, or one fights for what does not. There is no hiding place. There is no sociological excuse for those who enter into civil society and the public sphere not to examine and address the ways in which macro- and meso-structures fuel day-to-day micro-phenomena, disputation and conflict. This is true even if their universities require evidence of ‘public engagement’ for promotion. To look the other way, to be a bystander, is and should be uncomfortable. We are in the realm here of Habermas’ ‘systematically distorted communication’ (that is, strategic action disguised as communicative action).

Oppositional action sociology and its subversive practitioners capture what I consider an essential element of the sociological project. It is the subversives who insist, no demand, that the findings of professional sociology (the core of what we do) are heard – beyond civil society and into the pubic sphere – and not sidelined or dismissed. To be a subversive is to insist on fallible knowledge versus interest-based ideology. This is unconcealed strategic action.

There are one or two underlying premises that I should own up to and probe a bit. The first involves the distinction between knowledge and ideology. I have written and blogged on this before. I have argued that sociology can/should/must aim for a reconstructed, neo-Enlightenment, Habermasian ‘project of modernity’, that is, for a fallible and reflexive science of society. Scientific knowledge logically and morally stands in opposition to ideology. The latter reflects the vested interests of its advocates. The vested interests that matter most, predictably, are those of the governing oligarchy or, as Andrew Sayer understandably prefers, the plutocracy. Its members, I have elsewhere maintained, are defined by capital-ownership or class. The principal mechanism of financial capitalism is its revised class/command dynamic (or capital’s enhanced power to purchase advantageous policy).

A second premise causes me more headaches (fortunately I don’t suffer from migraines). I have contended that (professional) sociology is intrinsically communicative (that is, oriented above all to communicative action and consensual rationality). Yet action sociology transports what we do into the Machiavellian world of strategic action. To adopt the role of subversive is to opt out of one’s comfort zone. It is a trip that social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett took unawares with their admirable The Spirit Level; and that, it seems to me, shook and bruised them (not that they withdrew from the ensuing battles).

To do sociology is to fight for knowledge and to oppose ideology; and to oppose ideology is to wade into murky waters.


Leave a Reply