In his article â€œThe Critical Turn to Public Sociology,â€? Michael Burawoy provides a semi-detailed historical account articulating the need a greater turn toward public sociology within academia. He emphasizes the desire to convert Marxism from a marginal theory to the dominant strain in thought in sociology. He says, â€œReversing the prevailing wisdom, we tried to demonstrate that Marxism was the true science while sociology was but ideologyâ€? (314). He articulates that the structural functionalist paradigm of earlier days was not conducive to promoting public sociology, but was in fact a defender of the status quo. He provides a detailed account of how sociological theoretical ideas were transformed in the 1970s:
The radical assault on postwar sociology was surprisingly successful. From the early 1970s on, trench after trench succumbed to invading forces: stratification gave way to class analysis and more broadly to the study of inequality, conditions of liberal democracy gave way to studies of state and revolution, social psychological adaptation to work gave way to theories of alienation and the transformation of work, sex roles gave way to gender domination, value consensus turned into the diffusion of ruling ideologies through school and media, irrational collective behavior became the politics of social movements. Fortresses fell as old classics went into abeyance and new ones appeared. Marx and Engels became part of the canon while Durkheim and Weber were given radical interpretations. Feminism and then Foucault were soon knocking at the door. (316)
The process he describes is what many saw as the death of sociology, but says that the discipline was actually â€œreorganizing itselfâ€? (316). The new order, as he calls it, was a move toward theoretical paradigms based on the practice and happenings going on in a radicalized world. Burawoy says, â€œThe radical sociologists of the 1970s were trying to carve into theory what was happening in practice, trying to catch up with a world pregnant with its oppositeâ€? (315). This new order has radically shaped the critical lens that many sociologists adhere to today.
The Frankfurt School, so integral to the field of critical theory, resisted scientific inquiry. Buroway says, â€œFrom the beginning, Frankfurt-influenced critical theorists had been skeptical of competing with bourgeois science on its own terrain, the danger of losing sight of critique, of subjugating what could be to what is. Science was the problem not the solutionâ€? (316). The rise of post-modern theorists, enmeshed with the â€œold guard,â€? feminist theorists, critical theorists, and Marxists, radically changed the face of sociology as a profession. A backlash came from multiple sociological theorists who lamented the â€œincoherence, fragmentation, and lack of centerâ€? of the discipline (317). Buroway adds, â€œNor was the displaced generation completely wrong, sociology had lost its singular program, that almagram of grand theory and abstracted empiricism, with â€˜middle range theoryâ€™ holding both to the fire, all controlled by an old boy network that spanned a few elite departmentsâ€? (317). What I see happening in this enormous historical transition in sociology is a democratization of ideas. No longer could structural functionalism, as the dominant hegemon, be permitted to suppress the voices of those who saw the world through a different lens. The rise in different theoretical frameworks in the discipline was accompanied by different life experiences based on the demographic transition of the sociology professorate. Critical race scholars, queer theorists, feminist theorists, and labor movement scholars have come to find their place in the table of what now appears to be the smorgasbord of sociological theory.
Two interesting trends that I have personally witnessed or been made privy to in the sociology profession deal with this large demographic shift in the professiorate as well as the substantive areas covered in sociological theory courses. If one looks at the faculty of the University of Minnesota Sociology Department, currently a near 50/50 gender split is seen. However, it should also be noted that the overwhelming majority of the female faculty members are Assistant Professors who have been hired in the past 5 years. Clearly, a commitment to change and diversifying the professorate may be accomplished by putting people in positions such as departmental chairs and associate chairs who are committed to such a cause. If one were to look at the demographic trends of the departmental faculty just 10 years ago in 1996, one would find a dramatic imbalance in the gender composition of the department.
Secondly, my experience in my graduate level sociological theory course last year was quite the smorgasbord of theoretical frameworks. To briefly summarize the semester, it progressed in the following fashion: Marxist theory, Pierre Bourdieu, Georg Simmel, Network Theory, Postmodern Thought, Standpoint/Feminist Theory, Emile Durkheim, Neo-Institutionalism, Max Weber, Norbert Elias, Rational Choice Theory & Methodological Individualism, the Micro-Interactionist Tradition, Goffman & Symbolic Interactionism, and finally Jurgen Habermas. It is hard to currently envision a sociological discipline that is unified by a â€œcoreâ€? theoretical framework â€“ researchers borrow from various theorists who inspire their own work and ideas. While there are tendencies not to follow down the Durkheimian path in contemporary sociology, the fact remains that currently there is not a hegemonic strain of sociological theory. Thus follows several questions:
1. Is a â€œscienceâ€? defined by having a core set of theories that guide its practice? Is there something inherently bad about not having a unified set of theory that guides all empirical research?
2. Is it not inherent that with sociology being the vanguard of civil society (as Burawoy puts it), that it should the discipline to lead in the democratization of the social sciences?
3. What does it truly mean to be a â€œpublic sociologistâ€?? What should be the aim of public sociologists, according to Burawoy?
4. Can sociology truly be the unifying discipline that â€œtransforms the worldâ€??
5. What is the role of sociologists in analyzing the standard practices of other academic disciplines and professional realms?
6. Is it the goal of public sociology to influence policy or is there another more important purpose for the existence of public sociology?
7. Burawoy paraphases Andrew Abbott in saying that there are â€œinbuilt tendencies of professions to establish their status by distancing themselves from publics, by fetishizing the inaccessibility of their knowledgeâ€? (323). Certainly, sociology as a discipline is not divorced from this phenomenon. Thus, how do we make sociology more accessible to the general public, and more specifically, how should public sociology be made more accessible to the public?
8. How do we use public sociology in the classroom to facilitate adult learning? What are some of the learning techniques that are most effective in bridging abstract theory with lived experience?
The 9th Chapter of Steven Brookfieldâ€™s book, â€œThe Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching,â€? focuses on the democratic imperatives of adult learning advocated by Jurgen Habermas. Contrary to a post-modern approach that sees language as a slippery slope in which commonalities in understanding cannot be reached, Habermas views language and â€œcommunicative actionâ€? as the key to adult education. Brookfield says, â€œHabermasâ€™ hope for regenerating democracy resides in adultsâ€™ capacity to learn, in particular, to learn how to recognize and expand the democratic process inherent in human communicationâ€? (247). For Habermas, the most intriguing question was not how adult learning happens, but rather how it DOESNâ€™T happen (248).
Brookfield says that â€œThe explanation Habermas proposes as to why adults are not continually and conspicuously learning is that contemporary political and economic systems, and their various steering media, attempt to foreclose the possibility of any learning that challenges systemic imperatives. Since learning involves asking â€˜why?â€™ it is potentially very threatening to the system and must be controlledâ€? (248). He also says that Habermas believes that critical thought cannot be learned without an earlier stage of un-critical thought in life. In his opinion, â€œWe are not able to reflect back on internalized norms until we have first learned to follow them blindly through coercion imposed from withoutâ€? (271). This is quite an ironic stance to take, but it makes sense â€“ we cannot be critical of the world in which we live in until we have experienced something that we feel the need to be critical of. So, essentially from Habermasâ€™ perspective, people need to experience a level of cognitive dissonance with the world in which they live in order to think critically. Thus, I think this has an interesting connection to sociology as a discipline. Sociology largely makes people challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions about the world and make take people out of their comfort zone and put them in a realm of cognitive dissonance. This does not happen with everyone â€“ so here is a fundamental set of questions of adult learning:
How and in what ways do students resist sociological arguments that they are â€œlearningâ€?? Do individuals have to experience cognitive dissonance in their own lives to be able to think critically from a sociological perspective or can critical educators facilitate an environment of cognitive dissonance? In a critical environment, how and why do students resist â€œun-learningâ€? processes?
The key concept for Habermas is communicative action, which he defines as â€œactions that happen when attempts by people to communicate â€˜are coordinated not through egocentric calculations of success but through acts of reaching understandingâ€™â€? (253). This sounds very much like a difference between a rational choice model of socializing in contrast to an interpretive approach of socializing. Rational choice theory would argue that the world is market exchange and that your interactions are going to be calculated based on who can do what for you â€“ without saying much about the qualitative nature of those interactions. An interpretive approach would look at communication not specifically in terms of who you would interact with, for what purpose, and why, but rather the kind of communication that individuals are trying to foster with one another. Communication is never a one-sided exchange. Even a comedian or politician speaking in front of an audience is communicated with by the reaction of the audience through laughter, applause, or disparaging backlash. Along these lines, in regards to Habermas, Brookfield says, â€œThe ability to put aside egocentric calculations of success in a society run by money and power is a learned ability. Indeed, in Habermasâ€™ view, learning to do this is the adult learning task, made doubly difficult by the existence of schooling systems run according to the competitive ethic and the spread of civic or familial privatismâ€? (253).
Habermas sees communicative action as the key to promoting the principles of democracy in society and in adult learning. â€œAs long as we live in association with others, and as long as we accept that our lives are better without constant conflicts and disputes, then communicative action is required,â€? says Brookfield (260). Brookfield adds:
At the heart of human speech lies the desire for mutual understanding. In Habermasâ€™ view, â€œreaching understanding is the inherent telos of human speechâ€¦the concepts of speech and understanding reciprocally interpret one another.â€? The point of speech, indeed in many ways the point of life, is to come to understandings with others. Such understandings allow us to build relationships and alliances, thereby giving our lives meaning. When people agree on something, they enjoy â€˜the intersubjective mutuality of reciprocal understanding, shared knowledge, mutual trust, and accord with one another.â€™ This kind of agreement represents the sort of solidarity that Habermas described as the most endangered resource on the planet. (260).
Despite what the media would want to make us believe, it is not the political battles between Democrats and Republicans that makes the world spin around â€“ it is the commonly agreed upon values that most Americans agree upon that makes our society coherent. Republicans and Democrats have more in common than they differ. If we are constantly questioning the motives of those with whom we are in communication with, it is difficult to really ever facilitate effective communication. Accordingly, Brookfield says that Habermas â€œbelieves that each time we enter into a conversation we are continually judging how far we can trust what our partner is saying. In effect, we are assessing a number of validity claims implied in the otherâ€™s attempt to speak to usâ€? (262). There is a difference between what I just said and what Habermas argued â€“ I am arguing that many individuals in society largely assume certain things about a person based on demographic characteristics and that language can serve as a way to reify those stereotypes. That is what I see as one of the most pervasive problems in society today. This may be related to Habermasâ€™ concept of validity claims, but it differs in that Habermas believes that people are actually listening to what the other person is saying and making an interpretation. I think what is equally important is the pre-interpretation / pre-judgment that people make about one another that makes effective communication in American society a large obstacle to overcome.
This raises a couple important theoretical questions:
1. How do we teach people to â€œunlearnâ€? prejudice? Can prejudice really ever be unlearned entirely?
2. This will sound like a critique from the post-modern perspective, but take it however you will: Can individuals who have two different interpretative schemas of how the world works and what are the priorities and values of social life really speak to each other in a common language that the other will understand, or will they just be speaking past each other? How can we as a society and as adult educators facilitate â€œcommunicative actionâ€? among those who radically disagree with one another on issues they are highly passionate about and are resistant to listen to those who disagree with them?