Public Sociology

In reflecting on this course in public sociology I found most interesting the dynamic nature of sociology, most especially the hierarchy of sociology and the relationships between these divisions of labor.  Readings from Public Sociology highlighted the opinions of many prominent sociologists.  The sharing of opinions from sociologists such as Patricia Hill Collins, Alain Touraine, Michael Burawoy, William Julius Wilson, and Sharon Hays exemplifies how the controversy over how public sociology “fits in” with sociology.  Discussions regarding the political nature of public sociology’s place among sociology, and between policy, critical, and professional sociology show the complexity of Burawoy’s challenge.  Examining several root causes of the contentious debate over the scope and influence of public sociology it becomes clear sociology may be struggling with instability and an identity crisis.


What is Public Sociology?- Definition

One challenge faced by public sociologists is the simple fact that public sociology does not have an official, common definition.  The challenge for public sociologists then becomes how to gain exposure and acceptance by other sociologists and public communities when your definition, which should define your purpose is not clear.  It is almost universally accepted that sociology’s ultimate goal is to serve society, and arguable most especially those suffering from social injustices.  The definition of public sociology typically includes terminology relating to other divisions of labor and how public sociology specifically focuses on expanding normal boundaries to non-academic, public audiences.  There is however no established and shared system or methodology to implement public sociology.  In addition with no common definition it is up to each public sociologist to determine what public sociology is and how to implement it.  Practitioners of public sociology operating autonomously can be beneficial but can make it difficult to share effective strategies and avoid common mistakes.


Another root cause for the challenges facing public sociologists is the lack of collaboration among the various divisions of labor within sociology.  Understandably critical, policy, and professional sociology each operate within their own scope of work but contention between divisions and critical stance from other some sociologists from other divisions weaken public sociology.  A central challenge to collaboration concerning public sociologists is the attitude many professional sociologists take towards public sociology.  Professional sociology, which is responsible for the majority of academic research and information within sociology has many professionals who are critical of public sociology.  First, professional sociologist are critical of public sociology’s lack of established methodology and scientific approach.  Some professional sociologists see public sociology as pseudoscience, and believe public sociology taints the professional reputation of sociology.  Until the collaboration between professional and public sociology improves, the influence of professional sociology will have potentially significant impacts on public sociology’s scope and effectiveness.

Scope of Influence-Politics and the Media

Public sociologists who successfully meet the challenges of defining public sociology and lack of collaboration among divisions then oftentimes face the external challenge of reaching public audiences and being appropriately heard.  Sociology currently has been impacted significantly by the influence of politics and popular culture which influences large numbers of public audiences.  In cases where public sociologists work to positively affect those facing social struggles they are often eclipsed by the influence of politics and/or the media.  Both politics and media heavily influence policy that affect publics but not necessarily for the interest of these publics.  An example that can be applied to politics and media affecting the influence of public sociologists is the impact of the election of current president Donald Trump and the impacts on new immigration policies.  The impact of immigration policies on immigrant opportunities has been studied by public sociologists interested in protecting the rights of immigrants and immigrant families.  The election of Donald Trump and the significant shift in immigration polices has been controlled by the new Trump administration and shared with the nation via popular media of all types.  Public sociologists researching and advocating for immigrant rights has recently been heavily influenced by media’s coverage of new immigration policies and insecurity and fear of deportation.


Public sociologists face several key challenges that greatly influence their ability to affect changes for the interest of society.  For public sociologists, not having a clear understanding of exactly what their field is defined to do causes confusion and difficulty getting consensus from their counterparts.  In addition, public sociologists are met by critics within sociology of various divisions of labor, most notably professional sociologists.  Public sociologists are not part of the “in crowd” and are oftentimes ostracized from professional sociologists who typically stay within boundaries of professional academics.  Even when public sociologists do succeed in passing internal challenges the external challenges of competing with the influences of both politics and the media can be overwhelming.  Public sociologists will have to continue to seek relationships within sociology as well as use strategic methodologies to compete with the impact of politics and the media.

One comment on “Blog VIII: Challenges to Public Sociology

  • Beni, this is a really good summary of the course trajectory and readings throughout the semester–you do a good job addressing the tensions within the discipline broadly and more specifically, defining public sociology and getting people to work together (even for sociologists this seems to be a large task!).

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