A Populist Sociology

A few years back, I was on a prestigious Centennial Panel at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) 100th birthday party. The topic was public sociology. When I first saw the distinguished academic pedigree of my fellow panelists, I imagined myself cast in a theatrical adaptation of American novelist William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. I was playing a member of the Snopes clan, someone mistakenly seated at the head table of the plantation owners’ annual banquet. If you are unfamiliar with the little hamlet of Frenchmen’s Bend in Faulkner’s mythological Mississippi, the Snopeses belong to the “white trash” stratum.

I did forewarn the panelists and audience that we Snopeses ain’t been fully housebroken and that in addressing the polite subject of public sociology, I was compelled to also expose our profession’s dirty little secret: There is no discipline so sensitive to social inequality, or as rigorous at unmasking the social machinations that create and perpetuate those inequities. Conversely, there is no profession more insensitive to status inequality within its own ranks, or as inept at recognizing how taken-for-granted practices create and perpetuate this peculiar caste system. Sociology itself is in need of a populist insurgency.

Crème de la crème sociology denotes the esoteric scholarship and rampant careerism that permeate the 25 top-ranked sociology departments at esteemed research universities, as well as the higher circles of the American Sociological Association, the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, and Social Problems. This royal court has created estates of lords and commoners for both departments and individuals.

How do we combat this elitist paradigm of practice that legitimizes our in-house inequalities? In Sister Outsider, activist Audre Lorde cautions us about what not to do: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We need to debunk crème de la crème sociology. Just because these ideas and behaviors are ubiquitous within the profession’s dominant institutions, it does not make them “The Good, The True, and The Beautiful.” Conventional wisdom may hold that scholarly productivity is what confers prestige upon departments and individual sociologists. However, as sociologist Val Burris persuasively argues in a 2004 ASR article, when it comes to prestige ranking, social capital often trumps intellectual capital. In other words, academic status is really as much about whom you know as what you know.

Sociologists at more than 3,000 institutions chafe under the hegemony of crème de la crème sociology and its royal court. How do we organize and give voice to the profession’s peasantry who toil under a more populist paradigm of practice? Our grievances have had no manifesto.

We need a lucid and persuasive representation of what teaching, scholarship, and service might look like as a more populist sociology:

  1. Students are not means to an end but are ends in themselves. We take pride in teaching undergraduates, fostering a sociological imagination in students who may never take another course in the discipline.
  2. We are public teachers, using all available venues to profess an edifying sociology to diverse communities of citizens.
  3. We primarily practice the scholarships of integration, application, and teaching. Our priority is sharing these findings with students, well-informed citizens, and practitioners in the field.
  4. Service to our home institutions, local communities, and provincial professional associations is a preeminent value. These local loyalties diminish the self-aggrandizing behavior of hyper-professionalism and contribute to the public good.
  5. We maintain that sociology is not a career but a calling.

There is also the matter of getting right with our ancestors. We need to rediscover our founders’ forgotten practices of public teaching and grassroots activism. Perhaps then, young sociologists will have the feasible option of looking to the likes of Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Charles Ellwood for inspiration.

What social scientists William Buxton and Stephen P. Turner in Sociology and its Publics called “the trained incapacities of disciplinary sociologists to communicate to wider audiences” is the curse that the crème de la crème heritage has bestowed upon contemporary sociologists. It is implausible to believe that a citizen-friendly sociology will emerge from academia’s gated communities.

Any reasonably objective observer would be hard-pressed to deny that status inequality occurs within our ranks. Most investigators would further conclude that our taken-for-granted practices create and perpetuate this caste system. What are the implications of these findings for the profession? My argument has been unabashedly normative and polemical. I seek the demise of inequality within our field and the proliferation of a more populist sociology.

Comments 4

Bryan Haugen

May 20, 2013

". . . a citizen-friendly sociology will emerge from academia’s gated communities."

That's the rub of it isn't it? Knowledge without application. I was and remain fascinated with sociology in its ability to show not only why, but how our social reality is constructed.

Nothing is more important right now in our communities than a re-emergence of the individual understanding that not only is there a social compact, but how it makes us humane.

A quality sorely missing in our social institutions.


May 27, 2013

Yes Prof Bute! Many of us have been thinking about this issue. I'm glad to see this article.

Chris Wienke

May 27, 2013

This reads true to my experiences, especially at ASA meetings, when the caste system is in full effect, which may explain why so many sociologists from smaller schools do not attend. In fact,I know for sure that the reason some colleagues do not go to the ASA meeting is because they feel unwelcome there. Maybe one recommendation would be to change our name tags so that only our names appear not our institutions.

However, I do wonder if the status inequality evident in sociology is more pronounced today than it was in earlier eras, when good jobs in the field were more plentiful and the discipline itself was held in higher esteem. It may be that this phenomenon is tied to anxieties about feeling important in a discipline that is losing its importance, at least in the public's eye.

Daniel Jordan, PhD, ABPP

August 12, 2013

Several "populist" sociologists are mentioned. Read about any one of them, e.g., Du Bois in a typical Intro text. What do you find of real interest in terms of the battles fought, the humanity of the person, the struggles? Not a damn thing. It's as if we don't want to embarrass the adults or scare the children. Not one mentions he gave up on the US for example. Sanitized is a good word. And we wonder why sociology is seen as boring. So what do we give students instead? Cute tricks, funny insights into how things work. Empty observations. Sociology should be a tool for change, a tool for focus on inequalities, for action for taking control of one's world.

Comments are closed.