The Challenge of Public Sociology – in the Pandemic of 2020

This issue is the product of a collaborative effort of doctoral students in the public sociology PhD program at George Mason University. We are interested in exploring the many questions and debates surrounding public sociology since Michael Burawoy gave his presidential address, “For Public Sociology,” to the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 2004.

Our orienting questions for the issue included the following: What is public sociology? What does public sociology look like? Why is public sociology important? How is public sociology different from other public-facing disciplines/(sub)fields, such as public history? More specifically, what are some sites of public sociology in the Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) area, the home of The Sociologist? We are interested in how public sociology may be articulated and practiced. With this special issue of The Sociologist, we encouraged and welcomed a range of submissions that capture the many understandings and forms of public sociology.

In responding to that call, we were pleased to find that submissions were all themed around rooting public sociology in the legacy of sociology’s scholar-activism, a legacy that is often framed as a “subfield” or “aspect” of our discipline rather than the very heart of it. In “The Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois: The Centrality of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Aldon Morris highlights the central role played by W.E.B. Du Bois, other early African American sociologists, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in challenging the blatant and institutional racism that was foundational to the discipline of sociology. In “W.E.B. Du Bois, the First Public Sociologist,” Rutledge M. Dennis and Kimya N. Dennis work to reframe our understanding of W.E.B. Du Bois, positioning him as the first public sociologist.

Beyond Burawoy, sociologists such as Du Bois demonstrate the commitment and tenacity with which the founders of sociology engaged public issues and problems. Du Bois in particular embodied many roles in his pursuit of equality and social justice. He was not only a classical and public sociologist, but he was an empiricist, organizer, artist, and performer. In “Truth and Service: The Hundred-Year Legacy of Sociology at Howard University,” Britany Gatewood, Alexandra Rodriguez, and Marie Plaisime trace the history of sociology at Howard University, which has centered the analysis of race and the transformation of social inequality in society for over a century.

Finally, in “Participatory Action Research as Public Sociology: Bringing Lived Experience Back In,” Melissa Gouge and Andrea Robles provide a historical overview of Participatory Action Research (PAR) by reminding us of how the sociologists who are often left out of the canon offer practical guidelines for using PAR to help shape a more robust public sociology.

The cover image is a collage created for this special issue and is meant to depict a sociology that is collaborative, grounded in the traditions of popular education, and centered around the voices all too often left at the margins of our discipline, but whose dissenting calls have encouraged sociology to be an instrument for creating a more just society. Included in the collage are symbolic nods to both sociologists and organizations that embody or are informed by principles of public sociology.

In the collage, sociologists who mobilized their research and pedagogical skills to create abolitionist movements and foster and sustain civil rights movements are positioned next to sociologists of the present who uplift these legacies of activism, mobilize education for freedom, and create spaces for participatory models of understanding on issues ranging from human rights in the corporate supply chain to the ongoing marginalization of HBCUs. Inscribed above the pictures are calls for public sociology and engaged scholarship.

They are calls that challenge us to engage with our histories, “turn the light of truth” on wrongs, lend credibility and legitimacy to diverse forms of knowledge, and, above all, democratize the knowledge we seek to create. They are calls for us to establish a social ethic and create an educational path for a better informed citizenry prepared to change their communities. We believe public sociology calls us to be engaged in the service of rebuilding and transforming our institutions.

This issue was created during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when we lost some who have lived out the work of public scholarship and also a time when the need for public sociology becomes all the more pressing. While in no way comprehensive, we hope this issue will stir conversations about how public sociology can more holistically be sustained by the rich traditions of scholar-activism and social movements for change.

Amber Kalb
Emily McDonald
Briana Pocratsky
Maria Valdovinos
Margaret Zeddies

Return to May 2020 Issue

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