Snake oil or salvation: Repositioning Sociology

Snake oil or Salvation?: Reconstructing Sociology

Amory Starr & Tony Samara, c. 1997

Abstract: In this paper we attempt to respond to community activists’ critiques of academia, and of sociology in particular, focusing primarily on our political inactivity and the seeming contradiction between this inactivity and our rhetoric about our profession. Our concern is with the reasons for our inactivity, and we explore three possible approaches to explaining it. The first section focuses on our product. The next section examines working conditions. The final section explores the division of labor.

 “We don’t need any more theoreticians and paper, we need people who are committed to saving the young folks.…We need people at 10:30 this foggy Friday morning to go out to the corner and work with these youth.…I don’t see many adults committed to kids, to Black male African youth. I don’t see people with passion to go out and save these young brothers.…I’m very impatient with the media and folks who want to talk.…So many people who want to analyze, theory, the paperwork, words, philosophy. What we need are people that go out and do rather than talk.…You know by your actions, not words. You’ve got a lot of folks who make money pimping youth, putting money in pockets, filling out papers and saying words and going to parties and being out of touch.” [Ray Cass]

“Research has been done, they spend millions and millions of dollars on research, you know, what you’re doing. They supposed to know everything by now. And I imagine they do. But I just imagine they more ready to spend it on research and finding out than on doing stuff. I kinda believe that. So I believe it’s going to take a political movement to bend the thing.” [John Henderson[1]]

We don’t know how many sociologists have heard this kind of statement from their own informants or in other forums. We heard it from African American and Latino community workers in several U.S. cities as a consistent and developed response to researchers, a response also documented by John Langston Gwaltney in his important 1980 work, Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America. These critiques question the value of sociologists’ work and identity by calling us as intelligentsia to a social position other than the one we are occupying. They call us to be accountable for our privileged social status as researchers, university faculty, and the beneficiaries of rather large amounts of social resources including extended higher education, a high status profession, and access to institutional facilities. They propose a radically different vision for social life and community in which we are expected to do active work in solving the problems we study.

A graduate student reading a history of our discipline might conclude that sociology has a tremendous historical legacy of social activism.  There has been a continuous discourse concerning American sociology’s relationship to social policy and social change.  Early American sociologists, including Thomas Dew and W.E.B. DuBois, saw sociology as a way to champion or challenge the existing system.  Later sociologists drew on European traditions from Weber and Durkheim to develop a liberal profession that saw itself in a brotherly relation with political rule: the wise sociologists would develop social improvements which could then be implemented by the appropriate elites. Indeed, with the exception of social psychology, most of American sociology has seen itself as being in some relationship to the quality, even humanism, of social life.

There is only one way to measure the success of such a venture and that is by the degree to which sociology as a discipline has a transformative effect on the problems about which we write. It is fair to say that we have not been a smashing success. One of our colleagues (who was, perhaps not incidentally, African American) introduced his contract renewal package by stating that he found “it difficult to take credit for things when the unmet needs and problems of hundreds of millions of people are in no way or shape being met.”  He went on to ask “When I take credit for some things, the question is whether I am able to take the blame for things that remain unsolved for our human family.”  This rather stringent self-assessment is hardly the stuff of tenure reviews in sociology, an indication of just how far we have drifted from any sense of resonsibility.

Even at its most radical and confrontational (C. W. Mills and Marcuse being examples), American sociology has not systematically pursued participation in actual social change.  The exceptions tend to be committed individuals. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the collective, institutional aspects of our current inaction and ineffectivity. 

“White people are very interested in seeming to be of service, but it is very hard to really be of service, especially if you only want to be of service with just a part of yourself.”

Hannah Nelson [in Gwaltney 1980: 4]

To understand how sociology (and many sociologists’) vision of being part of social change has played and petered out, we need to understand what “parts of ourselves” we’re not willing to “be of service” with as a profession. We draw on a rather diverse array of theory and scholarly work in addressing three aspects of sociology: the product of our labor, the working conditions, and our role in the division of labor.

the product

What is our product?  At its most crass, it’s lists of citations and other forms of career fodder.  At its most arrogant, it is a continuation of colonial and liberal invasions into the lives of the less powerful. Sociology’s efforts have been critiqued as technocratic, managerial, reformist, and regulatory. For example, sociology’s relationship with the courageously humane but still missionary settlement house movement appeared as hopelessly self-serving. Practitioners, it follows, can be critiqued as elites who earn a “psychological wage” [DuBois 1935] from our vision of ourselves as doing good. Our “expertise” in social knowledge may be valuable but it is also always arrogant. Third and fourth world scholars document the continuity of colonialism — missionaries, anthropologists, Peace Corps, environmentalists…

This arrogance has a long and murderous legacy which is continued in technological and political paternalism. The so-called “Green Revolution” is an excellent example. Hopefully more first world people will accept that we have little of use to bring to third and fourth world people: they were doing fine for thousands of years without our capitalism, individualism, mono-cropping, and other technologies. There is nothing we can bring that is not “one more thing from someplace else” of which people are by now means reasonably skeptical. Haunani-Kay Trask, leader of the largest Hawaiian sovereignty organization, rejects the proposition that native Hawaiians have anything, including democracy, for which to be grateful to the United States. “We had a way of making decisions: we trusted the wise people, the elders. Who says the majority knows what’s right?”[2]  We should have a little humility, given that our technologies are only a few centuries old and we are talking about replacing technologies that have been refined for millennia.

Sociology is also a profession.  In his 1995 book, The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits, John McKnight argues that the professionalization of social services and of social knowledge imagines people and communities as passive and deficient rather than as active citizens. McKnight finds that an increasing number of young professionals desperately want to “do something worth doing” and have been socialized into identities based on helping other people and “caring”. But the professionalized work they are tracked into is based on “manufacturing need”.  And he finds that young professionals know they are disempowering those they want to help by abrogating their organic epistemologies and institutions ¾ a sickening knowledge.  We believe that sociologists, too, are sickened by professionalization. We know that our vigorous work leaves structures of oppression untouched and social movements unbuilt. Ultimately such professionalization neutralizes our critical, skilled, energy.

In our case the “manufacture of need” is for more and better theory.  To take an example, Marxists’ concern with accurate knowledge of the world systemic [Wallerstein 1976] capitalist “totality” [Lukács 1922] has produced a highly complex and thorough picture of the global capitalist economy and culture. We all know that this knowledge has not led directly to the transformation of the object of knowledge itself. Yet we continue to produce and/or gather more and more information (describing the commodity chains) and to generate more and more theories (how, exactly, are race and class related?). We seem to have no criteria for when the theory or knowledge are good enough, no collective sensibility for at what point we will step from our intellectual chalkboards and into our society to attempt some effects. Constantly producing more “truth” is a way of acquiescing, of withdrawing and not being participants, of saying that today is never the day to start the revolution, and of never being ready. Cast in this light, the blind pursuit of “truth/knowledge” is today appears as an inherently conservative political activity.

At its most mundane, sociology is science.  But our quite different relationship to elite decision-making and our different disciplinary organization belie sociology’s best attempts to be a science.  The basic sciences are pursued in such a specialized way that cumulative work actually happens.  The social status of science means that findings are valued socially.  A researcher or research team in biomedicine that produces new knowledge on cancer or AIDS, while constrained in some ways, is valued by an international community of purposive researchers and even by politicians and the public.  They often see their findings incrementally implemented. Unfortunately, social scientists rarely get to see their work valued by a larger community. We can blame this in part on national funding priorities, or national anti-intellectualism, or the dependence on expertise which shapes the relation between the public and medical science. We collectively perpetuate the comforting idea that we are doing very important work yet being [inexplicably] ignored. But we also must hold ourselves accountable for our lack of unity, our lack of organization and discipline to a collective project.

Despite our literature reviews, we aren’t tightly accountable to any cumulative projects and often ignore previous relevant works ¾ many whites have not been found out when they take credit for ideas long ago articulated by scholars of color.  Moreover, relative to the connection between science and engineering, social policy is entirely independent of the social sciences which might inform it. Our work travels, if at all, by processes of rumor.  Some rumors are amplified by elite projects.  The work declared “important” outside of the discipline must please the New York Times Review of Books or other non-august bodies

At its most lofty, sociology is about truth. Sociologists’ obsession with truth in some form seems predicated on the notion that truth is transformative.  But there is a good deal of historical evidence and some impressive theory that suggests that power does not yield to truth. We are at the point when, as hopeful members of a social movement to be, we need to re-evaluate our relationship to knowledge and truth. One thing this means is that we are the ones who need to take responsibility for transforming the relationship between knowledge/truth and power.

Active work as popular educators is one of the most obvious parts of this. We present our knowledge in secret languages at expensive private clubs and in esoteric magazines. Instead of spending association money renting out hotels to talk to each other, we could use that money on national and regional newspapers for popular readership.  Here are some sample headlines:  “Street crime correlated with unemployment —Again!” “Pop consciousness suggests mass distrust of corporations” “Gender undermined by San Francisco culture of subversive repetitions” “Downsizing linked to Maquilladoras still on the rise!” Such reorganization of our collective professional work would redirect the efforts of national and regional associations to popular education.  We could also reorient tenure expectations to reflect this priority.  For example, if tenure expectations were ten refereed journal articles, the ratio could be changed to seven refereed journal articles, but for each one, faculty would be expected to publish a magazine or newsletter article on the same topic and a letter to the editor or op-ed in a daily newspaper.  In addition to presenting work at scholarly conferences, we should be expected to present to popular audiences at union halls, churches, hearings, and public meetings.

Sociology has provided more than a few interpretations of social problems. We have lots of information about things in our world that need fixing or replacing. We know that writing books and articles, attending conferences and disseminating information over the internet is simply not enough to accomplish most of the things we claim to want to accomplish. So much of the knowledge we have would seem intrinsically to compel us to begin acting on it. We can build alliances with institutions that do pursue active knowledge, such as the Highlander Center and the labor movement’s educational campaigns. Opening up the university can be part of social change by inviting people to use the resources, participate in the debates, and play a role in setting priorities for the use of research monies.

If ultimately we want to keep believing that knowledge is transformative, then we are forced to judge much of what we produce as inadequate as knowledge. We have yet to give our attention to the nearly total disuse of most of our findings. Debates over ideological hegemony and false consciousness examine some interesting aspects of how non-intelligentsia are thinking, but the various findings of these debates are not integrated into what we produce or how we research and analyze it. We have little evidence that our findings alone will clear the mists of false consciousness (by whatever name) for our fellow citizens.  It is not part of our profession to understand, let alone facilitate, the process of moving from knowledge to action. We assume that the information and analysis we produce will be sufficiently interesting, relevant, and empowering.  Closer dialogue with other social sectors would increase our ability to do work that could be closely tied with action.

At its most humble and historical, as Lévi-Strauss documents in Structural Anthropology [1963], knowledge production is pursued in societies to solve real social problems. It has no higher loyalty than to social effectivity. Sociologists do not see themselves in this historical context, nor do we tend to humility.  It is not at all clear that we are even asking useful questions, collecting appropriate data, or interpreting it in ways that speak neatly (or at all) to the experience of those who we hope to move to action. It’s not utterly clear that there is knowledge and information that community people need. It’s not as if the transnational version of global economic depredation is really anything new or that the people don’t know how it works:

Everyone gets together and gives their opinion on these things. For example, our grandparents say of Coca-Cola: “Never let your children drink this dreadful stuff because it is something which threatens our culture.” They say: ‘These things are made by machines; our forefathers never used machines. The fincas [plantations] mean an early death for our people. They provide food for white people, and white people get rich from them.” [Menchú 1984: 71]

After thinking a while, one community worker who we asked what sorts of knowledge she wished she had, said “nothing that can be done without organizing people.” This provides a clue to what useful knowledge might need to be — not distanced but produced amidst living and struggle to solve a particular problem.

Many things do not seem to be within our power, but one that clearly is is the degradation of “applied sociology”, which is variously described as professional suicide, not intellectually stimulating, and deplorably far from the “cutting edge” of the field.  Moreover, applied sociology is treated as a sub-field ¾ as if it is a substantive area!  It should more correctly be considered a core concern of theory and methodology, a concern, like ethics, to which we are bound.  The current treatment of applied sociology is one manifestation of a larger problem, which is the rather elitist criteria of excellence. Excellence is encouraged in the form of clever study designs and “interesting” findings, often at the expense of working on urgent problems or better articulating important but unpopular findings. The neutral emphasis on creativity/insight effectively neutralizes young potential activists by decontextualizing their work.  This decontextualization is grandiose —  most of us will not do studies or make grand theory that will still be used in 300 years, so we might as well train each other to be useful now. As a result of professional structures that emphasize individual cleverness as a decontextualized good, sociologists come to identify with the psychological payoff of expressing our individual “creativity” rather than with making a useful contribution to a struggle for social justice.

Despite much complicated debate about making sure we’re tilting at the right episteme, there are many areas in which we can responsibly assist in making things better. For example, all Black Power groups “insist that self-determination for the Black community is their highest aspiration.” [1992: 122] Whites could be organized into this project without having to spend two minutes discussing subjectivity.  As some long-time environmental activists like to point out, there are a number of technologies available to vastly reduce energy use ¾ it’s not a knowledge problem.  Sometimes, maybe the appropriate work for us is to use our collective resources to explain to people that we don’t need more research on a particular topic!

Another example comes to us by way of various versions of standpoint epistemology. Legal scholar Mari Matsuda [1987] argues that oppressed peoples’ perspectives should be the “normative source” for positive constructions of justice. Farmers and scholars of agriculture have demonstrated the superior productivity, nutrition, pest-resistance, and soil preservation of indigenous mixed-crop, low technology, labor-intensive farming practices from all over the world. [Cleveland 1991, Lampkin 1990, Abelman 1994]  Anthropologists have documented effective social mechanisms for distribution. Walter Williams [1986] and others have documented the social and cultural technologies by which peoples have integrated and made meaning of sexual difference. These societies also had a variety of mechanisms for dealing with strangers. Despite epistemological and political position, we can work to document the superiority of some very old knowledges. We can use our skills to be excellent recorders and presenters of these visions of justice, political economy, agriculture, and community. We could then struggle to gain hegemonic position for these knowledges.

working conditions

The vast majority of sociologists we have had contact with are people who are clearly concerned about social justice.  They are people who probably could have chosen a more lucrative profession, but chose this one because they wanted to make a contribution to enhancing the life opportunities of non-elites.  But they seem to have given up.  On the surface, their work still appears to wrestle with social inequities of various kinds, but the way in which they do it is structured by the discipline, not by the needs of the world.  Their evaluation of their own success is likewise organized around publications, tenure, and promotion, not around participation in movements for social change.  Observing that we (the authors) are certainly no more concerned and committed than many of these good folks, we set to wondering what happened to them and what is certainly happening to us as young sociologists.

We’ll begin with a story of how we were trained. The first public presentation of the work from which the opening quotes was drawn occurred in a graduate seminar.  In response, the professor came out of his chair, struck the table, and delivered a tirade about the naïveté and downright dangerousness of working with the urban poor.  This story is worth telling because the professor in question is one whose work makes “important contributions” to our understanding of urban poverty and social movements.  On another occasion, one of us had the opportunity to publicly ask an eminent conversation analyst how he had communicated his important findings about dispatchers’ roles in emergency calls to fire, police, and ambulance agencies.  To our surprise, he had not been involved in any such efforts, publishing his findings only in academic journals. Rather than conclude that these people are hypocritical, we assume that something about the working conditions has separated them from the very concerns that shape their choice of research subjects.  Having suffered such disappointment, we ridicule and train each other into our own hopelessness, clinging ever more desperately to the dignity of a profession that is not really what we want it to be. The charge of idealism does nothing to heal their sense of loss nor to change what needs to be changed about the discipline so their students will not lose what they did.

In contrast, community worker Jack Pittman describes the way that institutions and elders must provide meaningful leadership for young people to induct them into political activism. Speaking about urban youth, he says “When they look at this leadership, I can truly tell you that they don’t have much respect for it, because it doesn’t raise the kind of issues that they know need to be raised.” When Pittman came up in the 1950s and 60s, community adults were actively speaking out and encouraging him to resist oppression. At a key political moment, they involved him in a community strategy to challenge segregated private colleges. As part of this strategy, he was one of five Black youth who applied to and attended a local white college. Adults were teaching and supporting youth in making strategic political challenges, which enabled youth to be part of important community struggles. What does professional sociology as an institution induct young people in to?

The working conditions are such that there are no rewards for doing the kind of work that our concerns with social justice suggest needs to be done. In the movie “Manufacturing Consent”, Noam Chomsky analyzes professional sports fandom as a distraction of intellectual energy. Sociology could be seen as a similar distraction for would-be activists. A political economic analysis would direct our attention to how the discipline channels critical and skilled people into non-confrontational activities. Clearly we cannot solve this problem on an individual level.  How could we collectively make the kinds of changes that need to be made for the discipline to be more active and effective, changes which could reinvigorate our own hope?

First, we could use our collective professional resources to ensure that our findings are taken seriously by other social sectors.  Why haven’t we organized a Criminologists’ March on Washington?  Mainstream criminology has long acknowledged the gross failure of the war on drugs and immigrants, the wastefulness of incarcerating non-violent offenders, and the lack of rehabilitation. In 1977, Piven & Cloward argued that effective social movements are those which are the most “disruptive” to elites and their political economy.  How disruptive is the practice of sociology — on any level?  How can we organize ourselves to be more disruptive?  How could we present our knowledge in more disruptive ways?

A constitutive element of our working conditions is academic freedom, which provides safe harbor for ideas that are out of favor with ruling parties and protects space in which new potentially heretical urgencies can be articulated. But in protecting such spaces, it also endorses and funds the individualistic wanderings of privileged idle elites for whom the academy provides a gentlemanly profession and license to explore their “interests” regardless of colonial impacts.  To move past this costly tradeoff we could look to the model of the African American movements for liberation which nurtured both commitment to racial uplift (people with education are expected to “give back” to their communities) and support for “the individual’s right to follow the truth wherever it leads.” [Gwaltney 1980: xxvii]  How are these two goals worked out in African American communities?

Our necessary commitment to academic freedom results in a discouraging relativism with regard to one another’s work.  We gain liberty at the devastating cost of community. Ernest Becker [1962] proposes that one of the “crucial functions” of community “is to provide the individual with the conviction that he is an object of primary value in a world of meaningful action.” While our work is probably valuable, its social acknowledgment takes the form of citations — underwhelming as an indicator of one’s contribution to “meaningful action”. Thus sociologists become alienated laborers; we labor but do not produce objects of social meaning and value.

Organizing, even amongst ourselves is made very difficult by our attachments to particular disciplinary or personal descriptions of the world. Thus we expend an incredible amount of time, energy, and resources fiddling while Rome burns. Our differences, though often politically significant, divide and compartmentalize us.  Not having to work them out is to some degree a luxury accruing to our socially disconnected profession.  Despite incessant talk of “interdisciplinarity”, the working conditions () provide no rewards for building bridges between various types of knowledges and/or discourses. With the exception of terrorist tactics, social movements require the development of community and solidarity.  Not only do we not collaborate with one another, we rarely make effective alliances with other kinds of workers.

Academic freedom as a payoff for our work individualizes our relationships to the institutions where we work.  Sometimes it is necessary for collective issues of academic freedom to be pursued.  Defending and expanding academic freedom must begin with opposing the corporate takeover of the university.  Acquisition of research funding must be removed from the evaluation process so long as most of the money available is from corporations.  When such money is highly valued by the institution, academic freedom is already compromised.  This is a national and interdisciplinary struggle in which sociologists and other political economists should be playing a leading role.

At particular institutions, academic freedom may have more specific meanings which require collective and interdisciplinary work.  One of the authors teaches at a land grant institution beholden to the public education of farmers, at which the College of Agriculture offers not a single class on organic or sustainable agriculture.  The not inconsiderable number of students enrolled in that College who are interested in sustainable agriculture must educate themselves. Achieving academic freedom means that we need to put students’ academic freedom on the agenda, which will look different from defending individual professors’ academic freedom.  Not only are the current faculty at this institution actively hostile to sustainability, they are also incapable of teaching it.  In this context, defense of academic freedom must mean collective creation and defense of oppositional spaces.  It would clearly be inappropriate in this context for those spaces to be held to the criteria of “objectivity”.  The existing curriculum is not objective.  To move it toward objectivity would require the creation of courses shamelessly committed to sustainable agriculture in order to balance the College’s current curriculum.

The defense of ethnic studies is a similar project, which requires interdisciplinary support at universities where these programs are under fire.  Many ethnic studies departments, initially founded with strong community-university ties, have turned away from that definition of their work in a battle for academic legitimacy. We need to work for “inclusion” in the form of increasing diversity of all University dialogue, not just the presence of marginalized peoples or the opening of oases on campus.

Defending and expanding academic freedom will ultimately require acknowledging that what is being taken away from us (control of the university, secure jobs) or has never really been given us (open admissions, free education, non-“repressive tolerance” [Marcuse 1967] and political integration of our work) are not favors, but rights. Many of us work in institutions that fail to serve people of color even at a rate approaching their proportion of the state population ¾ let alone their proportion of the university’s hometown or of the workers who serve the university.   What kind of academic freedom submits to the notion of education as a privilege instead of a right? Seeing education as a scarce privilege legitimizes vast and growing inequality.  It seems ironic to argue that United Statesians need more of a sense of entitlement until one examines that there has been far less resistance to structural adjustment[3] here than in other countries. French people went on strike in 1996 in large part because they see education as an entitlement.  Our individualism amounts to a defense of privilege when we need a defense of commons rights. Sociologists should be among the first to challenge the destructive effects of individualism and to articulate the collective and institutional forms of academic freedom.

We have noticed that many sociologists have reduced their activist expectations of themselves further and further until they decide that teaching is enough.  Teaching is certainly a powerful and important contribution to be making, but it is not going to solve the problems we are concerned about, nor does it fulfill our hopes for having a more direct, analytical, impact. Part of the trouble is that we have no activist tradition into which to induct students ¾ other than encouraging them to go to graduate school, which is not exactly an initiation into activism. Our best work with them on race, class, and gender has little connection with their lives.  If we care about dealing with racism, we need to induct our students into traditions and practices of resistance and change. It is crucial that we provide models both for action and for identity. We need to offer the option, in a concrete way, of choosing to walk with the oppressed.  This will require seeing ourselves as elders with important skills and information to pass on, rather than as some sort of expanded voters’ guide.

division of labor

Community people experience “studying down” as exploitative, they observe that knowledge we produce, is ineffectual and/or useless, and they do not see us publicly visible in efforts to deal with the problems we study. In Gwaltney’s words, researchers are seen as a “phalanx of fatuous hucksters and junketing assessors who prey or groove upon us.” [1980: xxiv] Similarly, farmer Wendell Berry writes that we treat the loss of family farms as “journal fodder”. [1977]  Writing for journals is clearly not a political movement, and shows no signs of “bend[ing] the thing”.

Community critiques of sociologists today are based on our actions, which do not show a real commitment to social change. In the same way that sociologists denigrate work that lacks cleverness, that merely describes without providing fresh insight, community workers critique an even more dull kind of “recording”, that practiced by self-important sociologists who must “know everything by now” [Henderson].  At least in the eyes of community workers on the “front lines”, sociologists have become, or have always been, part of the problem.

It could be argued that sociologists are part of the “poverty industry” described so eloquently by Herbert Gans. [???] We should stress that it is not necessarily the intentions of researchers, or of sociologists in general, but rather the end effects of our work, that has made many marginalized groups/communities suspicious of our work. And we should keep in mind the history of African American and Native American suspiciousness; it is a survival mechanism developed in response to oppressive actions. Even when folks like our words, they wait to see our actions. For example, UCBerkeley treats Oakland neighborhoods as research laboratories. We can assume that were economic and social conditions to drastically improve in Oakland, UC Berkeley would lose one of its most fertile facilities for the study of social pathologies. Functionally speaking, we can argue that many researchers at Berkeley have a professional interest in Oakland remaining as it is. And Oakland residents understand this dynamic.  A few years ago at a meeting in Oakland sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Metropolitan Forum community residents stood up and shouted, “You’ve been studying for decades. Nothing ever happens. Why don’t you get out there and do something?” What has been the overall effect of research on Oakland’s communities over the last twenty years?

In 1967, Carmichael & Hamilton asked privileged folks to work among our own, a recommendation confirmed by critics of anthropology [Clifford & Marcus 1986] who observed that we mostly talk about ourselves anyway.  Preceding and following these exhortations, sociologists have produced some excellent work on whiteness, power elites, U.S. military funding of brutal dictatorships, and corporate crime.  Less celebrated are those scholars (mostly outside of the academy) who have articulated the not very sexy means by which the first world can get its collective boot off the throat of the third world.

But some scholars still do “study down”, for various reasons.  Some have been purified by the fire of white guilt and self-reflexive theory.  Others assert their ability to be effective or objective or whatever by dint of commitment, or time spent in the sun. So white sociologists can still be celebrated for trekking into the dark unknown of the ghetto to emerge with a real live Black male and his masculinity. [Duneier 1992] Another reason people still do this work is because they actually believe, as articulated by community planner and scholar Marie Kennedy that “my life — my goals, my happiness, and my family’s happiness are at stake, equally, with whatever community it is that I’m working with…that I can’t stand separate.” [in Starr and Robin 1994]  Marx, Sartre, Arendt, Fanon, Nandy, and others have provided conceptual frameworks for elites to recognize what they lose in colonialism and capitalism. Relations of oppression strangle us all, if in rather different ways. Alongside strong strains of traditional life-preserving suspicion [Gwaltney 1980: 7], we hear in the voices of community workers a continued faith in both Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community” and in the promises of Jackson’s “rainbow”. We conclude that activist community studies are possible.

A few sociologists and other researchers have kept a model alive in which ordinary people through their community institutions are positioned as the principal researchers, producing the central questions and providing oversight of research projects (Orlando Fals-Borda, John Gaventa, Peter Park, Ponna Wignaraja, to name a few.) Participatory action research emphasizes the importance of working through existing community organizations, rather than bringing in new models of social organization. [Fals-Borda 1991]  This approach ensures that research is done in a context of social action such that it will be valued and utilized by people who have identified new knowledge that is actually needed and usable. It draws on both “endogenous” resources, such as culture and folk knowledge and dialogue, and “exogenous” elements, including techniques for relegitimizing indigenous culture and knowledge, democracy/populism, and critical history. It also prioritizes local control and development of skills over correct theory, an approach known among community development activists as “process over product”.

Serious strategic political solidarity is the kind of activity that we think could produce more meaningful lives and work for sociologists. We also imagine that it would reintroduce us to community. “Affective relations are, at least potentially, the condition of possibility for the optimism, invigoration and passion which are necessary for any struggle to change the world”. [Grossberg 1992: 86]   This commitment to something “bigger” than the individual, as Vincent Harding [1981] and Robert Bellah et. al. [1985] have written about, is essential to and constitutive of social struggles for liberation and even meaning. We generate potentially useful knowledge, but we have not, as of yet, been at all successful at activating that knowledge, so that, as social actors we ultimately end up on the side of the status quo. By becoming active we would place ourselves on the side of real struggle and resistance rather than remaining largely (as a discipline or as intelligentsia, not as individuals) on the side of rhetoric.

The division of labor results in social estrangement, a tragic level of social separation in which institutionalized intellectuals’ identities and careers require the constant assertion that fellow citizens are not also capable of and interested in reflecting on “the climate of communal coexistence in terms which are plainly analytical” and “building theory on every conceivable level.” [Gwaltney 1980: xxix, xxvi] The moment of professionalization when we come to believe we are smarter than ordinary people is a conquering division. Believing in our own superior intelligence naturalizes status difference, legitimizes disconnected knowledge production, turns the people to stone, and locks us in our offices.

Postmodernism has delved deeply into issues of seeing, knowing, speaking, and responding.  The ensuing controversies are well known.  At the very least, we can admit that we are not the only ones who can know, and even that sometimes others will know what we do not. For example, low income communities often know better than bureaucrats and policy specialists what their communities need, but because they are generally regarded as not being capable of knowing, their voices are ignored. To imagine that our knowledge production is somehow above or not subject to the critiques of those who would be affected by it is yet one more indication of our estrangement.

We could incorporate the critiques of our work made by non-intelligentsia.  We could strive to make our work accountable to the people affected by the social phenomena that we investigate.  For example, we could begin by requiring ourselves to incorporate into our methodology various forms of engagement with relevant social sectors, in order to evaluate and improve the accuracy and usefulness of the findings. Overcoming the manual/intellectual labor split may require rethinking assumptions about manual labor’s intellectual practices. As Gwaltney notes, community workers and other people “on the ground” are actively engaged in making theory; this presents a rich possibility for collaboration between intelligentsia and what Cornel West calls “organic” intellectuals [hooks and West 1991]  One of our challenges is what to do with our more complex theories that cannot be easily transmitted in ordinary language.  C. W. Mills imagined all of society joining in the sociological project, but did not include theory in the social procedure he proposed.  If indeed some of our more arcane language is analytically necessary, we need to learn how to communicate it.

The next step is praxis. Fortunately, not everyone gave up on it. The concept of praxis, as we understand it, proposes that the production of knowledge is incomplete until it is practiced and thereafter modified. Knowledge, then, is not a finite product but an iterative process.  It is precisely the practice of praxis, however, that is not happening in professional sociology. There are now a number of scholars (mostly outside the academy) who are providing a model for praxis.  The people who have analyzed and taught us about Free Trade Agreements (Lori Wallach, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Edward Goldsmith, Martin Khor, Colin Hines, to name a few) have produced important analysis and organized popular campaigns.  Legal scholars have worked with community activists’ evolving understanding of gender and sexuality to develop new queer legal theory.  Such vibrant models should be copied.

Our greatest challenge is to take the risks to confront a social structure that takes relatively good care of us. The fundamental difference between even the best-intentioned emissaries of Western humanism and third and fourth world peoples is that the people have nothing to lose in the struggle for their humanization [Fanon 1961: 61], and first worlders and intelligentsia will, as mentioned above, on a fundamental level always be about protecting our absolute differences in status and wealth. Will we write and talk forever about race, class, and gender and call teaching our only activism? If we want to be in solidarity with those we write about, we must be willing to take risks, and for us those risks will include risking our prospect of secure employment, which is almost unknown in our country today and therefore increasingly valuable.

Historian Bernice Johnson Reagon [1993] suggests that in considering the risks of challenging their institutions, third world intellectuals must imagine that their employer, to whom they owe allegiance, is not the institution, but the social movement that created the space for them in the academy.  In the case of privileged white scholars, we could decide to be accountable to those who have no access to our institutions, rather than to the gatekeepers. We could develop a culture of working through fears and nurturing commitment to take risks.  Transgender activists explain that allies can support them by expanding the space of acceptable gender presentation.  In the academy, the more of us who take activist stands, the safer it will be for our colleagues to do so.

If our conclusion is not to be that we ought to abolish our discipline, then we need to be able to say why not. Why not, that is, besides protecting our jobs?  From this starting point, we can individually and collectively reconstruct the meaning and purpose of sociology.  The authors believe that most sociologists have great goals for our work.  Alienated and made impotent by professionalized versons of our social concern, we settle for far less than we entered the profession to do.  Renewed collective effort to make our work powerful could restore our perfectly reasonable dreams of participating in social change.



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But even political scientist Ray Rocco, upon completing a six year ethnography of East and South East Los Angeles explained that his locality did not get him “in”.[4] People lied to him, for privacy, because Professor wasn’t really an insider (or not any more), because they tried to give the information they thought would help his research. And Gwaltney learns from Porter Millington that “it is folly to reveal oneself to the powerful stranger.” [xxx] The danger of this folly is that “outsiders impose their own meaning” [xxv] This very real fear is what is being articulated by Cass and Henderson: Researchers have our own agendas, well intentioned though they may be, and our objects are acutely aware of this.





[1] These two excerpts and all other uncited interviews are unpublished excerpts from the interview data of one of the authors’ national study of youthworkers working with urban youth of color. These two speakers are long time community workers in their neighborhoods; both run celebrated independent local youth programs which they founded. Their words are here presented under fictive names.

[2] paraphrased from lecture given at the University of California —Santa Barbara in Spring 1995.

[3] Walden Bello [1994] explains that structural adjustment has been imposed on the first world through Thatcherism and rollback of the U.S. welfare state.

[4] from a talk given at the University of California —Santa Barbara in Spring 1996.