3: Choosing Sides: The Promise and Pitfalls of a Critically Engaged Sociology in Apartheid South Africa

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This chapter problematizes the notion of public sociology by comparing two examples of research undertaken during the apartheid period. It raises questions over the role of sociologists in situations of large-scale suffering and exploitation. Should they take sides, and if they do, on what grounds can such choices be justified? It is argued that one takes sides on the basis of certain value commitments. But when sociologists go beyond the relative comfort of the classroom and engage with organizations outside the university, they dirty their hands. This is the dilemma that lies at the heart of a ‘critically engaged sociology’: how to square the circle between practical engagement with outside organizations and a commitment by the sociologist to scholarship. The chapter concludes by suggesting a response to this dilemma in the form of ‘critical engagement’.

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