5: From ‘Critical Engagement’ to ‘Public Sociology’ and Back: A Critique from the South

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This chapter charts the historical process of concept formation over a 40-year period in the interactions between US sociologist Michael Burawoy and South African sociologist Edward Webster and his colleagues at the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) in Johannesburg over the meaning of ‘critically engaged sociology’ and ‘public sociology’. Drawing from Burawoy’s account of public sociology, originating in his experience of the politically committed sociology of South Africa, it argues that ‘critical engagement’, as conceptualized in SWOP, constitutes a ‘whole sociology’ in the interface between the academic field and political fields, in contrast to the concept of public sociology as a practice of addressing publics beyond the university. The second part of the chapter teases out the distinctive processes of knowledge production in two recent projects that exemplify the practice of critically engaged sociology, arguing that this is characterized by the simultaneous production of academic and political knowledge in a complex interaction between autonomy and accountability, partisanship and critical distance.

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