Series Editors’ Preface

The idea of public sociology in its global form was inspired by sociological practice in South Africa, conceptualised as ‘critical engagement’, when the US sociologist Michael Burawoy visited South Africa in the 1990s. This volume explores the trajectory of ‘critical engagement’ before and after Burawoy’s visit, comparing this to the trajectory of ‘public sociology’, which was forged in the very different context of US sociology. Contributors to the edited volume reflect on four decades of dialogue and concept formation between the dominant sociology of the North and the emergent sociology of the South over a 40 year period. They use this to interrogate deeply the contradictions, challenges and profound contribution of social science research to popular struggle - and the equally profound contribution of popular struggles to the formation of new sociological knowledge. Authors located in South Africa wrote the majority of the chapters, but the book also includes contributions from Chile and Turkey as points of comparison across the global South. The book engages historically and conceptually with critical engagement as an evolving practice, as well as more recent research practices in and around the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) in Johannesburg over the past decade in order to deepen our understanding of the methodologies and processes of knowledge formation that characterise critically engaged research.

Sociology is a highly reflexive subject. All scholarly disciplines examine themselves reflexively in terms of theory and practice as they apply what sociologist of science Robert Merton once called ‘organized scepticism’. Sociology adds to this constant internal academic debate also a vigorous, almost obsessive, concern about its very purpose and rationale. This attentiveness to founding principles shows itself in significant intellectual interest in the ‘canon’ of great thinkers and its history as a discipline, in vigorous debate about the boundaries of the discipline and in considerable inventiveness in developing new areas and subfields of sociology. This fascination with the purpose and social organization of the discipline is also reflected in the debate about sociology’s civic engagements and commitments, its level of activism and its moral and political purposes.

This echoes the contemporary discussion about the idea of public sociology. ‘Public sociology’ is a new phrase for a long-standing debate about the purpose of sociology that began with the discipline’s origins. It is therefore no coincidence that students in the 21st century, when being introduced to sociology for the first time, wrestle with ideas formulated centuries before, for while social change has rendered some of these ideas redundant, particularly the social Darwinism of the 19th century and functionalism in the 1950s, familiarity with these earlier debates and frameworks is the lens into understanding the purpose, value and prospect of sociology as key thinkers conceived it in the past. The ideas may have changed but the moral purpose has not.

A contentious discipline is destined to argue continually about its past. Some see the roots of sociology grounded in medieval scholasticism, in 18th-century Scotland with the Scottish Enlightenment’s engagement with the social changes wrought by commercialism, in conservative reactions to the Enlightenment or in 19th-century encounters with the negative effects of industrialization and modernization. Contentious disciplines, however, are condemned to always live in their past if they do not also develop a vision for their future – a sense of purpose and a rationale that takes the discipline forward. Sociology has always been forward-looking, offering an analysis and diagnosis of what C. Wright Mills liked to call the ‘human condition’. Interest in the social condition and in its improvement and betterment for the majority of ordinary men and women has always been sociology’s ultimate objective.

At the end of the second millennium, when public sociology was named by Michael Burawoy, there was a strong feeling in the discipline that the professionalization of the subject during the 20th century had come at the cost of its public engagement, its commitment to social justice and its reputation for activism. The vitality and creativity of the public sociology debate was largely fuelled by what Aldon Morris called ‘liberation capitalism’, created in social movements of political engagement outside of the universities in the years after the social turmoil and changes of the 1960s.

The discipline has mostly reacted positively to Burawoy’s call for public sociology, although there has been spirited dissent from those concerned with sociology’s scientific status. Public sociology represents a practical realignment of the discipline by encouraging a focus on substantive and theoretical topics that are important to the many publics with whom the discipline engages. Public sociology, however, is also a normative realignment of the discipline through its commitment to enhance understanding of the social condition so that the lives of people are materially improved. Public sociology not only changes what sociologists do; it redefines what sociology is for.

Sociology’s concern with founding principles is both a strength and a weakness of the discipline. Nothing seems settled in sociology; the discipline does not obliterate past ideas by their absorption into new ones, as Robert Merton once put it, as the natural sciences insist on doing. The past remains a learning tool in sociology, and the history of sociology is contemporaneous as we stand on the shoulders of giants to learn from earlier generations of sociologists. We therefore revisit debates about the boundaries between sociology and its cognate disciplines, or debates about the relationship between individuals and society, or about the analytical categories of individuals, groups, communities and societies, or of the primacy of material conditions over symbolic ones, or of the place of politics, identity, culture, economics and the everyday in structuring and determining social life. The boundaries of sociology are porous and as many sociologists have asserted, the discipline is a hybrid, drawing ideas eclectically from those subjects closely aligned to it.

This hybridity is also sociology’s great strength. Sociology’s openness facilitates interdisciplinarity, encourages innovation in the fields to which the sociological imagination is applied and opens up new topics about which sociological questions can be asked. Sociology thus exposes the hidden and the neglected to scrutiny. There is very little that cannot have sociological questions asked of it. The boundaries of sociology are thus ever expanding and widening; it is limitless in applying the sociological imagination. The tension between continuity and change – something evident in society generally – reflects thus also in the discipline itself. This gives sociology a frisson that is both fertile and fruitful as new ideas rub up against old ones and as the conceptual apparatus of sociology is simultaneously revisited and renewed. This tends to work against faddism in sociology, since nothing is entirely new and the latest fashions have their pasts.

Public sociology is thus not itself new, and it has its own history. Burawoy rightly emphasized the role of C. Wright Mills, and broader frameworks allow us to highlight the contribution of the radical W.E.B. Du Bois, the early feminist and peace campaigner Jane Addams and scores of feminist, socialist and anti-racist scholars from the Global South, such as Fernando Henrique Cardosa in Brazil and Fatima Meer in South Africa. Going back further into the history of public sociology, the Scots in the 18th century were public sociologists in their way, allowing us to see that Burawoy’s refocusing of sociology’s research agenda and its normative realignment is the latest expression of a long-standing concern. The signal achievement of Burawoy’s injunction was to mobilize the profession to reflect again on its founding principles and to take the discipline forward to engage with the relevance of sociology to the social and human condition in the 21st century.

Despite the popularity of the idea of public sociology and the widespread use of such discourse, no book series is singularly dedicated to it. The purpose of this series is to draw together some of the best sociological research that carries the imprimatur of public sociology, done inside the academy by senior figures and early career researchers as well as outside it by practitioners, policy analysts and independent researchers seeking to apply sociological research in real-world settings.

The reflexivity of professional sociologists as they ponder the usefulness of sociology under neoliberalism and late modern cosmopolitanism will be addressed in this series, as the series publishes works that engage from a sociological perspective with the fundamental global challenges that threaten the very future of humankind. The relevance of sociology will be highlighted in works that address these challenges as they feature in global social changes but also as they are mediated in local and regional communities and settings. The series will feature titles that work at a global level of abstraction as well as studies that are micro ethnographic depictions of global processes as they affect local communities. The focus of the series is thus on what Michael Ignatieff refers to as ‘the ordinary virtues’ of everyday life, social justice, equality of opportunity, fairness, tolerance, trust and respect, and how the organization and structure of society – at a general level or in local neighbourhoods – inhibits or promotes these virtues and practices. The series will expose the dynamics of social suffering through detailed sociological analysis, and it will celebrate the hopes of social emancipation.

The discourse of public sociology has permeated outside the discipline of sociology as other subjects, such as public anthropology, public political science and public international relations, take up its challenge and reorientate themselves. In pioneering the engagement with its different publics, sociology has therefore once again led the way, and this series is designed to take the debate about public sociology and its practices in new directions. In being the first of its kind, this book series will showcase how the discipline of sociology has utilized the language and ideas of public sociology to change what it does and what it is for. This series will address not only what sociologists do, but also sociology’s focus on the commitment to enhance understanding of the social condition so that the lives of ordinary people are materially improved. It will showcase the wide diversity of sociological research that addresses the many global challenges that threaten the future of humankind in the 21st century.

Most of these issues are on wonderful display in the latest addition to the series. The editors skilfully collect an experienced set of contributors to reflect on issues of social justice, equality and political change in the Global South. It stands to be an extremely significant contribution to its field, raising issues central to public sociology and to the discipline of sociology as a whole. As the discipline decolonizes its subject matter and approach, engages practically with emancipation from injustice, inequality and political oppression, and shifts towards honouring sociology in the Global South, Bezuidenhout, Mnwana and von Holdt’s edited collection will be recognized as a major marker in the process.

Critical Engagement with Public Sociology: A Perspective from the Global South works on many levels. In one sense it celebrates the work of Eddie Webster’s Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, during its engagement with apartheid society and since. It is also, however, an account of sociology’s ambiguous positioning within South Africa under apartheid, where some practitioners engaged with, supported and, indeed, contributed to state-sponsored apartheid, while others pursued liberal policies of distance and detachment from the apartheid state but with no real radical critique of sociological knowledge production under the constraints of apartheid. On the other hand, SWOP offered a subaltern and radical engagement with the unjust, unequal and oppressive nature of apartheid society, along, of course, with others in South African social science. South Africa, however, is used only to engage with a much broader sociological landscape. Alongside chapters on Chile and Turkey, the South African lens contributes to the formulation of what the editors call a ‘Southern sociology’: a sociology in and of the Global South.

This leads the editors and contributors into a fascinating argument that seeks to make two distinctions: between public sociology and what they call ‘engaged sociology’, and between the two sociologies in and of the Global North and the Global South. The volume is an exemplar of engaged sociology in the Global South.

The editors establish South Africa’s credentials in having helped Michael Burawoy develop his ideas on public sociology, arising from his many visits to the country and his deep respect for the tradition of radical critique in some forms of South African sociology, and Webster’s work in particular. This is merely the starting point to the contrast contributors are keen to make between public sociology and critically engaged sociology in systems of social injustice, economic inequality and political repression. They also challenge public sociology, including Burawoy himself, for the Global North bias of its focus and interests.

The volume ends with answers to the three questions posed in the introduction. Is there a distinctive Southern sociology? Is it comprehensive enough to constitute a thorough perspective in the discipline? And does it challenge the hegemony of sociology in the Global North? They give a resounding yes to each question. Let such a debate begin.

December, 2021

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