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  • Author or Editor: Karl von Holdt x
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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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The conclusion discusses each of the chapters in this volume in order to address the three big questions that animate this book: Does critical engagement represent a Southern sociology? Does critical engagement constitute a whole sociology, engaging in knowledge and theory production as well as questions of political mobilization and change? Does it constitute a counter-hegemonic sociology? It argues that Southern sociology is constituted in the context of permanent instability and movements for radical social change – accounting for critical engagement’s radical orientation, its alliance with forces for social change and its critique of official sociology. This chapter explores the different combinations of scholarly autonomy and political engagement adopted by each of the researchers as they navigate power-laden research sites, and it argues for the importance of reflecting on the subtleties of these diverse experiences. Ultimately, it argues for a conception of critical engagement as incipiently counter-hegemonic, both in its South–South encounters and in North–South solidarity and contestation.

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A Perspective from the Global South

The idea of public sociology, as introduced by Michael Burawoy, was inspired by the sociological practice in South Africa known as ‘critical engagement’. This volume explores the evolution of critical engagement before and after Burawoy’s visit to South Africa in the 1990s and offers a Southern critique of his model of public sociology.

Involving four generations of researchers from the Global South, the authors provide a multifaceted exploration of the formation of new knowledge through research practices of co-production.

Tracing the historical development of ‘critical engagement’ from a Global South perspective, the book deftly weaves a bridge between the debates on public sociology and decolonial frameworks.

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This chapter provides an overview of the research trajectory of the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) and how this was shaped by its commitment to supporting the labour movement in particular and South Africa’s liberation movement and social movements in general. The chapter maps out the institute’s research traditions as they evolved from the founding of SWOP in the early 1980s up to the contemporary era. Tensions and contradictions involved in a critically engaged research tradition are highlighted. The chapter comments on how the post-apartheid fragmentation of the labour movement subsequently impacted on labour studies itself and how SWOP responded to tensions between researchers and trade unions in flux and under attack in the post-apartheid era. In response to changing relationships with its labour partners, SWOP researchers broadened their research foci to include topics well beyond the scope of labour studies. Over time, the institute became more aware of its location in the Global South and the need to re-evaluate the critical tradition of Northern theory that had shaped its research agenda.

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This volume identifies South Africa as the birthplace of the concept of public sociology, popularized globally by Michael Burawoy, and charts the contrasting trajectories of ‘public sociology’ and ‘critically engaged sociology’ as found in South Africa. The focus is on researchers and research conducted at the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, as well as work by researchers associated with the institute through collaborations of one sort or another. The introduction goes on to provide a thumbnail sketch of SWOP and its history, founded as it was in 1983 in the most turbulent decade of popular uprisings against apartheid. It locates SWOP’s commitment to ‘critical engagement’ with popular movements, the democratic trade union movement in particular, in the context of the evolution of South African sociology and the particular space it occupied in the forging of a new radical and critical social science. The chapter goes on to provide a sketch of Burawoy’s successful campaign to popularize public sociology globally, and it ends with a description of the chapters collected in this volume.

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