Professional and public sociologies

I’m late to the ongoing discussion (most recently over at Brayden’s blog) of public sociology, but my interest is piqued by Jeremy Freese’s remarks about public versus professional sociology. I’m with Jeremy on this one: Pitting “professional” sociology against “public” sociology strikes me as an odd thing to do, especially in a discipline where professionalism is studied at great length.

The way I understand it, the root of advocacy for public sociology is the idea that we sociologists might have something interesting, even important, to offer the broader world. Undoubtedly, the fact that economists and political scientists hog all the public limelight has something to do with this, so I think there’s a distinct sense of not wanting to be left out any longer that is pushing the resurgent idea of public sociology. In the long term, building public trust in sociology at the same time we build public visibility of it seem to be core goals. There’s a certain navel-gazing, listen to me now feeling to all this. Would the idea of public sociology have any currency these days if not for its perception of marginalization and vague sense of having roots as a “critical discipline?” Probably—though Kieran seems to have dibs on that topic, so I’ll bracket it for now. In any case, Jeremy’s argument that better sociology (as opposed to simply more visible sociology) needs to be part of the equation is an important one. We sociologists have public chops to the extent that we can speak to the “public” in a meaningful and credible way.

The notion that this idea is somehow incommensurable with professionalism is weird (Jeremy, for one, calls shenanigans on the very idea that sociology is facing “mounting professionalism”), and seems bound up in a not-very-sociological take on what professionalism is all about. (Incidentally, these ideas about pfoessionalism have been bubbling around in my head a bit ever since Kieran posted some thoughts about professions at Crooked Timber recently). Although much work on professions identifies doctors, lawyers, and accountants as constituting the main set of professional occupations, claiming be professional is an important element of many other kinds of work. Paramedics and other allied health practitioners clamor for formal professionalization, for example, while physicians re-assert their occupational dominance over them.

Legitimate claims to professionalism depend on a few both practical and theoretical concerns: A set of occupational standards, extensive training to generate skill and competence, strong programs of socialization, member-run licensure (sanctioned by states by way of legislation [1]), autonomy from lay evaluation, and a general claim to, in one way or another, provide some kind of important public service (which importantly generates a sense of accountability to the public, as well). None of these seem fundamentally at odds with “public sociology,” however it’s framed. Sure, the idea that professions are insulated from lay evaluation can and does come under fire, both from practitioners of challenging occupations and from the broader public; such counterveiling powers have been identified in recent years as an important balance to the unrestricted autonomy that medicine in particular has enjoyed.

In fact, despite some contemporary dissatisfaction with doctors, lawyers, and accountants, the prestige of being a professional hasn’t, as far as I know, diminished as a result of malpractice scandals or financial skulduggery. To the extent that they generate public confidence (or simply visibility; my in-laws might finally understand that I’m not studying counseling), the other characteristics of professionalism should enhance the work that sociologists do, both within the discipline and from an outside perspective. On the other hand, without a public presence as a profession, sociology’s dominant public image is of the “pop” variety; David Brooks becomes the public face of sociology for most Americans.

Antipathy toward “professional” sociology, then, seems based on negative attitudes toward highly visible cases of wrongdoing on the part of some professionals. Our problem is with other professionals. Though it complicates it, this doesn’t impugn the project of professionalism or damage the credibility of those who aspire to be professionals. You don’t have to be a theorist of work and occupations to want professionals to inspect your home or splint your broken toe.

There’s a lot more to this. I think opposition to professional sociology is also wrapped up in an inferiority complex that comes with uncertainty about academic versus “applied” sociology—an ongoing issue for sociologists, to be sure. There’s a deep contradiction there, of course, because it’s precisely applied sociology that is most public.

But this is already long enough, so I’ll stop now. Jeremy, I’ll take one of those buttons.

1 This state interaction is fundamental, and is described by Paul Starr as the crux to the early professionalization—and monopoly—of the American medical system.