(Re) Making


Breaking the

bonds of our





Jan 1998


                        Article 32




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              Joey Sprague





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It is argued that what can unite sociologists is the

potential to support informed social action, but the

way the discipline is constructed makes it

increasingly difficult to facilitate an informed public



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Copyright American Sociological Association Jan 1998


What is sociology? The question tends to focus our

attention on issues of topic and/or method, and at

that point we can see why the question emerges.

We are increasingly diverse on both dimensions. Of

course, any good sociologist, certainly Dorothy

Smith (1987, 1990), could tell us that sociology is

what we make of it. So, the question really is, how

are we making sociology? Asking it that way

focuses our attention more on the organization of

the discipline, on the practices by which we

produce and reproduce ourselves. Then we can see

that what ties us together is the bonds of our

discipline. The nod to Foucault ( 1980) is

intentional. I want to argue that what could unite us

is our potential to support informed social action.

Yet the way we construct our discipline makes it

increasingly difficult to facilitate an informed public

discourse. Ironically, what ties us together tends to

keep us from uniting.


For one thing, as diverse as we are becoming, the

sociology we have inherited and work within is the

product of a particular subgroup's perspective on

society. Feminist and other critical scholars have

been demonstrating for some time that the

substance of sociology is how society looks from

the standpoint of social elites, typically racially and

economically privileged men (see, for example,

Collins 1991; hooks 1994; Smith 1990; Sprague

1997). For instance, our conceptual preference is

for decontextualized abstractions. Our unit of

analysis is more often an abstract individual than a

person who lives within and actively negotiates a

complex web of social relations, including class,

gender, and race. The standpoint of the privileged

also comes through in our conventional

segmentation of social life, where we often

downplay, or even hide, the experience of the least

powerful (Smith 1990). For instance, we separate

work and family, making it harder to see that

maintaining a family involves work and that

households can be sites of both paid and unpaid

labor and production for the market (Cancian

1985; Collins 1991; Oakley 1974; Mies 1986).

Everywhere, and usually by inattention, we discount

the work of caring, of physical and emotional

nurturance, especially if it is done by subordinate

groups in general and women in particular (Cancian

and Oliker forthcoming; Glenn 1992).


Feminist and other scholars have also criticized the

way the standpoint of economically and racially

privileged men underlies the emphasis on

separation, abstraction, and control in the

methodological tradition we have inherited (Collins

1991; Foucault 1980; Keller 1985; Habermas

1971; Smith 1990). In that tradition, researchers'

values and personal history are to be hidden from

view, intellectually isolated from the development of

research agendas and from their interpretation of

data. Our methods direct us to convert the lives of

those we study into data, using our frameworks to

the exclusion of theirs and without attending to the

interpersonal and social structural relationships of

power and privilege through which researchers and

researched are connected.


Part of the problem with seeing society from the

perspective of economically and racially privileged

men is that, like any perspective, it is limited. Those

limitations distort our view, as the examples above

demonstrate. A more disturbing aspect of the

standpoint we tend to use is that the distortions

naturalize the privilege of those who have it, and

thus the oppression of those over whom they (and

sometimes we) have privilege.


Still, as sociologists we are standing in an

intellectual space from which we could construct a

more broadly useful, even liberatory, understanding

of society. We share an awareness that the social

has important explanatory force-that individuals,

groups, and even institutions are embedded in a

social context that shapes and constrains their

choices. We also realize that the social is the

product of the concerted actions of individuals,

sometimes singly, more often in groups, and through

institutions. In a sense, we study the shape and

consequences of social action. Because we study

social action, we are in a position to ask and

answer the kinds of questions that are central to

guiding it.


Ironically, even though we, as sociologists, try to

describe and explain social action, we are bound in

a discipline that makes it hard to participate in

social action outside the academy. We do

sociology in varying ways, and venues and

expectations at specific workplaces vary greatly.

Still, within the profession we are held to a fairly

uniform set of standards. In particular, we divide

our activities into research, teaching, and service,

and assign status and material rewards differentially

within and among those categories. The terms in

which we evaluate ourselves and one another within

the profession and the way we segment the terrain

of our professional lives-literally our curriculum

vitae-also follow the logic of the privileged

masculine standpoint in emphasizing abstraction,

segmentation, quantity, and hierarchy at the

expense of concrete connection and support.


In assigning status, we place the heaviest weight on

research and apply some explicit criteria for

distinguishing high- from lowstatus research. We

value basic research, scholarship motivated by the

interests of scholars, over applied research, work

that employs sociological tools toward concrete

social goals. We count publications and weigh each

by the status-value of the outlet. The highest status

is accorded to a few disciplinary journals, whose

names we can all repeat in the proper order. Some

criteria are less explicit: what men usually do over

what women usually do; highly technical analyses

over simpler approaches; abstract, dispassionate,

esoteric language over personal, committed, and

accessible language.


As a discipline, we say that teaching is important

and our professional organizations provide services

to support it. However, the major rewards in the

discipline do not go to effective teachers or even,

for the most part, to people who work at

teaching-oriented institutions. Few graduate

programs require their students to be familiar with

the flourishing literature on teaching in sociology.

Unaware of the alternatives, many of us understand

teaching to be telling students everything we know

about a topic in a "conversation" that is, for the

most part, one-way.


Those of us at educational institutions must juggle

the demands of teaching with those of research in a

context where being a productive researcher often

conflicts with being a committed and effective

teacher. At the highly competitive leading research

institutions, teaching even can get defined as the

necessary price of being supported to do research,

and the "truly privileged" are those who are able to

bring in external funding and use some of it to buy

their way out of classroom teaching. We reinforce

the sharp line we draw between research and

teaching in our standards for evaluating publications

about scholarship: We hold publication of original

research to be much more important and creative

than the organization of an area's scholarship in a

way that supports teaching about it.


Through these practices we have made ourselves

into a diverse discipline held together by an

individualized status hierarchy. What we could

make of ourselves is a role of leadership in public

discourse about how to make society a better place

for more people. Looking at it sociologically, the

purpose of knowledge is to inform intentional

action. In a democratic society, the purpose of

knowledge is to facilitate public discourse that can

inform social action.


The need for an informed public discourse is great.

Sociologists are often among the loudest in decrying

the quality of public discourse about social

phenomena. Politicians speak in sound bites. The

news media increasingly resemble tabloids. Unable

to understand the sources of the social problems

and cynical about the actions of politicians, most

people turn off. Politics seems irrelevant to these

people, though as sociologists we are well aware

that the decisions of policymakers certainly are not.


Many of us would say that contributing in some

way to general social knowledge is what we do, or

at least what we want to do, or went to graduate

school to be able to do. But judging from our

actions, we don't do it very well. The way we

organize ourselves into that trichotomy of research,

teaching, and service undercuts our ability to

facilitate informed public discourse.


For example, consider the consequences of

apportioning esteem based on length of publication

list. The easiest way to increase your publication list

is to break one article into two, split parts of an

argument or analytic emphases. This encourages the

fragmentation of knowledge and the labor it takes

to create some sense of the whole. In emphasizing

quantity in our evaluation of research productivity,

we condemn one another to a treadmill whose

speed is ever increasing. The time and energy it

takes to generate multiple publications and to keep

up with the ones others are generating at the same

feverish rate leaves little time or energy to spare for

involvement in family, neighborhood, and/or



The quantitative pressure on research productivity

at many institutions creates a time conflict between

research and teaching. The emphasis on knowledge

that is separate from daily life creates an intellectual

conflict as well, one that breeds a hierarchical

approach to the classroom. Teaching becomes

"telling," as Goldschmid and Hughes (1980)

describe it, an extended and one-sided review of

the literature. If our focus is on facilitating informed

public discourse, those students in the classroom

become citizens who need to learn how to make

sense of their complex lives so they can decide on

appropriate action (hooks 1994). Teaching begins

to look like service. But those student/citizens are

also axes of data; their lives and their

understandings are something we need to

incorporate and account for in our scholarly

frameworks. So teaching is an aspect of research.


Service, for those of us in the academy, is hack

work cranking the wheels of institutional

bureaucracy. If academic sociologists want to

facilitate civic discourse and informed social action,

we should be following the model of our colleagues

in the applied arena, testifying before policymakers,

helping journalists see things sociologically, working

with citizen groups to help them analyze their

situation. That is, service would look a lot like

teaching beyond the classroom. Further, being

engaged in this way brings us into contact with

different interpretive frameworks and generates

new questions that are closer to the questions of

daily life. That is, service interacts with research.


If our goal were to facilitate informed public

discourse, what would our research look like?

What questions would we pursue? What would our

answers look like in substance and in form? Would

our research be solely what we think of as applied,

that is, directed toward the solution of specific

problems? I don't think so, but I do think we would

move in the direction Dorothy Smith (1987, 1990)

is pointing to: to help people make sense of the

constraints and contradictions in their everyday lives

by helping them see how these problems are the

outcome of actions taken by powerful parties

outside the local context, what she calls "external

relations of ruling." In doing so, our agendas might

start obliterating the basic/applied dichotomy,

because informing discourse on a problem of lived

experience would involve putting that problem in a

larger social and historical context-including asking

such questions as Who else has this problem? What

have they tried to do, and how successful has that

attempt been? How does this problem fit into the

larger immediate context of social institutions and

practices, and how does it shape actual selves in

daily interactions?


Certainly the way we write about our research

would have to change. We would need to change

the language we use to make it clearer and more

accessible to a broader public. We would feel more

responsible to draw out the relevance of our

scholarly findings to some aspect of contemporary

social life. We would value the intellectual

contribution of scholarship that integrates and

connects bits of knowledge into a big picture.

Research would be a little more like teaching. I

think these pressures would make for stronger

scholarship, just as we usually find that we learn a

subject the best through teaching it.


If our mission is to inform public discourse,

classroom teaching becomes a key element of that

goal, because our ability to facilitate informed

discourse about social action is constrained by the

ability of the general public to think sociologically.

We will have to reconstrue our role in the

classroom, from telling students what to think to

helping them learn how to think as sociologists. We

need to facilitate our students' ability to evaluate

evidence, to assess critically the analysis of data, to

be able to apply contrasting explanatory

frameworks to the findings and decide which is best



To prepare students to participate fully in public

discourse, we will also have to adopt the goal set

for us by bell hooks (1994): to help them learn to

make the connections between the explanatory

frameworks we are developing and the

circumstances of their own lives. If we are to help

them understand their lives, we need to know more

about those lives that are being constructed in

different social situations than our own. As hooks

points out, this means that both teacher and

students bring resources to the classroom; effective

teaching needs to be constructed as a collaboration.

In the process, we will be learning about aspects of

social life from the standpoints of our students,

which will enrich our scholarly perspective.

Teaching, in this way, starts to move in the direction

of collaborative research.


If our primary goal is to support informed public

discourse, service becomes much larger than

disciplining ourselves by filling spaces on

committees. Service becomes the essence of the

profession-a word that comes from the Latin word

that means to declare one's beliefs openly. We

certainly need to be available to those who come to

us asking for sociological insights, but more than

that, we need to take a more active role in

proselytizing sociological understandings. The

venues are varied: newspapers and magazines,

legislative committee hearings, talks to public

service groups. Years ago, a student asked me why

there was a Psychology Today but no Sociology

Today, no vehicle for systematically getting

sociological insights into the popular media. It still is

a very good question. In the professing model of

sociology, service begins to look like extending our

teaching far beyond the walls of the classroom and

publishing through a much wider range of outlets

and media. Intentionally constructing sociology to

support informed public social action requires

breaking down the barriers we have erected

between the ways we develop and communicate

knowledge. It integrates the pieces of our scholarly



It would also bring us together as sociologists. Our

discipline divides us into subareas, but the work of

supporting social action requires us to work

together. Any aspect of social life is a complex of

relationships between individual actors with their

own consciousness, biography, and interests that

are located in specific relationships within particular

organizational constraints and within larger

institutional practices, all of which are embedded in

a history. Thus, it takes many sociologists operating

on diverse levels of analysis with different

conceptual foci to construct the basis for a useful

account of a social phenomenon or problem

(Sprague and Zimmerman 1993). In trying to figure

out our individual pieces, we will have to listen to

and learn from scholars whose work now seems

remote from or perhaps even irrelevant to ours. The

complexity of social life has given rise to our

diversity; the problem is a point where we all



Sociology is what we make of it; we impose the

standards of our discipline on one another. We can

begin re-making ourselves every time we evaluate a

CV, or review a paper, or work on our own

scholarship. We can insist on clarity, creativity, and

usefulness more than on quantity and mystification.

We can begin reorganizing how we teach one

classroom exercise, or op-ed piece, or school

board meeting at a time, and we can support each

other in these efforts both intellectually and

materially. We can seriously test the hypothesis that

work in different substantive and methodological

corners than the ones we occupy is essential to our

understanding. Academic sociologists can define

teaching introductory sociology or periodically

working outside the academy as important to

professional development. We can use our

professional meetings to facilitate interaction, even

team building, among those whose primary energies

are devoted to research or to teaching or to

working in the applied arena. What will bring us

together, if we dare to try it, is a shared and

collaborative focus on informing social action.


*I would like to thank Judy Howard, Margaret Greer,

Jennifer Glass, Gary Brunk, Barbara Risman, and Don

Tomaskovic-Devey for their thoughtful and useful

suggestions about how to improve this essay.




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