Archive: May 2013

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Contexts is a quarterly magazine that makes cutting-edge social research accessible to general readers. We’re the public face of sociology.


A Populist Sociology

A few years back, I was on a prestigious Centennial Panel at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) 100th birthday party. The topic was public sociology. When I first saw the distinguished academic pedigree of my fellow panelists, I imagined myself cast in a theatrical adaptation of American novelist William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. I was playing a member of the Snopes clan, someone mistakenly seated at the head table of the plantation owners’ annual banquet. If you are unfamiliar with the little hamlet of Frenchmen’s Bend in Faulkner’s mythological Mississippi, the Snopeses belong to the “white trash” stratum.

I did forewarn the panelists and audience that we Snopeses ain’t been fully housebroken and that in addressing the polite subject of public sociology, I was compelled to also expose our profession’s dirty little secret: There is no discipline so sensitive to social inequality, or as rigorous at unmasking the social machinations that create and perpetuate those inequities. Conversely, there is no profession more insensitive to status inequality within its own ranks, or as inept at recognizing how taken-for-granted practices create and perpetuate this peculiar caste system. Sociology itself is in need of a populist insurgency.

Crème de la crème sociology denotes the esoteric scholarship and rampant careerism that permeate the 25 top-ranked sociology departments at esteemed research universities, as well as the higher circles of the American Sociological Association, the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, and Social Problems. This royal court has created estates of lords and commoners for both departments and individuals.

How do we combat this elitist paradigm of practice that legitimizes our in-house inequalities? In Sister Outsider, activist Audre Lorde cautions us about what not to do: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We need to debunk crème de la crème sociology. Just because these ideas and behaviors are ubiquitous within the profession’s dominant institutions, it does not make them “The Good, The True, and The Beautiful.” Conventional wisdom may hold that scholarly productivity is what confers prestige upon departments and individual sociologists. However, as sociologist Val Burris persuasively argues in a 2004 ASR article, when it comes to prestige ranking, social capital often trumps intellectual capital. In other words, academic status is really as much about whom you know as what you know.

Sociologists at more than 3,000 institutions chafe under the hegemony of crème de la crème sociology and its royal court. How do we organize and give voice to the profession’s peasantry who toil under a more populist paradigm of practice? Our grievances have had no manifesto.

We need a lucid and persuasive representation of what teaching, scholarship, and service might look like as a more populist sociology:

  1. Students are not means to an end but are ends in themselves. We take pride in teaching undergraduates, fostering a sociological imagination in students who may never take another course in the discipline.
  2. We are public teachers, using all available venues to profess an edifying sociology to diverse communities of citizens.
  3. We primarily practice the scholarships of integration, application, and teaching. Our priority is sharing these findings with students, well-informed citizens, and practitioners in the field.
  4. Service to our home institutions, local communities, and provincial professional associations is a preeminent value. These local loyalties diminish the self-aggrandizing behavior of hyper-professionalism and contribute to the public good.
  5. We maintain that sociology is not a career but a calling.

There is also the matter of getting right with our ancestors. We need to rediscover our founders’ forgotten practices of public teaching and grassroots activism. Perhaps then, young sociologists will have the feasible option of looking to the likes of Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Charles Ellwood for inspiration.

What social scientists William Buxton and Stephen P. Turner in Sociology and its Publics called “the trained incapacities of disciplinary sociologists to communicate to wider audiences” is the curse that the crème de la crème heritage has bestowed upon contemporary sociologists. It is implausible to believe that a citizen-friendly sociology will emerge from academia’s gated communities.

Any reasonably objective observer would be hard-pressed to deny that status inequality occurs within our ranks. Most investigators would further conclude that our taken-for-granted practices create and perpetuate this caste system. What are the implications of these findings for the profession? My argument has been unabashedly normative and polemical. I seek the demise of inequality within our field and the proliferation of a more populist sociology.

about the author

Monte Bute is in the social science department at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is action coordinator for the faculty union at Minnesota state universities.

Touch of Evil, Orson Welles
Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman
Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders
Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard.
Umberto D, Vittorio De Sica
Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Werner Herzog
To Live, Zhang Yimou
Rashomon, Akira Kurasawa
Three Colours Trilogy, Krzysztof Kieślowski
400 Blows, François Truffaut

Former students are always asking me for reading suggestions to continue their lifelong learning. This list is random, composed primarily of fiction and essays. I will periodically add new lists in case you run out of things to read. I will follow up this reading list with a list of films not to be missed–however, be ready to read subtitles!

On Kindness

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Twenty Years at Hull House

Invisible Man

Man’s Search for Meaning

Tell Me a Riddle

Why Societies Need Dissent

Cat’s Cradle

Learning to Drive

A Pen Warmed in Hell

The Grapes of Wrath

Notes of a Native Son


The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

The Road

Liquid Modernity

Go Down Moses

A Gathering of Old Men

Facing Unpleasant Facts

Fierce Attachments


The Long Haul

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Under the Glacier

Bread Givers

The White Album 

Absalom, Absalom!