International Sociological Association World Forum: Day 1, Sociological Research and Public Debate

I attended the First World Forum of the International Sociological Association (ISA) that took place in Barcelona from September 5-9, 2008. There were approximately 2500 participants. The overall topic of the conference was “Sociological Research and Public Debate”. So the issue was how sociology can best influence political debates in the public sphere.

In the opening session, the president of the Catalan Association of Sociology, Arturo Rodriguez Morató, argued the anti-sociological character of neoliberalism, disciplinary competition and fragmentation in sociology, and the colonization of sociology by journalistic logic has affected the possibilities for doing sociology. In this situation, public sociology that according to the American Marxist sociologist Michael Burawoy is sociology that speaks to and with the public, would be necessary for renewing sociology. The overall question of the conference would be: How can sociology make a contribution to public debates?

Saskia Sassen argued that powerless individuals and groups could find ways of resistance. Two master categories for contemporary sociology would be the global and the national. The only truly global organizations would be the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Others would be not really global, but mixtures of global and national organizations. So for example global finance would need financial centres in global cities. I found her analysis undialectical and dualistic. Isn’t there a dialectic of globalization and localization, so that all globalization processes are in need of national or local appropriation and the global emerges from interactions of non-global actors? Roland Robertson has spoken in this context of glocalization. So for example the WTO can only meet and thereby enforce its power in local settings, which has enabled anti-WTO demonstrations by activists who come from different nations, but travel globally and interact to form a global movement that protests in different local settings. Powerful institutions according to Sassen create powerless actors. But the latter would not be victims, they could find ways to resist. For example in the US law suits against multinational corporations that abuse workers in different countries would have been successful by making use of national laws. Immobile local activists could make use of the Internet for forming a global identity. It would be possible to act and resist in local spaces in ways that have more global impact. I found Sassen’s analysis too optimistic, voluntaristic, and advancing a subjective determinism. Isn’t it the case that powerless humans frequently fail, because they do not have the time, money, resources, motivation, energy etc for activism due to structural features of their existence like precarious labour, ideology, manipulation, etc? Concerning the Internet, most social movement- and Internet researchers agree that the Internet alone does not suffice for the establishment of collective political identity and that face-to-face interaction is needed because it is less anonymous and more easily supports emotional cohesion.

Michael Wievjorka, the president of the ISA, said that in professional sociology there would only be talk between experts and a neglect of the public. He distinguished three positions: An elitist one that sees the public as stupid and neglects it. The position of restitution, which wants to give back something to the people that are studied by providing them with knowledge and analysis. And the one of deliberative democracy, in which researchers generate knowledge and debates with a public that wants to discuss. The most important traditions of public sociology would be action research and participatory research.

My personal position is that not just a public sociology is needed, but a critical public sociology, by which I mean a sociology that opposes all forms of domination, supports the interests of dominated, oppressed, and exploited groups, is partial for these people, and aims at contributing to the establishment of a co-operative society. This would be a sociology that acts in the public interest, a public interest sociology that wants to create societal situations in which all, not just certain elitist classes, benefit. This also means that public sociology that supports conservative or right-wing causes is undesirable and should be eliminated. Therefore what is needed is a radical, critical, left-wing sociology and the goal should be that a day will come where instrumental, uncritical sociology will cease to exist and all sociology becomes left-wing. Therefore I agree with Francis Fox Piven that a “dissident and critical public sociology” is needed.

I found worrying that starting with the opening session, the habit was taken to focus on pure penal discussions in the plenary sessions without involving the audience. Typically, three experts discussed and the audience listened. This practice runs totally counter to the idea of public sociology and it is questionable that those who discuss about public sociology in a non-public and elitist way are good role models for practicing public sociology.

The parallel sessions typically consisted of 80 (!) parallel events. I found this practice troublesome because there were always at least four parallel panels that I found interesting and that I would have loved to attend and the practice resulted in a very low number of participants (typically 10-15, sometimes 20) in the sessions. Therefore the academic audience was minimized by an idiosyncratic practice that is unsuitable for the issue of public sociology because it fragments the audience into many specialized parts that even in plenary sessions are excluded and not enabled to talk with each other in a general universal space that all share.

In the evening, a very nice welcoming party in the courtyard of the Centre of Contemporary Culture took place that featured fine drinks, Catalan food, and a relaxed atmosphere that enabled good talks and nice personal encounters.

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