International Sociological Association (ISA) World Forum, Day 4: John Urry; Public Sociology

John Urry gave a talk on “Sociology and Climate Change”. In my opinion this was the best plenary talk given at the conference. It was critical, clearly focused and structured, rhetorically well presented, and supported by a Powerpoint presentation. Other than most of the plenary speakers, Urry was grabbing the attention of the audience (at least I saw nobody sleeping as during most of the other plenary talks :-) ). Other than for example Manuel Castells in his talk given on the previous day, Urry connected his studied phenomenon to capitalist development and did not discard Marxian analysis (Castells e.g. said that one should stop using 19th century philosophy in the 21st century and that Marx is useless today). By referring to Marx and Engels, Urry argued that global climate change is a power that capitalism cannot control and that it brings disorder into the whole of bourgeois society. Over the past century, an increase in global warming of 0.74°C would have occurred. By making use of concepts from complexity theory, Urry argued that the problem is that global warming produces positive feedback loops with unpredictable outcomes. The effects of global warming would be highly uneven distributed, poor countries would be especially affected.

Global warming would be related to energy supply. The USA, which account for 5% of the world population, account for 25% of carbon emissions. What Jeremy Leggett calls the empire of oil and transport would be important influencing factors. Zygmunt Bauman argues that mobility is one of the most important values today and that it is an unequally distributed commodity. Urry stressed especially that neoliberalism has generated new forms of mobility that have generated an excesses that have caused high carbon consumption.

As a result, sociology would have to take the future more serious than in the past and there would be a need for sociology to imagine alternative futures. Alternative systems would be needed. Potential negative scenarios for future society would for example be oil, gas, and water wars and the restriction of travel to the super-rich. Nicholas Stern, an anti-neoliberal thinker, has argued that climate change is the greatest market failure. The problem according to Urry is that 20th century capitalism has generated unprecedented levels of carbon emissions.

I liked about this talk that John Urry abstracted a specific problem and analyzed it within its societal and capitalist context. He gave a realistic and materialistic analysis. In comparison, Castells – who covered another issue (the network society), but nonetheless a comparison in respect to the means of analysis can be made – did not see capitalist development as a problem and was not much concerned with problems of current and future society and the role of the economy. Urry talked about the need for alternative systems and an interventionist sociology, whereas Castells was keen to draw a separating line between political action and sociology and was mainly concerned about the development of new sociological methods for the future of sociology. It is alarming that someone, who is considered as one of the most important sociologists by many, is mainly talking about new rigorous research methods and not about global societal problems when addressing the future of sociology in a society that is full of global problems. John Urry’s talk differed radically in this respect.

I discovered and found interest in John Urry’s work on “Global Complexity” some years ago, when in the EU-funded research project “Human Strategies on Complexity”, I tried to apply the notion of self-organization that we had developed in the project to the phenomenon of globalization (“Globalization and Self-Organization in the Knowledge-Based Society“). I found interesting the connection of social theory and complexity theory that Urry has made because I have also had a comparable endeavour in the past 8 years, which has resulted in my recent book. I lost sight of Urry’s work in the past years. His talk given in Barcelona has renewed my interest in reading some of his works that have ever since been published.

One question remained unanswered for me: Does building new systems only mean to establish new forms of consumption, or does this also involve the need for new economic forms of production? Mobility based on neoliberally caused excesses today surely not only means that people move globally, but also that commodities move globally because the practice of globally outsourcing and diffusing production has become so common in order to reduce capital investment costs (constant and variable capital in Marxian terms). For me the primary problem concerning travel is not personal travel by private people, but commodity transport and business-related travel. Also according to statistics energy production itself is the highest source of carbon emissions today, not transport. It might not suffice to change consumption, there might be a need to find alternatives to capitalist production. A pure focus on consumption could even distort the analysis of the importance of the role of production. I did not get from the talk in how far what Urry was saying about the problems’ causes and building alternative systems is related to production as well.

In the final plenary session, Michael Burawoy spoke about “Whose Knowledge? Varieties of Public Sociology”. He distinguished four types of sociology: Professional sociology is instrumental in producing knowledge and addresses an academic audience. Policy sociology produces knowledge for a client external to the academic system. Critical sociology is reflexive and tries to provide alternative foundations to sociology. Especially value foundations are discussed. Public sociology engages in dialogue with publics. The typology based on the distinction between academic and non-academic audiences and instrumental and reflexive knowledge. The latter is taken from Horkheimer and Adorno. Burawoy added another dimension: Gramsci’s distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals would address the public with the help of public media such as newspapers, whereas organic intellectuals would have unmediated relations to the public and would conduct a more activist type of sociology. As examples for traditional public sociologists, Burawoy mentioned Bourdieu, Mills, and Giddens, as examples for organic public sociologists; Gramsci, Freire, Touraine, and feminism. He concluded by arguing that all four types of sociology are important and should be connected and that his work has focused on building space and acceptance for critical and public sociology within sociology.

Alberto Martinelli, a former ISA president, criticized Burawoy. He argued that Burawoy sometimes makes a clear hierarchy between the four types. The most important form would then be public sociology, followed by critical sociology, professional sociology, and policy sociology. The latter would then be presented as corrupted by money and power. Martinelli called such a distinction fundamentalist and saw the focus on subordinate groups as rather dangerous. There would be dangers of dogmatism, elitism, and vanguardism. Martinelli stressed the importance of policy sociology and called for a connection of sociology to the natural sciences.

Alain Touraine on the one hand argued that it is important to defend the autonomy of sociology because it would have been distorted and limited by ideological interests in the past. Sociology would have to be protected from ideology. But contemporary society would be dominated by violence, war, and an extreme gap between the rich and the poor. Therefore on the other hand a second type of sociology would be needed, one that defends human rights for all. Sociology would have to uncover and eliminate the presence of hell in society. Sociologist would be responsible for the whole world and society would be full of forces that destroy human rights. Sociology would have to connect to the new generation that is eager to intervene and attack. This should be accompanied by the necessary reconstruction of many concepts of sociology. Touraine’s statements were closer to Burawoy than to Martinelli.

The debate showed that the issues that were underlying the positivism dispute between Popper and Adorno in German sociology in the early 1960s, are still at the core of discussions on the current and future state of sociology more than 45 years later. There are some who want to directly connect sociology to social struggles and the problems of the time, whereas others (including not only Martinelli, but in my opinion also Castells) claim that sociology can and should be neutral and value-free.

For me, Burawoys position is good, but not radical enough. He argues that public sociology has no intrinsic normative valences and that it can also be conducted in the interest of Christian fundamentalism. Burawoy bases his distinction between instrumental and reflexive knowledge on Horkheimer and Adorno. But for Horkheimer (in essays like “Traditionelle und kritische Theorie” or “Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft”) the distinction was between instrumental and critical knowledge. The latter is a specific form of normative knowledge, it operates according to Horkheimer with categories such as class, exploitation, surplus value, profit, misery, and breakdown, and is oriented on a “society without injustice”, “man’s emancipation from slavery”, and “the happiness of all individuals”. Therefore Horkheimer would consider a sociology conducted in the interest of Christian fundamentalism always as an instrumental type of sociology and would argue for a left-wing sociology. So in my opinion Burawoy should either drop his reference to Horkheimer or reformulate his concept of public sociology as critical public sociology. In my opinion Burawoy has a too positive picture of NGOs, the public sphere, and civil society. NGOs frequently support also conservative values. And the public is not automatically rational and willing to discuss, especially under neoliberal conditions, where people first of all have to struggle to survive and might not find the time and energy needed for engaging in public discourse. Horkheimer: “It is possible for the consciousness of every social stratum today to be limited and corrupted by ideology, however much, for its circumstances, it may be bent on truth. For all its insight into the individual steps in social change and for all the agreement of its elements with the most advanced traditional theories, the critical theory has no specific influence on its side, except con¬cern for the abolition of social injustice”. In my opinition, public sociology means a public interest sociology, a sociology that defends public interests, i.e. provides intellectual means and arguments for establishing conditions that benefit all. An such a public defense should also be made, if there is no or only a small critical public. When speaking about public intellectuals, my first example would be Marx, and my second, and most important one, Herbert Marcuse.

Also political reforms of society, the political system, the economy, and the public sphere might be needed. Civil society alone is not enough. It needs to be combined with progressive institutional politics. Public sociology has to confront the situation of a disinterested public and the role of ideology in public life. Burawoy hardly gives attention to these phenomena. Public sociology should not be seen as a solution to all problems, it has many difficulties. If I were to describe myself as being a public academic due to my intellectual and political engagement in the basic income movement, then I would mainly reflect about the difficulties involved, the notion of a limited public with limited consciousness, limited resources, etc. Failure and defeat are permanent features of civil society under contemporary conditions. Civil society also has a role of legitimating domination, as Gramsci already knew. This can for example be seen in the outsourcing of welfare functions from the state to civil society under neoliberal political conditions. Burawoy’s picture of civil society is too idealistic. Nonetheless his typology is very important because it has started a debate in sociology that could open up new spaces for critical, radical, and progressive theories and studies.

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