For a public sociology in Ireland – an outsider’s view

Irish Journal of Sociology, 2021,

The role of the intellectual is not to consolidate authority, but to understand, interpret, and question it… Indeed, the intellectual vocation essentially is somehow to alleviate human suffering and not to celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating, whether that’s the state or the patria or any of these basically triumphalist agents in our society  (Edward Said,  “On Defiance and Taking Positions”, 2000: 502-3).

I came late to sociology, in fact around about the same time as the Irish Journal of Sociology, as a ‘mature’ (or ‘socially young’ as a somewhat younger positivist colleague described me) rank outsider. Despite having to constantly prove to my colleagues that what I was doing was ‘really sociology,’ I was captivated by the sociological imagination from the very start. After a career in journalism that meant quick bouts of research and writing short pieces to tight deadlines, I now had time to read, think, do field research and put the puzzle together, but also to reflexively ponder about my positionality in society, and in sociology.

The pioneer of cultural studies Stuart Hall once remarked that he wanted “to do sociology better than the sociologists” – an ambition I could not dream of emulating. I, on the other hand, had the audacity of believing I might get away with doing sociology differently to the sociologists. Because sociology, I believed then, and now, is anything but scientific and is much closer to fiction than to empirical ‘truth.’ As an outsider, still thinking and re-thinking the meaning of sociology, I was somewhat baffled by being asked by the IJS editors to write on ‘the development of sociology in Ireland over the course of my career.’ 

According to the SAI website, sociology and social research in Ireland,

plays a vital role in Irish society by producing the knowledge that gives us the opportunity to act wisely by giving us maps of the social, which we hope will lead to a better society, better politics, better thinking and better policies. The SAI, as the professional association of sociology in Ireland, is committed to supporting the discipline through fora for them to share ideas, collaborate and disseminate their research. Its strength is its members and their willingness to participate and support the discipline.

In other words, this means that Sociology in Ireland regards itself as fitting into Michael Burawoy’s (2005) professional and policy sociology rubrics, more so than his critical and public sociology slots, as I argue later, though this may be gradually changing. Burawoy proposes that sociology’s main investment is in defending civil society, pointing out that although ‘our predecessors set out to change the world, we have too often ended up conserving it.’ Burawoy is clearly invested in public sociology as a practice that takes ‘knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fiber.’ He defines policy sociology as serving a goal defined by a client, often the state, and as seeking to provide solutions to problems presented to us or to legitimate solutions that have already been reached. Public sociology he defines as establishing a dialogue between sociologist and public in which the agenda of each is brought to the table, in which each adjusts to the other. In public sociology, discussion often involves values and or goals that are not automatically shared by both sides so that reciprocity… is often hard to sustain. He defines professional sociology as supplying ‘true and tested methods, accumulated bodies of knowledge, orienting questions and conceptual frameworks.’ And critical sociology is defined as making professional sociology examine its biases and not merely the foundations of the research agenda, but also the foundations of society.

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