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.

The sociology department I joined was mostly staffed by British academics teaching mostly Irish students, researching a variety of topics from Irish emigration and the Irish language, from (Global North) theoretical questions to (Irish and EU) policy issues, and from the north of Ireland to research methodologies. I was naively intending, probably due to my brief training in traditional sociology, to indulge my obsession with social justice and to critique what the Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith (1990) termed ‘the relations of ruling.’ I was also determined to place my positionality, as a privileged white, middle class, Israeli-Jewish woman who was also a migrant in Ireland, at the centre of my research. It was strange that after presenting my reflexive feminist research methodology I was asked by another positivist colleague where I found my references (they were all on the library shelves), and then urged by her to publish it in the IJS, my first article, which got an angry retort, but led me to co-edit a volume on feminist research methodologies in Ireland (Byrne and Lentin 2000).

To explore the development of sociology in Ireland since the IJS was born from this outsider’s vantage point (albeit not attempting to replicate Fanning and Hess’s comprehensive Sociology in Ireland: Legacies and Challenges, yet hopefully offering a more reflexive view), I first trawl through and reflect on IJS article titles (being barred from reading the articles themselves by a publisher benefitting from free academic labour) to chart the progress from focusing inwards on sociology as a discipline and on Irish exceptionalism to expanding the thematic range. Not surprisingly, I am interested in locating sociological scholarship that deals with the outsider, the migrant, the racialised – something I began focusing on after completing my PhD that used a gender analysis to explore Israel’s relationship with survivors of the Nazi genocide and occupied Palestine – a theme I would return to again and again. Alongside my enduring interest in race, I was also interested in telling sociological stories that centre the ‘auto/biographical I’, enabling research participants to find themselves in our scholarship, and in a dialogical public sociology which refuses to consolidate authority, preferring ‘to understand, interpret, and question it,’ as Said would say. I then offer a partial survey of the people employed to do sociology in today’s Ireland in order to find out whether sociology mirrors the changing face of Irish society. I conclude by arguing for the urgent need for a reflexive public sociology in a fast changing-yet-staying-the-same Ireland, and world.

I admit my trawl through IJS articles was biased, being mostly interested in sociology’s others – women, LGBTQ people, non-Irish, non-white others, migrants, asylum seekers, working class people – all of whom would only gradually start making an appearance on the journal’s pages. Not surprisingly, following the well-worn mantra of 1990s Ireland turning from an ‘emigrant nursery’ into a ‘destination of in-migration,’ a mantra disavowing Ireland having always had many waves of migration (remember those Celts, Vikings, Normans, Saxons, Huguenots, Scots, etc?), the early years of the IJS were replete with articles about Irish emigrants, the Irish diaspora and of course Irish rural life. This was part of the project of researching Irish exceptionalism, with the north of Ireland – that elephant in southern Ireland’s room of the mind – playing a star role. Gender and sexuality started making a stealthy appearance towards the second millennium but only in 2003 and 2005 did the journal focus on sexualities and masculinities. The first, isolated, article on asylum seekers was published only in 2001, soon after the establishment of the notorious Direct Provision regime. At the same time, articles continued the fascination with the Irish diaspora while Irish sociologists were also beginning to explore their own profession albeit without positioning themselves within their exploration, a trend culminating in Fanning and Hesse’s volume mentioned above.

Migration started appearing in the IJS only in 2011 albeit through the general themes of transnationalism and cosmopolitanism, though race and racism would wait until 2018 to find a home in the IJS, in line with the disavowal of Ireland’s migration and policing policies as racist, and despite the plethora of funded policy sociology of migration that was seen as having nothing to do with race or white supremacy, but rather with state policies of migrant reception and integration.

As a racialised outsider, who was instrumental in establishing the first Ethnic and Racial Studies programme in TCD in 1997, I was not really surprised by this emphasis on policy and professional sociology. Nor am I surprised by the nearly totally white composition of the people permanently employed by Irish sociology departments. Of the 109 people currently listed as permanently employed by six sociology departments in the Republic, I found only six non-white sociologists; 68 were ‘Irish,’ 29 from the EU or the UK and only 12 from non-EU destinations. It is, however, probably due to people not permanently employed that recent issues of the IJS included debate sections, dealing with populism, ‘cheap care,’ and grounded nationalisms, refreshingly extending beyond white Irish exceptionalism.

Even though, as argued by Fleck and Hess (2014), ‘Sociology has long been the most self-questioning of disciplines,’ too often – and this is also reflected in the IJS – such self-questioning is rarely done from a specific positionality. In fact, those reflexively positioning themselves are almost always women, racialised, working class, dis-abled or sexually different academics. White, middle class, male, heterosexual, able bodied sociologists rarely position themselves in terms of their privilege. As mentioned above, at a cursory glance, Irish sociology seems to fall into Burawoy’s professional and policy categories. Indeed, writing about the ‘crisis in Irish sociology’ in 2016, Carmel Hanan bemoans the dearth of quantitative methodology training and calls for ‘Big Data, increases in transdisciplinary research and developments in mixed methods research,’ to facilitate sociologists in Ireland to do better policy research.

At this stage it becomes clear that I believe that the crisis in Irish sociology is not being unable to better do quantitative work, or rather do ESRI-type policy work, and facilitate government policies, but rather in not becoming better at public sociology. Being more reflexive, and more attuned to the lives of the people we research and to society’s and sociology’s others is, to me, the main challenge facing Irish sociology in the new millennium. Another challenge, identified by David Theo Goldberg (2021), is Irish sociology’s adherence to theory of the Global North:

Theory of the Global North: critical theory in the Kantian and
post-Kantian veins. Global North: bounded, boundaried, constraining movement,
more committed to the comparative than the relational, to the legibility of the fixed,
to ways of reading the given.

Attempting to fathom the legacies and challenges of sociology in Ireland, Fanning and Hess note its relatively late willingness to connect to the outside world (do they mean the Global South? I doubt it), probably resulting from several decades of Catholic institutional dominance. They argue that sociology has only been secularised in the 1970s and has been challenged by narrow positivism. Sociologists, they further suggest, have been perceived as marginalised, an observation shared by Tom Inglis in answering my (emailed) question as to whether sociologists in Ireland have played a key role as public intellectuals, a question, he said, that has been asked often over the years:

If Bourdieu is the litmus test, then the answer is no. Michael D. could have played a role but he never espoused himself as a sociologist. The SAI did try to raise the profile and that was the aim of the Irish Sociological Chronicle series. There were sporadic ventures and successes but the overall role has been limited by those in the media thinking that sociologists are either too numeric or too theoretical. Historians have a far bigger profile. I think part of the reason is that journalists think they are far better at sociology than sociologists. The other reason is that for a long time sociology was seen as the handmaiden of social policy.

In contrast with the US where, Burawoy writes, sociologists have appeared regularly in opinion pages of national newspapers, and unlike other European states where sociologists have played a central role in public debate, sociologists in Ireland are less prominently present in the opinion pages and on the air than historians, economists, political scientists and academics whose business is social policy. Tom Inglis is an exception; his commentary on the changing face of religious life and sexualities in Ireland has contributed to public debate as have sociologists focusing on race and migration. However, as he says, ‘For a long time, there was an absence of critical sociology by which I mean a critique of power. There have been some successes in explaining patriarchy, class and state power, and racism, but not at a sustained level.’ The Sociological Chronicle Series he mentions, provides fascinating commentary on Irish modernity, yet, authored by white Irish scholars, it did little to extend the parameters of the debate or engage a more popular readership.

I was always perplexed as to how to best answer potential students’ questions on open days as to what sociology is and what students can ‘be’ if they take sociology. In Ireland, with a former sociologist for a president, and with sociology graduates in the media, in policy bodies, in politics, in business, and in academic or market research, the answer can be all encompassing. Ireland has been spared the anti-intellectual onslaught by governments as in the UK, France and the US, calling academics to task particularly those engaging with critical race theory or criticising Israeli policies. The very fact that some Irish sociologists have been leading research projects on race and conflict, migration, labour relations, environment, gender and sexuality, third world aid programmes, European politics, among other areas, points not merely to the multi-vocality of the discipline, but also to sociologists constantly thinking about the ‘for whom’ and ‘for what’ questions as to why we do sociology.

Answering the ‘sociology for whom’ question, Burawoy states that we can hardly argue for a hermetically sealed discipline and must instead aim to serve extra-academic audiences as well as academic ones. Regarding the ‘sociology for what’ question, he argues for reflexive knowledge and for a dialogue about ends not just methods and theories, and about societal values, not just about our profession. Following from this observation and from Said’s insistence that ‘the intellectual vocation is to alleviate human suffering,’ I am heartened by the gradually changing face of sociology in Ireland. This is particularly true of my own field, that of researching race and racism, which has been disavowed and denied by successive Irish governments arguing that migration – a fact of life since the mid-1990s – is still new and needs more time, and that migration and asylum policies have nothing to do with race, despite the obvious ongoing racialisation of non-white, non-Traveller, non-‘Irish’ populations in Ireland.

Although, as mentioned above, the proportion of non-white permanently employed sociologists (to my knowledge there are no Traveller sociologists permanently employed in Irish sociology departments) is lower than their proportion in the Irish population, the presence of non-permanent staff in sociology departments and the increasing prevalence of research projects dealing with migration, race and racism is hugely encouraging, particularly bearing in mind the  fact that sociologists of colour, especially women of colour in Ireland as elsewhere, live under constant threat of erasure and precarity.

Following the Black Lives Matter protests, students in Trinity College Dublin petitioned the university to establish a Black Studies programme. The programme is now part of the TCD Department of Sociology and is headed by a Black-Irish scholar, Dr Philomena Mullen, who brings to this Broad Curriculum programme and to the Department’s MPhil in Race, Ethnicity, Conflict not only her lived experience but also her academic expertise. Another new scholar making her mark in Irish sociology is Dr Ebun Joseph who, after holding several temporary Black Studies positions in UCD and TCD, has recently co-published, together with Lucy Michael, an edited collection of articles titled Black Lives Matter under the SAI umbrella – a crucial breakthrough in the relative silencing of black and ethnic minority voices in Irish sociology. Joseph has also written op eds and appeared on radio programmes talking not only experientially but also sociologically about racism and whiteness in Ireland. Her co-editor Lucy Michael has been in charge of researching and writing the Irish Network Against Racism’s IReports, which document racist crimes in Ireland.

Sociologists then are increasingly becoming public intellectuals, particularly in the fields of patriarchy, class and state power, and racism, albeit not at as sustained a level as historians and economists, as Inglis acknowledges. Several Irish sociologists are also involved in social movements and participate in a variety of public campaigns from the marriage equality and abortion campaigns to campaigns to abolish Direct Provision. With the increasing sounding of racialised and minority voices, sociologists in Ireland, despite a growing tendency to do quantitative and policy work, should, and can become the type of public intellectuals Said was writing about. Too late for me, though I continue to research and write in retirement, watching with pleasure the expansion of Irish sociology.


Burawoy, M. (2005), ‘For public sociology,’ American Sociological Review, 70: 4-25.

Byrne, A. and R. Lentin (2000), (Re)searching Women: Feminist Research and Practice in the Social Sciences in Ireland, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration

Fanning, B. and A. Hess (2015), ‘Sociology in Ireland: Legacies and challenges,’ Irish Journal of Sociology, 23 (1): 3-21.

Fleck, C. and A. Hess (eds.) (2014), Knowledge for Whom? Public Sociology in the Making, Milton Park: Ashgate.

Goldberg, D. T. (2021), ‘South of theory,’ (accessed 23 April 2021).

Said, E. W. (2000), Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, London: Granta.

Smith, D. (1990), Texts, Facts and Femiminity: Exploring the Relationships of Ruling, London: Routledge.

Ronit Lentin retired as associate professor of sociology from Trinity College Dublin where she founded and ran the MPhil in Race, Ethnicity, Conflict. She published on race and racism in Ireland, gender and genocide, and Israel and Palestine.