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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Nahla Abdo reviews Traces of Racial Exception

Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism

by Ronit Lentin. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 224 pages. $84.00 cloth, $27.96 paper, $21.57 e-book.

Nahla Abdo

Published online: 25 Jan 2021

Journal of Palestine Studies, January 2021

Location and methodology are crucial to understanding Ronit Lentin’s latest book, Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism, a work that brings together her long experience as a Jewish anti-Zionist activist and critical race theorist. Positioning herself as an Ashkenazi Jew, Lentin witnesses: “I write this book about the perpetrators, fully aware of my privilege as a member of the colonizing collectivity” (p. 7). Her topic: Israel’s settler-colonial racialization of Palestinians and non-Ashkenazi Jews alike.

Traces of Racial Exception is made up of five chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter traces race in the settler colony and identifies it as structural to colonialism. The second chapter argues against the claim that Israel is a racial state of exception. The third argues that settler colonialism is a process, not an event. The fourth chapter locates race at the heart of the colonial project. Chapter 5 re-presents Palestine from a gender perspective. Finally, chapter 6 recasts the Israeli settler-colonial state in an international context and relates the Palestinian (Indigenous) anti-colonial struggle to global movements.

Beginning with a literature review establishing racialized settler colonialism as the foundation of the Israeli state, the author considers Ilan Pappé’s work on ethnic cleansing and rejects the term “ethnic” for the Palestinian people, the Indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Continuing, she points out that settler colonialism is a continuous process in Canada, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere, so Pappé’s characterization of Israel as the last “active settler-colonialist project” in existence cannot stand. Further, Lentin describes how she abandoned her early embrace of Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault to discard their methodology as Eurocentric. I part with the author’s critique of these influential theorists (p. 22), who have been used extensively by Palestinian scholars.

Having preferred John Docker’s “genocide” to Pappé’s “ethnic cleansing,” Lentin describes the Zionist state’s ongoing treatment of Palestinian Bedouins, who inhabit “legal and conceptual liminality” and are central to theorizing Israel as a racial state (p. 52). The author demonstrates the racial regime does not apply to the occupied territories of 1967 alone, as some Israeli scholars argue. Israeli settler colonialism, according to Lentin, is no “new paradigm” but past and present: for the occupied Palestinian territories, for the state’s Palestinian citizens, and for the Palestinian Bedouins. This continuity of the Zionist settler-colonial project proves systemic racialization.

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Two cemetries: Waking from my Zionist dream

The photographs of two cemeteries come to mind as I think about my journey away from my former Zionist self. In the first photograph I am a skinny five years old, holding my beautiful blond mother’s hand as we are paying our respects at the funeral of Theodore Herzl, the so called founding father of Zionism. Herzl died in Vienna in 1904 but his remains were reburied in 1949 in the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, named in his memory.

I was born in Haifa, Palestine. My parents’ nationalities were registered as ‘Palestinian’ by the British Mandate authorities, yet the State of Israel re-issued my birth certificate in which my birthplace was changed to ‘Israel’, even though I was born four years before the state. I grew up in Israel, the daughter of migrants from Bucovina, Romania who did not question the Zionist colonization of Palestine.

The second photograph is of two tombstones, taken in December 2016 when I travelled to Haifa to bid my last farewell to my parents in their resting place on the slopes of Mount Carmel, during what was to be my last visit to my former country.

A long time passed between my two cemetery experiences, as other cemeteries were filling with the graves of Palestinian men, women and children murdered by the Israeli racial colony, and of Israel’s sons and daughters, conscripted to kill for their state.

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