Part 5: Theorising Public Sociology
Part 5: Theorising Public Sociology

Part 5: Theorising Public Sociology

To be completely honest, this course was my least favourite for many reasons. While I was impressed with the knowledge I gained from all the materials I had to read, I could not understand the purpose of “Theorising Public Sociology”. Nevertheless, I embarked on the journey which involved: being introduced to the founding fathers of Sociology, learning where the term Public Sociology was derived from, focusing on those who criticized the concept of Pubic Sociology, understanding the correlation between Marxism and Public Sociology, zoning in on who or what is the “public” of Public Sociology, identifying the usefulness of Public Sociology, appreciating how education and activism are critical components of Public Sociology, lamenting the crisis that Public Sociology has gone through over the years, and feeling hopeful for the live methods currently being used in the field of Public Sociology, while not being sure that I know why Punk Sociology is even a thing. The journey led me to submitting a final paper for the course, which required me to give my stance on the purpose of Sociology, and if its purpose is to make the world a better place.  The Sociologist’s Journey continues…


The historical accounts of the origin of sociology vary and are oftentimes messy and skewed. For example, it is certain that Marx is considered a sociologist, but his autobiography dictates that he lived, worked and died before the term ‘sociology’ was even formed (Cain 1974). Such accounts show the idea that sociology has contrasting images of what it really is or should look like or do, according to various perspectives. Assuredly, different people define it differently, various power structures and forms of knowledge construct it differently, and as such there might be elements of questioning in its overall validity (Cuff et al 2006). Thus lending the pertinence of asking: who remembered what, who forgot what, what was remembered, as well as what was forgotten. Answering those important questions however would require a lot more than the intended purpose of this essay.

Thus the purpose of this essay is to critique the statement that the purpose of sociology is to make the world a better place. It will seek to answer, according to existing literature, the following questions: what is sociology; does sociology have a purpose; is the purpose of sociology singular; what does it mean to make the world a better place; should making the world a better place be the purpose of sociology; is sociology problematic if it does not make the world a better place; from a sociological perspective, what does the world comprise of; is the world local, global, or both; does sociology have to make everything better; and, are there different ways in which sociology can make the world a better place? The essay will include the perspectives from various sociologists, researchers and writers who agree or disagree with the aspects of sociology and the word mentioned, as well as my personal critique.


The purpose of sociology

With change in time and place, the definition and purpose of sociology has evolved. As far as classical and contemporary sociology are concerned, it has been an ongoing practice of the discipline to address the social issues of the people in society through study and implementation. However, this appears to be a limited scope within which sociology should operate, as Touraine (2007) suggests it should no longer be seen as the general study of the society and its systems, but how politics, economics, the cultural and the social, connect to provide collectiveness of actions, processes and attitudes. This contemporary approach gives way to the position held by Edles and Applerouth (2014), who suggest that the classical is needed today as it has set the stage for the discipline of sociology and the classical theories still “permeate contemporary concerns”. They suggest further that “ classical sociological theory provides a pivotal conceptual base with which to explore today’s world” and that the works of the classical theorists allow us in this postmodern world to take into consideration the “causes and consequences of the incredible rate and breadth of change”. Such acknowledgement of the direct link and mutual relation between the previous and the present, provides a basis for which contemporary sociology relies on the classical to serve as a sounding board for the various directions in which it seeks to branch itself. Contemporary social theory as practiced by Bourdieu, Habermans and Giddens has developed a multidimensional approach based on theoretical principles by which the social life can be understood, doing so by closing the gap that exists between subjectivity and objectivity, as purported by Applerouth and Edles (2008). Certainly the contention would be to now determine if contemporary sociology has lived up to its name in bridging the divide. According to Patterson (2007) contemporary sociology has a series of unpleasant habits, which includes a falsifying of its subjects at the cost of missing the mark regarding social outcomes, begging the question if its purpose is being carried out.

It is safe to assume from the various schools of thoughts that over the years sociology has been known to have multiple purposes, responding to the issues that were present at its inception, but adapting itself to meet the issues that arose along the way. Spanning over a number of years, some of the purposes that have been suggested include: “to accelerate social evolution” (Ward 1896); “to enable us to understand present-day social institutions so that we may have some perception of what they are destined to become and what we should want them to become” (Durkheim 1982); “an understanding of human behaviour” (Cavan 1983); “to theorize about the existence, motivations and functioning of social groups” (Paul 2000); “to analyse the origins and consequences of social practices” (Nash 2002); “to explain… some part of the social world by reference to its functions” (Crossley 2010). But according to Klein and Stern (2006), that based on the lack of classical liberalism, the purposes that sociology should have been fulfilling are not being realized.

The multiplicity of purpose seems to have a few things in common: a human element, a social aspect and a proposed change. All these essential parts, which make up the whole should be the focus of sociology no matter the time and place, based on the understanding that the society is ever changing. Consequently, we recognize that there is a range of areas of concerns that sociology has to pay attention to across all those parts. Thus, according to Nnebedum (2019), “the purpose of sociology is (and should be) to understand how human action and thinking can shape (and is being shaped by) these diverse subject matters”, allowing sociology to be recognized as a whole, rather than separate entities, which responds to the trends of the time and place where it is situated.

Burawoy (2005) insights though, that there has been a shift from the societal focus of sociology to academia, and in the same breath calls for a public sociology to awaken the storm of progress that the discipline is all about. What is the basis for a call to public sociology when the discipline always existed to serve in a public sphere? Albeit, his proposition is not in alignment with the founding principles, and places the entire discipline under severe scrutiny. The distinctiveness he assigns to public sociology requiring it to be considered as or more important than policy, professional or critical sociology (Goldberg and van den Berg 2009), is nothing but a divisive ploy to disregard the collective focus of the discipline. As McLaughlin et al (2005) retort, that in an attempt to present a “global vision for sociology”, Burawoy has rather sought to politicize the discipline through the notion of the division of sociological labour. They, unlike Deflem (2005) argue that sociology does not need to be saved “as a science from public sociology”. Deflem (ibid) however contends that amongst the many areas where Burawoy’s call to public sociology does not line up, the discipline should not be forced to limit its reach to only certain issues within society. This gives a sense of eliteness to what public sociology should be and do, and that in essence, does not spell sense, especially considering that the public is an unlimited number of people with unlimited issues. Public sociology does not need to assume a position of distinction, rather it should focus on cohesion so that the efforts of all the ‘actors at play’ can result in the making of a better world. But what might it mean to make the world a better place. We shall explore that concept in the succeeding section.

To make the world a better place

Making the world a better place has over the years been a focus of a variety of disciplines in society. For the humanistic sociologist, sociology is the study of how to make a better world (Du Bois and Wright 2002); while Orem (2002) suggest that through appreciative inquiry and transformational learning [their] “contribution to a better world includes developing and using more universally available tools for fulfilling basic and more advanced individual and community needs”. Other disciplines that propose that they exist to make the world a better place include the following as possible suggestions: Tort law (Shuman 1992); Nanotechnology (Parr 2005); Climate change (Lomborg 2006); and Decision making (Saaty 2013). There are several things to consider however with such a broad framework, two of which are: what state is the world in, and what does it mean to make the world a better place.

I suppose that the world in a sociological context, consists more of the people that are in existence rather than the place and time where they exist in geographical and historical contexts. As such, when we look at the world from sociology’s lens, we are bound to wonder if we are referring to it in a local context, or a global context. As Turner (1990) contends, for as long as sociology has existed, there has been both a contradiction and a practice of the dual-nature of the discipline, whether local or global. I suggest that the conjunction that should exist in that discussion be ‘and’ instead of ‘or’. The world, as we know it is a combination of both the local and the global. Universally, it is hard to deny that the issues faced in a local context spread and ultimately affect the larger global picture, sometimes in the form of events (Collins 1988) and vise versa. Take for example climate change, overpopulation and pandemics, though global in nature, have to be tackled at a local level in order for its success to be recognized globally. The issue then is not in the demographics of the world, but rather in the concentration on employing strategies that are universally capable of addressing the issues that exist.

Solely looking at social issues from either a local, global or even ‘glocal’ perspective, without any attention to how these issues will result in universal solutions, is not the answer to making anything better. Former American Sociological Society (ASS) President of 1929 W F Ogburn, emphatically stated in his presidential address that sociology was “not interested in making the world a better place” (Ogburn 1930). He indicates that the discovery of new knowledge should rather be the focus of the discipline, and made such a claim in a bid to protect sociology from being deinstitutionalized or politicized (Johnston 2018). To what end though should knowledge production be of any benefit to anyone if it is not to be disseminated, and serve the purpose of addressing existing ignorance? Here again we see the pitfall of the elitist nature of those in authority in the discipline, presidents I might add, who though many decades apart, relegates the discipline to ‘what’ it should do, and ‘who’ it should do it for. This brings us to the focus of Burawoy’s (2005) “internal complexity”, in which he seeks to address the questions of ‘knowledge for whom’ and ‘knowledge for what’. Here he attempts to distinguish each type of sociology to show how they are interdependent on each other, rightly painting the “nuanced picture” he referred to. Notwithstanding such an attempt only highlights the fact that a distinction of the discipline is not what is required. On the contrary, a greater push to the cohesive nature of the different types of sociology under the large umbrella of the discipline of sociology, as well as an effort to engage in collaboration with other disciplines will answer the questions raised by Burawoy. Knowledge should be discovered by various scientists and disseminated to all publics, and all that knowledge should be used to bring about universal change to problems faced by members of society. That should be the purpose of sociology - to create and disseminate knowledge to address the issues that exist within society

If sociology does not exist to make the world a better place, then we might as well deny the contributions that have been made over the years to address issues of poverty, inequality, precarity and social injustice, just to name a few. We can all agree that it is not the end all, and sociology could not have achieved its success without collaboration with other disciplines (Belkhir and Ball 1993), but we must celebrate that the state of both our local and global spaces would have been much worse if sociological approaches and methodologies were not utilized to charter a solution. Making the world a better place is not a one off thing, that stops when the plans are implemented. Rather it is an ongoing process of implementing multiple ‘scientific’ approaches, which the discipline of sociology is built upon, where there will always be a need to return to the laboratory to revisit the solution, and ensure its relevance to time and place.


Should making the world a better place be the purpose of sociology?

There is no one way to answer this question. According to Berger (2001), sociology came about to understand and possibly control the transformation and modernization that the world experiences. While in and of itself sociology making the world a better place is not a bad thing, it should not be the sole purpose of sociology (Sibley 1971). Rather than focusing on the ‘end’, there needs to be emphasis placed on the ‘means’. Sociology through various means should aim to respond to issues of time and place, with the result of making whatever it is responding to better. For instance, if sociological efforts are going to be used in a community to respond to precarity concerns for a marginalized group, the end result should be that precarity is either eliminated or minimised, making the lifestyles of the group, and the community better. In Nyden et al (2011), Burawoy gives examples of what sociology, in particular public sociology is doing to improve the lives of people in areas of community development, environmental justice, access to education and health, overcoming inequalities, tackling crime, with the persons involved possessing both sociological and political imaginations, and making their contribution, not just from the classroom, but through involvement with various individuals, organizations and sectors within the local and global society, thus making the world a better place. Local efforts can charter global changes. While there is no hard and fast rule concerning this, or how it might be done, sociologists, academics, activists, and researchers, stakeholders, community organizations and universities, should continue to do what they can to contribute to making the world a better place.


Making the world a better place is certainly not the role of only sociology, but should be the pursuit of every member of the society. There should be an underpinning understanding that sociology is a general science of humankind as indicated by Cohen and Kennedy (2012) which has “local, national, regional and global” impacts. This endeavour should be a constant effort that is carried out with an understanding that, a better world for one may result, though not always, in a better world for all. The idea presented by Burawoy, of the need for not only a sociological imagination, but also political imagination indicates the transition from just an individual or local perspective of betterment to a more wide scale and global one.

From the various listing of the purposes of sociology, it can be derived that over time, it has been the hope that sociology does not exist to just occupy time and space, but to make a positive contribution in society. Making the world a better place was not necessarily the vision of Ogburn, but it cannot be denied that many of the actions that sociology has undertaken have done exactly that, giving the world an understanding of the importance of sociological theory (Collins 1988), which has served to provide answers to major questions about daily life. While producing knowledge is a good thing, if it can be made to be better, through the dissemination of that knowledge for the effect of change, then it should not be limited. Though various sectors have considered that many things separately or together can result in making the world a better place, it should not negate the fact that sociology also seeks to do the same through the production and dissemination of knowledge, and oftentimes, does so in conjunction with many other disciplines. As Albrow (1987) suggests, though unpredictable as it may be, we can only hope that sociology will aspire to be the “product of one world”, doing all that it possibly can on all levels to make the world a better place. And while we hope for that, we should try being the change we desire to see.


Word count: 2750



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Published By
Davene Harris (MA, BSc, Dip, Cert)
Davene Harris, is a life-long learner and educator, who has over 15 years of teaching, counselling and administrative experience in the education industry. Her work experience has allowed her the opportunity to serve students and staff in early childhood, secondary and post-secondary institutions in several countries. Her range of qualifications vary from a Certificate in Supervisory Management, a Diploma in Secondary Education, a Bachelors in Information Technology, to a Masters in Sociology. Davene has a passion for working with young people, and is on a course to secure her provincial counselling licensure, so that she can continue to fulfill her life-long passion of impacting youths to be the best versions of themselves.... Show more