Part 6: Contemporary Approaches to Public Sociology

Part 6: Contemporary Approaches to Public Sociology

Thank you for continuing on the journey, and sitting in the passenger's seat, taking in the view as I drive to the destination of obtaining my Master of Arts in Sociology. The more I drive, the more I recognise that my intended desire of being fuelled with tools for Counselling, appear blurry in the rearview mirror. Nevertheless, I follow the road signs ahead, being cognisant that my careful maneuvering will bring favourable results. On today's leg of the journey, I invite you to see Public Sociology as displayed by some of my lecturers at the Nottingham Trent University. As partial fulfillment of the Contemporary Approaches to Public Sociology course, I had the arduous task to revisit and critique (in portfolio form) some of their contribution to Public Sociology, as well as to envision and posit myself as Public Sociologist. It’s not as bumpy as it sounds, but it is certainly a long ride, so secure your seatbelt, and let's go. The Sociologist’s Journey continues…


The modernity of sociology has seen an increasing awareness of the concept of public sociology and what that should look like in practice (Hays 2007, Brady 2004). It is certain that for years from now, the debate surrounding public sociology will be ongoing. Described as a conversation that “struck a nerve and initiated a spirited debate” (Nichols 2011), Burawoy’s inaugural call to public sociology in 2004 continues to do as Nichols states, even to this day.  Specifically among those within the discipline, the notion of public sociology is received with mixed emotions as it “evokes different responses in different scholarly settings” (Zdravomyslova 2008). While there are those that utterly criticize (Holmwood 2007) and reject (Zdravomyslova ibid) Burawoy’s idea of public sociology, there are those that support it (Bell 2009; Kalleberg 2005), but with recommendations of how it might be made to operate at an optimum level within the discipline. 

The main aim of this portfolio is to look at some examples of public sociology in practice and to determine if the approaches used are consistent with theoretical perspectives on public sociology. We will examine research work done by various lecturers within the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), in partnership with other university lecturers and students, community organizations, stakeholders and cities, to see how their projects fit within the philosophical and methodological perspectives of social research. Following which, there will be a discussion examining if the research projects conducted align or not, with the notion that public sociology is a distinctive and significant development within the discipline of sociology. Then the portfolio will conclude by discussing how as an upcoming public sociologist might I engage in current or future work in public sociology. 

The premise of this portfolio rests on a very crucial statement made by Burawoy (2005) that his “normative vision of the discipline of sociology is of reciprocal interdependence among our four types – an organic solidarity in which each type of sociology derives energy, meaning, and imagination from its connection to the others”.  As we shall see, though dominance may exist in one type, there is often inclusion of (an)other type(s), in the work done by the following researchers: Craig Lundy, Tom Vickers, Michele Grigolo and Michael Keenan. 

Lundy: public engagement with higher education institutions, and NTU’s community engagement practices

Universities, and by extension higher education institutions, are a staple and beneficial asset in the development of a country. Amongst their teaching, research and administrative responsibilities, is a call to ensure that universities continuously engage with the immediate and wider communities, to benefit the tripartite structure of people, society and economy (Kızıltepe 2010). Arising from this, is the concept of the engaged university (Breznitz and Feldman 2010) and the engaged scholarship (Breese 2011), where the university exchanges knowledge, develops teaching, and engages the public in research activities, moving from research “on” communities to research “with” communities (Durose et al 2011). One such initiative was the Community-University Partnerships in Practice (CUPP) by Lundy and two lecturers (Durie and Wyatt) from the University of Exeter. They used complexity theory to develop an understanding of the nature of researching within communities. Complexity theory examines the principles of how dynamic complex systems work, sometimes with the aim of making them less complex (Manson 2001). The team focused on the six Beacons for Public Engagement (BPE) which were set up to ascertain how engagement happens between the ‘systems’ of higher education institutions and communities. They devised a project that was built on previous work, so their approach was more of conducting retrospective research, giving them a privileged advantage as ‘insider outsider’. Insider outsider relates to the common factors that the researcher has with the community, whilst being considered more ‘educated’ than the community members (Wallerstein et al 2005). 

According to Durie, Lundy and Wyatt (2018), they used complexity theory as it “seemed appropriate for characterizing the dynamic development of the relations between communities and researchers”. In order to get that insight of how those relations develop, the team had to be in the communities, having conversations, conducting ethnographic studies, interviews, focus groups, and getting feedback from the community members. These methods and practices have their grounding in public sociology, as Burawoy advocates that for this organic kind, the sociologist and the public are engaged in dialogue and mutual education (Burawoy 2005). Such exchange of knowledge between the researchers and the community aligns with the constructuralism theory which advocates that after new knowledge is ‘constructed’, it is then shared with others (Joseph et al 2014) allowing for the forming of new knowledge.

The engagement process is not without challenges and as Dempsey (2010) notes, there are often power structures to contend with when universities and communities seek to work together. Power structures are an embedded part of society and have their roots grounded in Marxism, where one group is considered to be ‘above’ the other, alluding to the idea of the complexity of not only the social world (Glaser and Walker 2007), but also of the social systems that exist in institutions and communities. Lundy and his team encountered issues of preconceptions on their part, which led them to shift their approach from a more rigid to a more fluid one, resulting in the creation of a “new conceptual model” (Durie et al 2018). Additionally, the community felt as if the research team was nothing but ‘windshield sociologists’, who were just in the community to extract data but not able to execute change. 

One way in which the team was able to differentiate its praxis was by their project outcomes: suggesting the implementation of a phased system for the projects, and creating a chapter in a handbook, that provided solutions for how community engagement with the university can be enhanced for mutual benefit. Mutual benefit exists as a core principle of service learning, which is a type of public/community/university engagement. This principle is also supported by public sociology, with an understanding that both the sociologist and the public must benefit from the work being carried out (Woods et al 2013). 

NTU is one of the higher education institutions that uses service learning as one of the ways in which it promotes community engagement. Some of the members of the Department of Sociology, one of which is Lundy, and another being Vickers (whose work will be mentioned in the next case), authored an interim report that spoke to the University’s continuous commitment to building a public sociology of practice through a “Community of Practice”. This initiative seeks to enhance the engagement between themselves through their activities, with the practices of the community partners that they engage with. As we shall see next, Vickers has certainly been putting that in practice with his continuous work with members of the refugee, migrant and asylum seekers community. 

Vickers: the cross-field multi sociologist 

Vickers’ research surrounds engagement with a vulnerable group consisting of members of the refugee, migrant and asylum seekers (henceforth referred to as refugee/s) community. He conducted multiple research and approached sociology from a public, professional, critical and activist perspective. Burawoy (2005) supports this, contending that “sociologists are not only simultaneously located in different positions, but assume trajectories through time among our four types of sociology”. 

Through active public sociology Vickers et al, was able to bring awareness to the response of the state regarding migration in a specific city in Northern England. They engaged in dialogue with a non-academic audience, to bring about change by means of collaboration, through a more interactive approach (Horowitz 2011), which is the organic form of public sociology (Burawoy 2005). Engaging in dialogue with vulnerable groups often presents challenges surrounding the ethical, representation and design issues (Aldridge 2014) associated with sociological research. Vickers was able to navigate most of those challenges having had prior relationships, through volunteer work, with members of the refugee community, which built a level of trust (Tee and Lathlean 2004) to mitigate against augmenting the vulnerability or misrepresenting the identity of both the refugees and the volunteer organizations. Notwithstanding the project was successful and ‘informed future activist practice’ by the researcher which will be examined in a subsequent paragraph. However as we shall see in the next paragraph, participation action research is a key element that can be used when working with marginalized groups (Brook and Darlington 2013), as it enables collaboration, co-creation and co-production of knowledge with the researcher and participants. 

The involvement of voluntary sector organizations saw the infusion of professional sociology with public sociology, through collaboration and co-production, in seeking to further address the issues of economic crisis and austerity experienced by refugees. Collaboration is often encouraged for the co-production of knowledge between academia and the wider community as it allows for the possibility of democracy (Vickers (2017). It reshapes how communities and academia interact, defying traditional knowledge production structures (Bell and Pahl 2018), with community participants being the core producers of the knowledge, willing to “ co-produce in a relatively narrow range of activities that are genuinely important to them and are keen that their co-production effort is not wasted” (Bovaird and Loeffler 2012). The participants in Vickers’ study were asked to attend a workshop to talk about their everyday experiences as refugees, with video footage being captured by a professional filmmaker. The footage was then shown to the participants and a focus group was convened to draw out themes. The top three themes were identified and in a subsequent workshop, the film was shown to participants and stakeholders. The stakeholders were not in agreement with the content and context of the final product, and withdrew their partnership from the project. Green and Johns (2019) argue that when collaboration is encouraged, for research to receive funding, this token type approach allows for participants' voices to be “consulted” but “ignored”, due to the power that stakeholders assume over the participants. When vulnerable groups are involved in co-production, Liabo et al (2018) point out that the concept fails, if the participants’ responses are sorted through, presenting only the ‘good’ ones and getting rid of the ‘bad’ ones. However, this practice is less likely to happen where power structures are absent as we shall see next. 

Public sociology combined with activist sociology shows both limits and benefits, when the lines between the university and activism cross to bring awareness to refugees’ exclusion to access higher education. Vickers and other academics show that both can work together for the greater good, allowing academics to champion the social justice cause of the marginalized (Burnett 2003). This goes against the expectations of “mainstream sociology” which does not support the collaboration of the two, as in the case of feminism being combined with humanism (Bystydzienski 2002). In taking a stance against the UK Immigration Bill that would adversely affect members of the refugee community, a group of academics penned an open letter (see below) to the Government to state their opposition, through “professionalized campaigning” (Vickers 2014). Here the academic activist takes position, making normative judgment of how society should operate, with a more public facing intervention and interaction with publics, than public sociology. The academia-activism link can be seen as “problematic” (Maxey 1999), “taboo” (Adler 2002) and “making trouble in the ivory tower” (Pétursdóttir 2017). However Burnett (2003) posits that “ the fundamental problem for the activist academic is to find a way for social justice work to fit within the university's evaluation system”. As was previously mentioned, Vickers is a part of the team that recognizes and supports NTU’s commitment to practice public sociology through active engagement with the community. Thus, with this scope of influence, the team can be a part of policy reforms, and create “a clear bridge to action” (Bisignani 2014) to ensure that lecturers and students can be activists and sociologists within their own rights. Involvement with policy changes, though possible, is not always as easy as we shall see next. 

   Open Letter Source:

Using policy sociology, Vickers took a deeper look at the obstacles faced by a smaller subset of members in the refugee community, carers, who fall in the “seldom-heard” category, paying attention to developing services and policies, and the opportunities and threats that tend to arise. A key factor in allowing the voice of these individuals to be heard is to ensure that organizations that are being contacted are those that provided support to carers who could “ draw on personal experience, rather than attempt to talk about abstract or hypothetical situations” (Hernandez et al 2010). Even with these fundamental criterion in place, there are inconsistencies that exist when eliciting data from seldom-heard groups, such as labelling (Chan 2017) disengagement, poor literacy and poor contact information (Sheldon et al 2007), which can be fixed by using the “shoe leather research” strategy proposed by Redwood et al (2012). Despite the challenging process, the outcomes of the projects were met and the information disseminated via an academic article, and the final report given to the local authority, who has the power to implement the research findings to benefit the carers. Overall, it is evident from Vickers’s multi-sociological approach that all the other types of sociology can find themself within and work closely along with public sociology. As we shall see next, the simultaneous demand of policy and public sociology can often be blurry (Burawoy 2005) and contentious.  

Michele Grigolo: human rights of cities, public or policy sociology?

The work done by Grigolo, renders him as a public and a policy sociologist with an interest in human rights on cities. Grigolo’s work focuses on how cities can shape policies concerning the human rights of marginalized groups. Madsen and Verschraegen (2013) infer that sociologists do not conduct enough research in the area of human rights, however the evidence (Merry et al 2010, Alston and Robinson 2005, Molyneux and Razavi 2002, Witkin 1998) proves contrary to that claim. Madsen (2011) asserts that it has been challenging over the years to objectify the concept of human rights within the social science discipline, giving strength to its multifaceted capabilities. Along with that there are those that criticize how public sociology for human rights is practiced (Nickel 2010), suggesting that “human rights become norms and principles” (Grigolo 2019). 

Policy and public sociology are intertwined in the scope of the project undertaken by Grigolo. His dual role as a human rights expert and an academic come into play giving strength to the feelings of misfit (Le Grand 2006) that can arise when the two are combined. Previous experience producing articles on the topic of human rights and presenting at various events, working with activists and practitioners in the field, served as a premise for him being commissioned to advise on policies, in the role of a consultant to a human rights networking group, by the Council of Europe (2018) to produce a human rights handbook. The paid-power relation, which is different from the power relations experienced by Lundy and Vickers in the previously mentioned cases, was strained, as the stakeholders held the upper hand dictating the direction in which the handbook should go. This shows a direct impact that power relations have on policy, especially in a consultancy agreement “where consultant or client seek to exploit their position of power and either underprovide the client or overwork the consultant” (Kitay and Wright 2004). Such impacts tend to politicize the process, leaving the sociologist to make a decision. In Grigolo’s case, he opted to only write the foreword of the handbook, presenting a formal letter of exemption to discontinue on the project. The stakeholders were still able to produce the handbook, but the end product looked different from the working product, not reflecting Grigolo’s position. This leads to the need for approaching the public sociology of human rights with a reflexive approach. Influenced by Bourdieu, this approach suggests that the sociologist considers the “unthought categories of thought which delimit the thinkable and predetermine the thought” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992) as opposed to a more objective stance.  

Grigolo has since produced more publications on human rights where he not only highlights the pitfalls of how human rights is carried out but offers suggestions of how it can be improved.  He suggests easing away from the pressure to only reflect the priorities of city governments in sustaining neoliberalism to diffusing the responsibility as a shared project between experts and agents within civil society (Grigolo 2019). Thus giving credence to the assertion made by Burawoy (2005) that policy sociology has the likelihood to result into public sociology where they both serve to complement each other.  

Keenan: humanist sociologist or accidental public sociologist? 

Keenan, like Vickers and Grigolo, has dabbled in more than one aspect of sociology, having ‘labelled’ himself as a humanist sociologist, based on his work with members of the LGBTQ community (Hunt 2016, Keenan 2016, Yip and Keenan 2016), not from a human rights approach like Grigolo, to a recent questioning if his work can also be considered as ‘accidental public sociology’. Du Bois and Wright (2012) sees humanist sociology as flipping the script and instead of plugging people into already built systems that might not work for them, focus on building specific social systems that respond to the needs of people. Keenan’s way of doing this in his study was to deviate from the regular coated approach of looking at the experiences of the LGBTQ community to finding out what aspects of their experiences they want to talk about and give them an opportunity to do so. This is in line with critical humanism, described by Plummer (2001) as a “corrective and human approach” where there is a greater focus on how participants’ experiences are captured through “talk, feelings, actions” (ibid), allowing them the opportunity to “attain dignity, worth and freedom” (Manzo 1997). 

Keenan’s participants consisted of LGBTQ university students who felt that their lifestyles were not ‘represented’ by the universities that they attend, as well as by other students and lecturers who were not in agreement with their lifestyle (Ellis 2009) or the representation was not “consistent” (Grimwood 2017). This highlights the issue of microaggression relating to how people who are not of a certain sexual orientation view others who differ from them (Nadal 2014). LGBTQ individuals need an open avenue to share their experience, not wanting to be marginalized, discriminated against, or be a part of the “seldom-heard” group. From the open sharing, Keenan was able to collate their experiences into themes, thus moving away from the boxed-in approach, to create a result that was more definitive of the group being represented. The researcher’s humanistic approach is the focus of the study, but it was almost impossible to not publish the findings which are substantially different from previous studies surrounding the lived experiences of LGBTQ university students (Keenan 2018 unpublished), making him what he refers to as an “accidental public sociologist”. This title of accidental sociologist is not new, as Martin (2012) establishes himself and Berger, whose works are linked to the sociology of religion, as such. They, like Keenan, ventured into such roles due to notable differences between their humanistic and religious beliefs, which can often be contrary (McLennan 2007) . 

Humanist and public sociology need not exist in an antagonistic relationship, as they both inform each other expressively, with human [and their] experiences as their main focus (Berger 2011). Since humanism provokes the sociologist to delve into unapproached areas of concern regarding their subjects, the likelihood is that the new found knowledge or interpretation of knowledge needs to be disseminated to its publics (Burawoy 2005). Keenan has done so by ensuring that the methodology chosen to capture the lived experiences of his participants were non-traditional and within the newer forms of social research methods. Photo-elicitation is applauded for allowing the participants to determine what aspects of their life they want to expose and explain through visual means (Harper 2002), without conforming to the norm of speaking and writing, found in the traditional methods. It also gives voice to LGBTQ students considering they sometimes find themselves in the “seldom-heard” group (Smith 2007). Thus the appropriateness for photo-elicitation to be used in a humanistic social research, such as Keenan’s, supports the expressive nature of participant, researcher and method combined. 

Distinctiveness of public sociology

Robert Dingwall, part-time professor at Nottingham Trent University gave a guest lecture on “Sociology and Pandemics” in March 2020, and provided an example of reactions received when among many medical scientists who were being asked how to contain the outbreak of the swine flu in 2009 in the UK, it was a social scientist who provided an appropriate response which was then taken into consideration as the solution. This alludes to the fact that there still exists a need for those who do not know or understand, to be educated about the significance of the social sciences (Bierstedt 1960) and sociologists to help with societal issues from a different perspective and using different means. Thus then is the importance of including Contemporary Approaches in Public Sociology within the postgraduate Sociology curriculum. Through this module students are exposed to a multiplicity of approaches used to tackle a multiplicity of issues affecting multiple publics. As first publics (Burawoy 2005), students are equipped with first hand knowledge of the approaches used by various researchers in engaging with various public and societal issues. 

Based on the evidence presented in the cases above, it can be deduced that there is a wide array of methodological and theoretical perspectives that guide social research (Sarantakos 2012, May 2011). Thus, instead of championing the cause of public sociology as the sole framework that should guide sociological research, I support the cohesiveness that the discipline of sociology allows to researchers who interact with, and disseminate knowledge to various publics without being confined to only one quadrant of the division of sociological labour (Burawoy 2005). Such limitations would go against the core principles of the discipline. The approaches mentioned certainly have their roots in public sociology, and its accompanying aspects in the form of professional, policy and critical sociology as introduced by Burawoy (ibid), however, they were not limited to a solely theoretical framework, but included more praxis, more action and certainly more results. 

There will always be a place for public sociology to enhance the discipline of sociology, but it will need to get rid of its divisiveness, current developmental limitations, idealism and incoherence (Boyns and Fletcher 2005) in order to allow the discipline to effectively serve the masses. Thus Burawoy’s (2005) “multiplicity of public sociologies” may need to be revised as ‘multiplicities of sociology’ going forward, recognizing the significance that sociology has managed to develop in the professional, critical, policy, and of course, public sphere. The university-community projects, refugee projects, human rights projects, LGBTQ projects and all other existing and upcoming social research will and should benefit from the collective effort of sociological approaches that are public, critical, professional and policy-based. Public sociology does not need to be distinctive, it needs to be cohesive. 

Contemporary Approaches to Public Sociology will continue to showcase the varied approaches that support the multiple methodologies that are dealt with through Research Methods, while being under the watchful scrutiny and recommendations provided with Theorising Public Sociology. These modules on the course are a testament that though public sociology might be the main focus, it is supported by the others to give wholeness to the ever growing discipline of sociology (Strydom 1998).  

Envisioning myself as a public sociologist

Public sociology provides an access for students who aspire to become sociologists in “getting our foot into the door” (Turner 2005). This can take many forms. The most common practice is that of academia and written publications. Fortunately for me, I have over ten years experience as an academic, and over five years as a blogger. Most recently I became a self-published author. None of my work or experience is of a sociological nature, but can certainly inform the practice. Through the Service Learning module, I was able to make use of both experiences as I was engaged in helping to document the stories of Afro-Caribbean coal miners experiences in the form of a photobook. This work with a not for profit organization embodies the principles of public sociology as it focuses on engaging with the members of the community and publishing articles based on issues that affect them (Burawoy 2005).  

Based on my critical view of whether or not public sociology should be distinctive, I share the position of Collins (2007) who disagrees that students should be forced to choose one type of sociology to the detriment of being denied opportunities. If anything public sociology should provide the pathway to encourage the various approaches that the discipline offers. Through engaging the different modules on the course, aside from publishing articles (which in essence would be the basis of the sociological journey), I could engage in activism that highlights the policy limitations in government towards members of the BAME community. I also can participate from a humanist standpoint and provide an opportunity for the marginalized to express parts of their world that are not often mentioned but are part of a larger societal issue. Additionally, human rights and policy sociology could be a focus, allowing me to center in on some of the decision making processes that directly affect the minority groups in developed countries. As seen from the example above, involvement in human rights creates an avenue to shift from a local context to engage with issues on a more global level. Notwithstanding professional sociology gives the opportunity to balance the power relations through participatory action research with a call to do research ‘with’ participants of the Afro-Caribbean community, rather than conducting research ‘on’ them. My ‘insider’ privilege would set the premise for the building of the relationship necessary for this type of research, as I am also a member of the Afro-Caribbean community by birth. 

Utilizing modern concepts such as digital, visual and alternative methods as covered in the Research Methods module and incorporating live methods as examined in the Theorising Public Sociology module through continued engagement with the community as is the focus of the Service Learning module, allows for a diversity in approaches and an impact that is mutually beneficial to the members of ‘my public’, and myself as the sociologist. The possibilities are endless and I suggest that envisioning myself solely as a public sociologist is not only limiting, but also ‘disrespectful’ to the discipline.  

Word count: 4400



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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