Why We Protest

Judith Blau

Ali Tayefi

The Code of Ethics of the American Sociological Association does not explicitly state that sociologists have a responsibility and duty to protest injustices. It does, however, state: “Sociologists are aware of their professional and scientific responsibility to the communities and societies in which they live and work” (ASA 1997). As sociologists know, failing to challenge and to interrupt injustices helps to perpetuate them and, indeed, confounds them. Sociologists without Borders/SociĆ³logos sin Fronteras –SSF- advocates an active, committed and engaged sociology, and contends that sociologists have an ethical responsibility to protest injustices and violations of human rights (see http://sociologistswithoutborders.org/). The ASA, as we describe below, does, in fact, protest repression of individual sociologists, while Sociologists without Borders goes further and invites others to join us in protesting injustices against sociologists and injustices generally. We live in especially perilous times.

Now there are a few questions. Why do we protest? We do because we are ethically responsible to do so. No better a source than Immanuel Kant for a definition of ethical responsibilities: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (Kant [1785] 1993: 30). Where do we protest? Naming and shaming campaigns are global, and thanks to the Internet, we mobilize .and coordinate our protest internationally. Oppressors must not be allowed to hide within their own borders. When do we protest? There are two main aspects to this question – a social scientific, or an external aspect, and a community, or an internal aspect:

1. The social scientific (external) aspect: There are many injustices that sociologists care about because we encounter them in our research – homelessness, poverty, child labor and abuse, sexism, violence against women, religious and ethnical discrimination, hunger, racism, exploitation of migrants and, more generally, violations of human rights. If not protested, such injustices ratchet up and become magnified and more intense. One of our responsibilities, as intellectuals, academicians, and social researchers is to be allies of oppressed people and to help change the conditions that oppress them. Sociologists can clarify that people are not to be blamed for their oppression but instead the blame lies with social institutions, economic practices, elitism, political repression, racism, ideological exclusion, xenophobia, and other forces. This clarification is empowering in its own right.

2. The community (internal) aspect: There are other acts of injustice that we must protest on humanistic grounds. This is when a state abusively harms a sociologist (or any scholar or researcher) for their research, publications, or on the basis of their teaching or thinking. In instances like these we protest, not drawing from analysis and research, but as colleagues and relying on our networks and the media for information. During this past year two sociologists have been imprisoned. Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh was jailed in May 2007 in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison. On all accounts he has been tortured. He was charged with spying (see http://www.freekian.org ). Andrej H, a Humbolt University researcher was incarcerated in a Berlin on July 31, 2007 for belonging to a leftist organization, militante gruppe (see http://www.policing-crowds.org/petition.html). Andrej H has just been released and we believe it was in response to the letter-writing campaign, although the charges have not been dropped. One other prominent scholar has also been imprisoned in Evian Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson Center, was charged and jailed in May 2007 by the Iranian government for spying, which was protested by scholars from around the world (see http://www.freehaleh.org ). She has just been released Very recently another prominent scholar, Professor Hossein Bashiriyeh, a political scientist, has just been fired from Tehran University (see http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/psc/faculty/Bashiriyeh.asp ). His friends and family fear the worst.

In June President Frances Fox Piven wrote a letter to Ayatollah Sayyid ‘Ali Khamenei to urge Iranian authorities to release Kian Tajbakhsh (see http://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/Iran_ltr_re_Kian_Tajbakhsh%20(2).pdf ), as did other learned societies and human rights organizations .On August 15, 2007, ASA Council passed a Resolution strongly condemning any government that “monitors, detains, or incarcerates social science scholars and researchers” for reasons that have to do with “scholarly concepts, writings, or field research contacts” (http://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/DetentionResolution.PDF).

We applaud the ASA and its officers for upholding the principles of academic freedoms and condemning governments who violate such freedoms. The release of Esfandiarj and Andrej H. suggests that protest is effective, and indeed, a study by Agnone (2007) finds that protest generally is effective. That is reassuring. Yet we propose that sociologists not only protest what we termed “internal” injustices, but also “external” injustices, that is, protesting with and on behalf of the oppressed in the larger society. They are ever as much our brothers and sisters. This is sometimes criticized on so-called scientific grounds, and it is sometimes said that sociologists should be “objective,” “neutral,” and “appropriately detached.” Our answer is that sociologists must first and foremost be advocates of peoples and of their fundamental human rights – including their rights to freedoms, dignity, equality, and nondiscrimination - since the achievement of such rights is what makes a just society and it is a just society that promotes these rights. This is a virtuous and self-reinforcing circle.

Finally, we need to recognize that our ethical responsibilities are global. “Invisible College” was what Robert Boyle and his colleagues called the network of widely scattered scientists in seventeenth-century England. Now we are connected globally through the Internet, the WWW, and institutional exchanges. As a matter of conscience and on the basis of our knowledge, we protest, for example, child labor, disenfranchisement, and exploitation of labor, As a matter of conscience we also protest when our colleagues are imprisoned or punished anywhere in the world for opposing their governments. We protest the injustices that they suffer on the behalf of our invisible college and all our colleagues. Besides, because they are imprisoned for their sociological views that their governments deem to be dangerous and subversive, we protest in the defense of sociology, proud to be in a field that dictators, the military, and intelligence services fear. Freedom of thought and freedom of expression are also fundamental human rights. More generally, regarding both domains we have considered, in both their external and internal aspects, protesting injustice reconciles us with society and reinforces our solidarity.

Judith Blau , University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, jrblau@email.unc.edu

Ali Tayefi , Sweden, alitayefi@gmail.com

References :

Agnone, Jon. 2007. “Amplifying Public Opinion.” Social Forces 85: 1593-1620.

Kant, Immanuel; [1785] (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett), 30

American Sociological Association. 1997. Code of Ethics.


1 comment:

imsmall said...


Blackwater boy, to whom are you
Beholden? Not to any,
No conscience does those deeds review
For which you gain a penny.

It is a private enterprise,
This killing and this maiming
Of innocents, which telling lies
Keeps hidden by disclaiming.

Where lies then your allegiance
If not to state or country?
To profit, by coincidence,
And to the vested gentry.

To those as do not pay their tax,
Because, possessing all,
They may enjoy, as they relax,
A cornucopia--

While these taxpayers, and these boys
Enlisted in the army
Have no retreat, and hardly voice,
While surging uniformly.

If profit comes to be in doubt,
Then yours is all the luck:
In luxury, you may get out,
While they, alas, are stuck.

Blackwater boy, to whom are you
Beholden? To yourself,
As profits gainfully accrue
Though pilfered, proffered pelf.