Mark Frezzo Interview with Walda Katz-Fishman
- Since the 2004 Conference of the American Sociological Association (ASA), there has been considerable debate on the concept of "public sociology." On the one hand, proponents of public sociology have been divided between those who advocate deploying sociological research to alleviate inequalities of gender, race, and class—something akin to "applied sociology"—and those who favor mobilizing sociological acumen to support the agendas of activists. On the other hand, opponents of public sociology have fallen into two camps: those who find the concept tautological and superfluous (on the assumption that professional sociology is, by definition, geared to the service of the public); and those who find the concept contradictory (on the assumption that professional sociology is duty-bound to avoid taking political positions). What is your perspective on public sociology? To what extent does the concept inform your research and teaching at Howard University? To what extent does it inform your activist work with Project South?
The ASA in 2004 was a wonderful confluence of events. It was the year of Michael Burawoy's presidency, with his programmatic focus and address on public sociology, as well as the year Jerome (Scott) and I received the ASA award for public sociology. Not surprisingly, as you suggest, the whole concept and practice of public sociology is a highly contested terrain between those who embrace a sociology dialectically connected to social struggle and collective human agency, and those who profess a value-neutral sociology, which of course supports the politics of the status quo and is quite the opposite of apolitical.
And even among those who support engagement with various publics, the question is always which publics and whose interests are we really serving? Are we putting sociology in the service of the interests of the mandarins of the state and NGOs looking for policy reforms and program funding to extend the life of capitalism in crisis, or are we linking sociology as theory and practice to a liberatory vision and praxis that serves the interests of those most dispossessed and oppressed in today's world, and the very survival of humanity and the planet?