From public sociology to collective knowledge production

I am pleased to share that I have authored a chapter, titled ‘From public sociology to collective knowledge production’, which appears in the recently published The Routledge International Handbook of Public Sociology, edited by Leslie Hossfeld, E. Brooke Kelly and Cassius Hossfeld (Routledge, 2021). In this chapter, I consider my experiences with ‘sociology for a public – engaged in issues members of the public are concerned with, and in dialogue with publics through writings and other forms of communication’. I begin with my training as a graduate student in Berkeley, consider the effects for non-US researchers of an academic field dominated by US sociology, and also raise questions concerning sources of legitimacy of knowledge and the creation of communities for change, in a state which has been dominated by one political party for many decades. 

“…recognizing that academics are typically better analysts than dreamers, the quest to build critical mass and alternative sources of legitimacy are tre-mendously urgent. To go from analysis of the past and present to alternatives in the future, we need to work with people who know how to dream. The labor of building ideas about alternatives is labor that requires the creativity and expertise of many and cannot be limited to the narrow confines of professional knowledge producers. Moreover, bringing about alternatives that enhance human dignity and well-being requires social solidarity. If the levers of change are indeed to be with ordinary people, shifted away from elites, then these people cannot be a bunch of isolated, atomized individuals. They must know how to see and act as collectives. Even as the building of communities of publics is directed toward specific issues or projects at any given time, they are also essential to the longer-term cultivation of social ties necessary for bringing about significant change.
We are still talking about public sociology in the discipline today – this edited collection still needs to exist – because we as a discipline are still trying to figure out what the hell we are doing existing in this world, doing this work, calling ourselves sociologists. My training at Berkeley means that US sociology lives in my head and infuses my work. Michael has been a major influence in my life, and it is hard to think about public sociology without simply trying to walk behind him. In reflecting on my life after Berkeley, I see anew how bold and important his vision was, how it carved out a path for those of us who came to sociology precisely becausewe wanted to be part of the world rather than apart from it. I also see, however, that stepping away from Berkeley, living in tension with US sociology, compelled me to turn to a separate lifeworld that may yet hold lessons for sociologists in the United States.
The work of public sociology requires sociologists to position ourselves in a larger ecology of knowledge-producers – we have to find and create communities and bring others in the academy along; we have to stretch across generational divides; we have to do collective knowledge production not only at the point of knowledge dissemination but also at the point of conceptualization and production. The division of labor must go beyond the four quadrants. In a world where our expertise is suspect, we have to build our own communities of legitimacy-granters and create legibility for our work outside the usual anointers of legitimacy. The labor of doing public sociology is collective labor, entailing time to create knowledge and solidarity, involving bodies in and out of the academy. Doing this messy work, I hope we may yet find tools not just for analyzing, but also for dreaming.”

Find out more about the book at the publisher’s website.