What Do ‘We’ Know That ‘They’ Don’t? Sociologists’ versus Non-Sociologists’ Knowledge

Anne Mesny

Abstract


This paper attempts to clarify or to reposition some of the controversies generated by Burawoy’s defense of public sociology and by his vision of the mutually stimulating relationship between the different forms of sociology. Before arguing if, why, and how, sociology should or could be more ‘public’, it might be useful to reflect upon what it is we think we, as sociologists, know that ‘lay people’ do not. This paper thus explores the public sociology debate’s epistemological core, namely the issue of the relationship between sociologists’ and non-sociologists’ knowledge of the social world. Four positions regarding the status of sociologists’ knowledge versus lay people’s knowledge are explored: superiority (sociologists’ knowledge of the social world is more accurate, objective and reflexive than lay people’s knowledge, thanks to science’s methods and norms), homology (when they are made explicit, lay theories about the social world often parallel social scientists’ theories), complementarity (lay people’s and social scientists’ knowledge complement one another. The former’s local, embedded knowledge is essential to the latter’s general, disembedded knowledge), and circularity (sociologists’ knowledge continuously infuses commonsensical knowledge, and scientific knowledge about the social world is itself rooted in common sense knowledge. Each form of knowledge feeds the other). For each of these positions, implications are drawn regarding the terms, possibilities and conditions of a dialogue between sociologists and their publics, especially if we are to take the circularity thesis seriously. Conclusions point to the accountability we face towards the people we study, and to the idea that sociology is always performative, a point that has, to some extent, been obscured by Burawoy’s distinctions between professional, critical, policy and public sociologies.

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