Monday, October 13, 2008

Review: 'The Public Intellectual Trope in the United States' by Eleanor Townsley

A post inspired by a reading of:

‘The Public Intellectual Trope in the United States’

Eleanor Townsley, Mount Holyoke College. (Her web page is here.) The American Sociologist. 2006. Vol 37, 3, pp. 39-66.

The Sociology of Knowledge

The sociology of knowledge is not a widespread theoretical or empirical sub-field within American sociology. It is not one of its leading habits of practice. I believe this is a discipline-wide mistake, for two reasons.

First, it is a mistake in terms of theory. By neglecting the sociology of knowledge, we are cutting ourselves off from important theoretical tools. If sociology placed more emphasis on the ways that knowledge gains meaning and becomes disseminated through human relations, this would allow for more attention to be given a long-neglected perspective within social theory – namely, the sociological wing of the pragmatist school, by whom I mean John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and C. Wright Mills. Leading practitioners of contemporary theory today pay a good deal of attention to individual meaning-construction within social parameters. As examples, I would cite ‘cultural codes’ (Alexander), the habitus (Bourdieu), and the ‘lifeworld’ (Habermas). But much of this work goes ahead with little or no credit given to the pragmatists, who constructed theories of human behavior in social contexts before even Parsons. And I think contemporary social theory is worse off for it.

For instance, Dewey’s notion of ‘habit’ has much in common with Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, except Dewey’s conception of habit is balanced (I argue, made superior) by the recognition that people are not simply habitual creatures; we also reflect back on and change our habits in the face of what Dewey called ‘problematic situations,’ moments when our past experience is challenged by new experience that we can’t immediately make sense of in our present knowledge. As a result of this problem, we make new knowledge and create new habits. Through Dewey we could improve upon Bourdieu's understanding, if we first pay attention to the way that new knowledge guides social change as much as it results from it.

Second, neglecting knowledge is a mistake in terms of empirical social change. To neglect the role of knowledge in society is to be oblivious to the transformation of social reality around us. Indeed, key empirical – even, historical – changes in the structure of social reality have everything to do with knowledge and the communication of knowledge. For example, many economists and social commentators are concluding that the American economic structure has turned into a ‘knowledge economy.’ This means that the distribution of wealth, employment, material success, stratification, and cultural difference is more dependent than ever on what is deemed knowledge, who is deemed knowledgeable, and how this knowledge is organized and turned into social structure.

Another instance of the empirical centrality of knowledge is the increasing importance of communications media. This is a subject about which sociology is inexplicably behind the curve. For example, the reality of the present ‘economic crisis’ is given its meaning almost entirely through the way it is talked about on CNBC and reported on the internet. Another way of saying this is that our collective knowledge about the crisis is structured through the social relations of communications media. Because of this, economic sociologists, one would think, would have important contributions to make to understanding the current economic climate.

The point I am trying to make is that any sociology field that is more widely studied – not just economics but, say, gender or race – cannot be separated from the way that communications media structure socially recognized knowledge about that subject.

So in sum, I believe we should infuse our sociological perspectives and scientific models with greater attention to the way our subject (be it race, gender, politics, economics, etc.) is constrained and made possible by social constructions of knowledge created through human interaction and structured by organized communications media.

For this reason I was very happy recently to read Eleanor Townsley’s 2006 article in The American Sociologist titled ‘The Public Intellectual Trope in the United States.’ Prof. Townsley teaches at Mount Holyoke College. Her concern in this article is with the construction of the ‘public intellectual.’ While in other countries, the notion of a ‘public intellectual’ is redundant, in the US context the concept of the public intellectual – what she identifies as a 'trope' – “emerges as central to struggles to define boundaries, standards, identities, and authority in intellectual life.” She writes:

In [the] contexts of its actual empirical usage in the United States, the ‘public intellectual’ always connotes an opposition between what is ‘public’ and what is ‘intellectual.’ And, although there is a wide range of possible readings of the formal opposition between what is ‘public’ and what is ‘intellectual,’ in its use by contemporary political and cultural actors the ‘public intellectual’ is always part of a criticism of the US academy. Academic intellectuals are criticized as narrowly intellectual: overly specialized, overly technical, overly abstract, socially aloof, and jargon-ridden. The opposition contained by the public intellectual then works to elevate what is virtuously public about public intellectuals, specifically, democratic commitments in language and topic choice; thus, general relevance, plain English, social engagement, responsibility, and common sense. The political effect is to criticize intellectuals in the university as problematically non-public.

I write this post not only to urge sociologists and others to read Prof. Townsley’s article, or because the notion of the public intellectual is interesting. It is, especially how Prof. Townsley writes about it. Rather, my more general goal is to urge us all to think about how we can incorporate better understanding of how knowledge is contained, organized, made possible, and unleashed through social processes – and, of course, how social processes are contained, organized, made possible, and unleashed through relations of knowledge. Prof. Townsley’s article inspires me -- and I hope others -- toward this end.

For one last example, we can look at perhaps the prime ‘problematic situation’ of our age – America’s troubled economy. As free-market ideologues are arguing in favor of government intervention, and socialists are decrying government intervention in favor of more market-oriented solutions, it strikes me that the pragmatist perspective of Dewey and Mead is as needed as ever: for as this financial collapse goes on, knowledge seems to be uprooting itself as unprecedented events require new ways of understanding them. Where will society end up? I think where we end up depends on what kinds of knowledge emerges from this mess. We used to think one way about our economy. Now we are being forced to think a whole new way. It is the understanding of this emergent knowledge that sociology could -- and I hope will -- offer as its unique contribution to social science and national stability.

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