ISA Past Presidents

Michael Burawoy

President 2010-14

1947 | -

Nationality British citizen, but Permanent Resident in the US



  • B.A. Mathematics, University of Cambridge, England, 1968.
  • M.A. Sociology, University of Zambia, 1972.
  • Ph.D. Sociology, University of Chicago, 1976.  [Thesis topic, ‘Making out on the shop floor’; supervisor, William Julius Wilson]

Posts held

  • 1969-70 Research Officer, Anglo American Corporation, Zambia.
  • 1975 Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Chicago.
  • 1976-82 Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley.
  • 1982-83 Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
  • 1983-88 Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley.
  • 1988 - Professor, Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley.
    This list omits many foreign and US visiting, honorific and temporary positions.

ISA participation, main roles

2006-2010 ISA Vice-President for National Associations
2010-2014 ISA President
Founding Editor of Global Dialogue

Participation in other settings, Editorial boards, etc

African Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, American Sociologist Annual Review of Sociology, Contemporary Sociology, Ethnography, Political Power and Social Theory, Qualitative Sociology, South African Sociological Review, Theory and Society, Work and Occupations.

President, American Sociological Association, 2004. Member of American Sociological Association Publications Committee 1998-9 [from which he resigned (Burawoy 2005b, last paragraph) in protest at what he saw as high-handed action by its Executive Council], Council 2000-2003, Award Committee 2006-9.

Intellectual and ISA career

Michael Burawoy’s family background had an international flavour – although he was born in England, his parents had fled Russia and Ukraine, and met as students in Leipzig - and also an academic one, since both had doctorates in chemistry; they reached England in 1933, and his father became a lecturer at a Manchester college. At school Burawoy’s aspiration was a career in astrophysics (Burawoy 2005b: 50). He went to Cambridge to study mathematics, but found it dull. Alongside that, however, he managed to travel ambitiously, spending six months in the USA before starting at Cambridge, and in his two long vacations visiting South Africa and India. In Cambridge he approached Edward Shils (because of the latter’s interest in India), who suggested that he should go to Chicago and study sociology – advice he did not accept. Instead he learned, starting from an interest in which language use was most effective for teaching in India, that ‘questions of education were questions of politics, and that research detached from politics was a purely scholastic matter’ (Burawoy 2005b: 52). He returned to S. Africa in 1968 and got work as a journalist, but after six months moved to the more adventurous setting of Zambia – and a job in the mining industry’s Personnel Research Unit, where he made use of his mathematics in carrying out surveys on the condition of the working class, and learned the importance of class and race and their connections. At the same time he took the MA course in sociology and anthropology at the University of Zambia, and was much influenced by his teacher Jaap van Velsen, a student of Manchester anthropologist Max Gluckman (for some general material on Gluckman and his influence, see Frankenberg 1982; see also van Velsen 1967). Zambia thus provided his first experience of fieldwork. He published The Colour of Class on the Copperbelt, which aroused a lot of local interest, in1972).

After four years in Zambia, he did go to Chicago as a doctoral student – and found the department of sociology parochial, but with redeeming features: his supervisor W.J. Wilson, and political scientist Adam Przeworski, who introduced him to modern French Marxism.  At the 1974 World Congress he gave a paper on the relations between race and class in S. Africa.  With no Chicago funding, by his second year he needed a job, and took an industrial one, partly ‘to take on the Chicago School on its own terrain’ (2005b: 57) – which he could do to a greater extent than originally intended when he discovered that by chance he was working in the same factory as Roy (1952, 1953) had done. This started his direction to ethnographic work and theorisation of class relations in US industrial sociology, and led to the production of Manufacturing Consent (1979), based on his thesis.He saw‘the substitution of natural process for historical specificity’ as a consistent and deplorable thread through Chicago ethnography, and the ‘search for transhistorical laws obscured [ing] real history, namely the seismic shifts in the political and social landscape of the 1920s and 1930s’ (Burawoy 2000: 13, 12).

Burawoy began work at Berkeley in 1977 and, teaching the undergraduate theory course from a Marxist position, realised the need for data on state-socialist production to compare with other systems, and managed to arrange several jobs as a worker at factories in the Soviet sphere. As the system there broke down new factors came into play, extending the range of empirical possibilities further, and this led to The Radiant Past (1992). His teaching also included a research practicum on participant observation, and with cohorts of the graduate students in this he developed ideas on seeing the macro in the micro. This led to two books, written with the students, Ethnography Unbound (1991) and Global Ethnography (2000); these developed important methodological arguments for the use of participant observation data in the ‘extended case’ method to build empirical and theoretical generalisations. We can see how he has regularly followed the relatively unusual pattern of moving freely back and forth between theorising and collecting serious empirical data (Burawoy 2005a), developing further the idea that sociologists should play a ‘public’ rather than a ‘professional’, ‘policy’ or ‘critical’ role, relating to audiences outside academia and looking for ways to improve outcomes in the public domain. This approach clearly struck a chord, and the theme of ‘public sociology’ has become hugely influential and appeared in innumerable keynote addresses, special issues and critiques. Burawoy’s political concerns have always figured in his work and, although sometimes controversial – he regards Trotsky (with the advantage of participation!) as a better theorist of revolution than Skocpol - have surely contributed to his popularity.

Despite the striking internationalism of his previous career, Burawoy came late to ISA membership, but rapidly fitted into its new context. During his period as Vice President for National Associations he made personal contact with a very large number of associations, and this pattern of foreign visits continued in his presidency. An important part of his presidential platform was to use digital methods more, as a means of including sociologists who were not able to attend international conferences. Particularly successful was the creation of Global Dialogue, initially billed as an ISA newsletter but soon becoming rather more than that, with short articles from all over the globe about local sociological issues – and, importantly, with the contents translated, by groups of young volunteers set up for the purpose, into an increasing number of languages. Another initiative was the ‘Universities in crisis’ blog, especially concerned with the growing regulation and commercialisation of universities worldwide, which has attracted a large number of contributions and many readers.

His presidential address looked to the new social movements of recent years as addressing concerns about the prevalence of inequality, and providing a key tool of social analysis. Polanyi’s work is drawn on to describe the worldwide process of third-wave marketization and fictitious commodification. It is argued that a sociology to address the needs this creates must be global, but without losing sight of the particularity of different situations as it strives to construct a sociology for society, defending civil society against such threats.

References, other sources of information, related work

  • Burawoy, Michael (1972) The Colour of Class on the Copperbelt: From African Advancement to Zambianization, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Burawoy, Michael (1979) Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labour Process under Monopoly Capitalism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Burawoy, Michael (1985) The Politics of Production, London: Verso.
  • Burawoy, Michael et al., (1991), Ethnography Unbound, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Burawoy, Michael and Janos Lukacs (1992) The Radiant Past Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Burawoy, Michael et al. (2000) Global Ethnography, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Burawoy, Michael (2005a) ‘For public sociology’, American Sociological Review 70: 4-28.
  • Burawoy, Michael (2005b) ‘Antinomian Marxist’, pp.48-71 in ed. Alan Sica and Stephen Turner, The Disobedient Generation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Burawoy, Michael (2009) The Extended Case Method, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. [This places much of his earlier work into a single theoretical framework.]
  • Frankenberg, Ronald ed.  (1982), Custom and Conflict in British Society, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Polanyi, Karl  (1944) The Great Transformation, New York: Farrar and Rinehart.
  • Roy, Donald (1952) ‘Quota restriction and goldbricking in a machine shop’, American Journal of Sociology 57: 427-442.
  • Roy, Donald (1953) ‘Work satisfaction and social reward in quota achievement’, American Sociological Review 18: 507-514.
  • Van Velsen, Jaap (1967) ‘The extended case method and situational analysis’, pp. 129-149 in ed. A. L.Epstein, The Craft of Social Anthropology, London: Tavistock.

Presidential address

Burawoy (2015), ‘Facing an unequal world’, Current Sociology 63:5-34.