Public Sociology

Michel Wieviorka


Michel Wieviorka (born 23 August 1946, Paris) is a French sociologist, noted for his work on violence, terrorism, racism, social movements and the theory of social change.

A former student of Alain Touraine, he is now one of the most renowned sociologists and public intellectuals in France and abroad. A number of his books are translated in different languages. Wieviorka received some international media attention as an expert following the 2005 civil unrest in France, and has been elected in Durban as the 2006-2010 President of the International Sociological Association.

Together with Touraine and François Dubet, Wieviorka developed the method of intervention sociologique and employed it to the study of militant social movements, in particular French anti-nuclear activism and student leagues, but also the famous trade unions Solidarnosc in Poland. Following Max Weber’s classic concept of interpretative sociology (verstehende Soziologie), intervention sociologique aims at understanding the subjective rationale of actors in the context of larger social conflicts. This concept was opposed to, e.g., Raymond Boudon’s failed attempt to establish a strict rational choice approach in French sociology.

Wieviorka is the director of the Centre d’Analyses et d’Interventions Sociologique (CADIS) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, which was established by Alain Touraine in 1981.

Wieviorka is the founder and editor of the sociological journal Le Monde des Debats and, with Georges Balandier, edits the Cahiers internationaux de sociologie.

In 1989, he was the first scholar to receive the Bulzoni Editore Special Award of the European Amalfi Prize for Sociology and Social Sciences, for his book Société et terrorisme (1988, English edition The Making of Terrorism 1993).


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Discussion Summaries and Comments

Barcelona (May 23, 2012):

In Wieviorka’s lecture we learned about the description of the sociological intervention, the methodology he uses in his research center. This methodology consists in producing knowledge all together, sociologists and social actors. Like the Critical Communicative Methodology, which we have seen with Marta Soler and Ramon Flecha, through the sociological intervention, the knowledge can be created when the social actors validate the knowledge brought in by the researchers. Wieviorka mentions the importance to listen especially to the arguments of those people who do not agree with some points of the research. The whole process of creating knowledge is full of dialogue. To this author public sociology means the production of knowledge through debate. That is a key element to take into account, by contrary there is the risk of reproducing, instead of overcoming some discriminating concepts.

Wieviorka also emphasizes the importance of this methodology and the creation of knowledge through public sociology, because it changes the people’s mentality and also the researcher’s mentality. To give one example of that, we spoke about a lecture, where the researcher described the definition of mixed race as half of one part and half of another. One girl of the public contradicted the author’s definition because she feels a hundred percent of both parts. Then, the scholar answered that the concept of mixed race may be revised. This is an example of creating knowledge in dialogue with the public, it is public sociology. However, the sociological analysis constitutes not only what the people say or think, but also the scientific part provided by sociologists. The importance of this part also consists in the dissemination of the knowledge to the people. Scientists may return the research results to the people and give an answer to society.

Berkeley (April 13, 2012):

Michel Wieviorka posits that public sociology occurs as a professionally-developed concept that legitimizes itself through support amongst and reflection upon those which the theories seek to analyze. In what Alain Touraine calls “sociological intervention,” the sociologist and his subject retain their separate entities, advising one another from their relative positions. As the subject appropriates the knowledge for his own action, the sociologist’s findings are deemed evermore truthful and accurate, by virtue of knowledge that is proven true through action. In his written works that we read, Wieviorka comments that cultural “diasporas” result from the acknowledgment of difference – and that such diasporas are protections for well-networked ethnicities which utilize this identity to combat racism. His vision of the public sociologist is much more of a traditional role than previous speakers, many of whom have encouraged the direct engagement of the subject public in developing theories.

To understand Wieviorka as a public sociologist, we began our discussion by looking into his intellectual background. Wieviorka is often considered the anointed heir to famous French sociologist Alain Touraine, the great theorist of social movements. Touraine critiqued the ‘old guard’ of social movement theory which tended to focus on class-based movements, instead proposing the rise of new social movements concerned primarily with issues of identity, race, gender, and culture. Instead of being shaped by the laws of history (i.e. historical materialism), Touraine argued that in the post-industrial society we make our own history—we produce new cultural visions which actually shape history. This concept of historicity emphasizes the role of the actor/the subject. Under this framework, the sociologist is no longer outside of society studying its laws, but is inherently implicated in its formation.

The above forms the theoretical underpinning for Wieviorka’s sociological intervention. Wieviorka’s sociological intervention is concerned primarily with social movements, with imparting sociological knowledge to social movements and their leaders—to bring activists into contact with sociology. Whether and how they appropriate the sociological knowledge then becomes a test for the validity of the particular sociological knowledge.

[Touraine’s and Wieviorka’s theoretical underpinning itself provided a brief discussion (although not directly related to public sociology) on the primacy of culture/identity vs. class/economics as the driving force of historical action in post-industrial society. Some issues brought up were how the Occupy movement or the ‘Arab Spring’ relates…]

In his article responding to Burawoy, we thought that Wieviorka implicitly critiques the ways in which sociology is brought to the public. He points out that we should not limit public sociology to ‘traditional’ and ‘organic,’ and expands that categorization to include ‘elitist,’ ‘restitutive,’ and ‘deliberative democracy.’ ‘Elitist’ sociology is most akin to traditional public sociology where the sociologist is the sole producer and dispenser of knowledge. ‘Restitutive’ sociology attempts to return the sociological knowledge to the subject being studied. And ‘deliberative democracy’ attempts to present a dialogic model of knowledge production with sociologists and the public. However, we thought that Wieviorka’s ultimate critique of all of the above was that the sociologists all take science for granted—that their science is valid and rests with the professional sociologists. Even in the ‘deliberative democracy’ model, the ultimate authority and final producer of knowledge is the sociologist him/herself. Wieviorka presents his solution as sociological intervention where the validity of sociology rests with its appropriation by publics.

This brought up several interesting discussions. First, Wieviorka’s deliberative democracy’ immediately raises parallels to Soler and Flecha’s CCM (Communicative Critical Methodology). Wieviorka’s critique is similar to one we discussed earlier in regards to CCM in that is CCM truly democratic—does the sociologist not hold a greater power in their relationship to the public? In what way, however, is sociological intervention different? First, we would argue that the sociologist maintains his/her epistemological distance. And secondly, under sociological intervention, the public holds the final say in the validity of a sociological knowledge.

This, however, raised several other questions for us. We wondered how exactly would a sociologist transmit knowledge to the public to validate. What would that look like? And how would a sociologist know when his/her work has indeed been validated? Moreover, what happens when publics appropriate and evaluate the sociological knowledge differently; how can one resolve conflicts in validation?

Another concern we had was that public’s validation could be based off of personal interests and their validation would not be objective. In that sense, sociology simply becomes the tool of powerful publics to use as they see fit. It would seem that Wieviorka’s sociological intervention could only truly work with an ideal-type public.

Finally, we wondered whether sociological intervention gives too much power to the public. Often publics operate on ‘common sense’ knowledge; however, very often this ‘common sense’ is at odds with science and with sociological knowledge. This also brought up an interesting relation to Bello. Bello was concerned with the dynamics of truth and power, and worked to reveal ‘alternative’ truths, those inconvenient to publics and to popular ideology. We wondered whether Bello would think that sociological intervention in certain situations may compromise the ‘truth’ as he sees it.

Johannesburg (April 24, 2012):

This is a very interesting lecture which explores what it means to be a public sociologist in France. Michel Wieviorka’s definition of public sociology is about the audience (dissemination) and not about action.  His distinction between production and dissemination is fascinating. However in this lecture, he does not give enough examples of his audience (or how he disseminated his research). Indeed, there are real ethical dilemmas for public sociologists whose aim is to “make better”. It is a moral logic or quest whose end results are not very clear.  How would one work with racists to “make them better”?

Michel raised a number of interesting points and alerts us to some of the differences between France and South Africa. Ultimately for public sociology to flourish, Context matters! It seems that being a public sociologist is linked here to being an intellectual. Indeed in France being an intellectual / public sociologist is much more valued (not looked down upon) as compared to other parts of the world like England, US, and South Africa. Calling yourself an intellectual or academic is viewed as pretentious and elitist. The word intellectual is viewed as a “dirty word” by many. The word academic itself is associated with being remote or unengaged.  There is a general anti-intellectualism here in some social/political movements.

As compared to France where public sociology will flourish, in South Africa there is not much respect for intellectuals or education for its own sake. Even here at Wits, you need to observe how academics are treated by management and administration. This lack of respect for academics or intellectuals is often expressed in unequal salary scales, huge differences between what academics earn as compared to consultants, university administrators and management.

An interesting idea is that dissemination of knowledge is not the responsibility of an individual but of the collective. This is related to education and funding. Research or education is pursued because it is interesting not because it will generate money. Students themselves pursue degrees because they want to earn money (lots of it) after they graduate. The cultural context of a society shapes these ideas. In France however there seems to be a consensus against instrumental knowledge. What seems to be valued here is money – that status is linked to class. Thus contempt is expressed against those who are poor and who do not make money (academics). Therefore public sociologists in South Africa are not going to be popular for disseminating in research about the poor.  But in France public sociologist will be popular! Why? It could be about their broader culture or mass tradition.

What about sociologist who become politicians or political advisors; are they public sociologists? In South Africa, there is Verwoerd (former apartheid prime minister), Blade Nzimande (current minister of higher education and SACP general secretary) and elsewhere there is Fernando Cardoso (former president of Brazil),  Anthony Giddens (Tony Blair’s special advisor).  Are there good or bad public sociologists? Based on what they do when they are politicians / political advisors/ presidents or ministers?

Tehran (May 27, 2012):

Contribution session 9: Michel Wieviorka: Discussion Summary: Student Sociological Association of Tehran University and Iranian Sociological Association.

There are some clarifying points for public sociology in his work:
His idea of public sociology, contrary to Castells, is not a network of relationships but a network of people having the same problem, even if they are inactive.
He is also an advocate of communicative and participatory methods and through these methods he has given an opportunity to the publics to narrate themselves and to react to the researcher’s narration and comment on his work.
His attitude toward public sociology gives us two ideal types of public sociologists: public sociologists as mirrors and public sociologists as partisans. Public sociologists as mirrors (sociological interventions are of this kind) try to provide a situation in which reflexivity is possible and through that reflexivity, people find a chance to criticize themselves. Their responsibility toward public is to be a mirror therefore the public gets to know itself through sociologist and the responsibility of change is handed over to the public. These types of sociologists are always concerned about scientific objectivity of their work. On the other hand we have partisan sociologists who defend the values and beliefs of some publics and disagree with being distant and value free because mirror like reflexivity of reality for them is neither possible nor enough.
Now, our question is that to what extent is he close to each of these types of public sociologists?
It seems that he is a partisan in action (since he defends values such as extending democracy or fighting racism and chooses publics that working with them would, in his opinion, promote these values. In his speech, for example, he says you have to tell the public things, not because those things clarify the truth but because it’s better for them to be aware. In spite of all these, it looks as if he sees himself as a mirror sociologist because he thinks the sociologist knows the truth that needs to be shared with the public. That is why he feels defeated at the end of his work on racism when in spite of being aware of origins of racism, they refuse to throwaway racism. The problem is the contradiction between practical rationality and reasonable rationality that exist among many of sociologists, including Wieviorka(they act in a way practically but theoretically they believe in something else). As a public sociologist, they believe in social intervention and do it but as an academician, resort to objectivity to assess their work. Such a contradiction rises when public sociology and professional sociology are two different areas which have a “relationship” with each other (duality of thought). On the contrary ,if we consider these two as two sides of a coin((dualism of thought), this contradiction will be resolved and public sociology will be equal to sociology.
The point is that mirror sociology can turn into partisan sociology by following specific values. He has tried to provide a space for group talks and to reflect the groups for themselves and through this reflection some changes has happened. In one case the level of the group problem has deepend and the group has understood that the problem they have to fight for is not nuclear power, but the weaknesses of democratic processes and, in the other case, they have come to know about the origins of their racism.
The last point is the criticism of his sampling. He has chosen people that can explain, communicate and be influential more than other people. It seems that this sample is in contrast with his ideal to critique domination system and reproduces domination relations on another level. Effort to bring change through changing minds of leaders will still keep silent voices of groups of people silent.