for autonomous sociology

How to Become an Obscure Public Sociologist


In the year 2000, I moved from New York to London. The protests against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle had just taken place, and similar social movements were springing up around the world. I played a small role in this ‘alter-globalisation’1 movement, as one of the founders of a short-lived London branch of the international ATTAC network. Launched in France in 1998, ATTAC opposed neoliberal economics and advocated policies that aimed to limit the power of the global financial markets. As a French speaker with a good knowledge of French intellectual life, I tried to be an intermediary between British and French activist circles. I was also involved in the the European Social Forum (ESF), one of the regional offshoots of the World Social Forum, whose founding ATTAC had been involved in.

Before the advent of free, easy-to-use online collaboration tools like Google Groups, a friend and I drew on our experience in software development and in the Free Software movement to set up such tools for ATTAC and the ESF, to take decision-making out of meetings (which, we argued, are inherently exclusive and lead to a ‘meetingocracy’ of people who have the leisure time and resources to attend) and into online spaces that are more transparent and accessible. We published a manifesto for open voluntary and activist groups, called Open Organizations. This was probably my first step away from activism and towards sociological thinking about social movements.

In 2002, I told Bernard Cassen, one of ATTAC’s founders, that I thought the ‘war on terror’ might well derail the alter-globalisation movement by absorbing all the energy of the left; he said not to worry. I turned out to be an example of my own prediction. By February 2003, I had drifted away from ATTAC and was demonstrating in Hyde Park against the invasion of Iraq. It struck me then that in the London activist circles I knew, hardly anyone seemed to speak Arabic or know much about the Arab world. That year, I started to learn Arabic, and in 2005 I quit my job and moved to Egypt to study the language full-time.

Egypt was, then as now, an authoritarian state, but in those days it was easy, safe, and inexpensive for foreigners to live, study, and do research there. While learning the language, I became increasingly interested in intellectuals and the history of ideas in Egypt, and in 2007 I returned to London to do an MA and PhD in Middle East Studies at SOAS. I had become convinced that it was hardly possible to understand anything about cultural production since the 19th century, in Egypt or elsewhere, without a good analysis of nationalism. Not convinced by any of the dominant theories of nationalism, I started looking for a suitable theoretical framework. After taking a tour of the varieties of social theory then in vogue, I began to construct an analysis of nationalism by adapting Bourdieu’s little-known analysis of religion2 (which was the source of his theory of fields). I published my first attempt at this in the top Middle East Studies journal, where it has languished in obscurity. For my PhD (during which I returned to Egypt for a year), I took a more ambitious approach, using Arabic literary and historical sources going back to the 9th century CE, and combining field theory with cognitive linguistics, to propose a history of the production of nationalist concepts in Arabic. This approach met with a great deal of scepticism from peers, as I found when I submitted versions of it to journals or presented it at conferences.

As you may have guessed, a PhD in area studies, from a non-top-ranked university, resulting in an interdisciplinary thesis that dealt with Egyptian nationalism and involved sociology, history, literature, and cognitive linguistics (itself a heterodox branch of linguistics), and set out unpopular claims, made me practically unemployable. I seemed to be too sociological for Middle East Studies, but had no chance of getting a job in sociology without a PhD from a sociology department. In any case, I discovered that sociology is highly compartmentalised along methodologically nationalist lines, with American sociologists seeing themselves as champions of something called ‘American sociology’, which is supposed to be about ‘American society’, and British and French sociologists pursuing similar illusions. The study of nationalism itself, which should be a central preoccupation of sociology—since it is an omnipresent social phenomenon with immense effects everywhere in the world (including effects on sociology)—is mostly relegated to a disciplinary backwater called ‘nationalism studies’, a field dominated by nationalists rather than by critics of nationalism like me. I saw little chance of publishing the sort of research I was doing except in area-studies journals, which mainstream sociologists don’t read.

I spent a year as Visiting Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo, and a year as a post-doc at the National University of Singapore. In Singapore I devoted about half my time to applying for jobs, each of which had hundreds of other applicants, an experience that no doubt sharpened my critical view of academia. Deeply impressed by Bourdieu’s notion of scientific autonomy, and inspired by the debates about public sociology that had followed Michael Burawoy’s 2005 article,3 I thought about these concepts in light of my own experiences in activism and in academia, and formulated a few principles that I’ve tried to follow:

  1. Nationalist assumptions are inimical to the autonomy of sociology. If you see the discipline of sociology as divided into national teams like the World Cup, and see your job as helping your team win, you’re creating obstacles for science.

  2. Social phenomena do not, in general, stop at national borders any more than the weather does. If you believe you’re studying ‘British society’, you’ve defined your work in terms of an illusion. It can, of course, be interesting to study illusions, as in my research on nationalism, but this requires the researcher to recognise them as such rather than internalise them as analytical categories.

  3. Sociology can and should aim to produce universally valid theoretical work. I was once asked, in an academic job interview in the US, why I was using a European theorist (Bourdieu) to explain events in Egypt: shouldn’t I be using an Arab theory instead? I answered as diplomatically as I could that Arab scholars use Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc., just like everyone else, and that trying to create an ‘Arab theory’ for ‘Arab society’ would, in my view, be as misguided as trying to create an ‘American theory’ for ‘American society’. Nationalism, for example, is a global phenomenon with many universal features (as well as many variations between nationalisms), and no theoretical understanding of nationalism is worth anything unless it can be used to analyse any nationalism, anywhere. (I didn’t get the job.)

  4. Be prepared to pay a high price for autonomy. Bourdieu argued that a ‘liberating science’ must be, first of all, an autonomous science,4 and that this has to include autonomy from political aims. This must be one of the least popular assertions ever made by a sociologist. A great deal of research seems implicitly to base its claims to legitimacy, to a greater or lesser extent, on a moral stance—taking the side of the oppressed, or promoting what the researcher sees as the national interest—rather than on scientific criteria of evaluation. Certain terms, such as ‘neoliberalism’, ‘late capitalism’, and ‘the West’, seem to be used mainly to imply that the research that contains them is a substitute for or supplement to activism, rather than for any theoretical value. In studies of social movements, the desire to celebrate ‘resistance’ often produces romanticised scholarly narratives in which ‘the protesters’ or ‘the people’ appear to be moving inexorably towards triumph, much as ‘the proletariat’ did in scholarship of an earlier era. This partly explains why few scholars are willing to criticise nationalism: regardless of whether they are nationalists themselves (which most are), they feel an obligation to support anything that is associated with ‘resistance’ and embraced by the downtrodden, never mind whether it leads to military dictatorship, warmongering, ethnic cleansing, ideological witch hunts, xenophobia, and so on. A sociologist who takes Bourdieu’s argument seriously puts herself in an awkward position: not only does she deprive herself of the career benefits of conforming to the expectations of peer reviewers and search committees, she is also likely to disappoint lay audiences.

  5. The people you write about should be able to find out what you’re saying about them. Otherwise, research resembles gossip, or talking about people behind their backs. Open-access publication is the bare minimum required to enable laypeople to benefit from your research as well as to criticise it. After I published an open-access article in English on an activist group that campaigned for university autonomy in Egypt, I got immediate feedback (positive, to my great relief) from some of the participants in the study. However, I also wanted the article to be accessible to people in Egypt who don’t read English, so I published it again in an Arabic translation, in an Arabic-language sociology journal. I also blogged about it in three languages.

What has the result of all this been in my case? Not much, probably. I have an alt-ac job that gives me a bit of time for research and writing, but I expect it will take me several years to turn my PhD thesis into a book. I seem to have found the perfect recipe for becoming an obscure public sociologist.

  1. See Geoffrey Pleyers, Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in a Global Age (Cambridge: Polity, 2010). ↩︎

  2. See Franz Schultheis, ‘Salvation Goods and Domination: Pierre Bourdieu’s Sociology of the Religious Field’, in Salvation Goods and Religious Markets: Theory and Applications, ed. Jörg Stolz (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008). ↩︎

  3. Michael Burawoy, ‘For Public Sociology’, American Sociological Review 70, no. 1 (February 2005): 4-28. ↩︎

  4. Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Fourth Lecture. Universal Corporatism: The Role of Intellectuals in the Modern World’, Poetics Today 12, no. 4 (1991): 655-669. ↩︎