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Public SociologyFifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-first Century$

Dan Clawson

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780520251373

Published to California Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520251373.001.0001

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Speaking Truth to the Public, and Indirectly to Power

Speaking Truth to the Public, and Indirectly to Power

(p.135) Speaking Truth to the Public, and Indirectly to Power
Public Sociology

Arthur L. Stinchcombe

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

If we do not value “the idle curiosity” of leading scholars and “stick them in ivory towers with tenure and without questions on the bottom line,” we will not have any truth to speak to power. This chapter adds one more twist to this argument. Where Burawoy and most of his critics agree that sociology does have something important to say to various publics, this chapter notes that the relevant truths of sociology are truths about the future, but such truths are elusive. And to get accepted, even the limited truths of most social processes would require an understanding of how different bureaucracies institutionalize their own views of the future. As a result, the chapter suggests, people have nothing to tell public audiences about how to free up money from Star Wars to close the race and class gaps in academic achievement test scores, even if they knew how to close them.

Keywords:   Michael Burawoy, sociological truths, bureaucracies, sociology

In his Speaking Truth to Power (1979), Aaron Wildavsky mainly emphasizes speaking so that one might be heard in policy circles. But the subtitle (The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis) suggests that the truth of a policy (or other public) analysis is central to its function. Thus a true answer to “How can we get out of Iraq and Afghanistan?” is still the one Amitai Etzioni once gave on Vietnam: “Get on boats.” But speaking that way does not get heard in the circles of power, nor is it acceptable public discourse. My politics are closer to Michael Burawoy’s than to Wil-davsky’s. But Wildavsky’s point is that discourse has to be shaped by qualities of all parties to the discourse. I will argue that we do not have enough truth to offer, to shape that discourse so that it will improve policy or the public’s understanding of their situation. More specifically, we must tend to our job of getting enough truth of the kind that can bear on the future, which is what is relevant to public discourse. I will argue here that that is so difficult that we should not be distracted much by contributing to public discourse, and that what we do along that line is not likely to be much use to the public.

I have devoted most of my intellectual life to the very great difficulty of figuring out what is true, rather than what will be heard. So I am in the upper left box, the “professional sociology” box, of Burawoy’s diagram of sociology writ large; I am mostly a “technician.” One of my early books (Stinchcombe [1968] 1987) was on how to build theory, a toolbox for keeping one’s logic clear. More recently I have written on (p.136) how to build methods (Stinchcombe 2005). It’s pretty tame stuff for a left social democrat. Even when I used those methods to teach how to run socialist steel plants in democratic countries in South America (Stinchcombe 1974), neither socialists, nor South Americans, nor steel managers read it. The “professional” truths in it about organizational sociology had a brief flurry of interest only in Norway. Perhaps it had too long of an appendix on method at the end and too short an ethnographic narrative on the sorry state of Latin American bureaucracy. Its outer signals to the reader were clearly technical, numerical, and a bit mathematical. But I was trying very hard with all that apparatus to get it right. And I definitively failed at public sociology before I gave it up. William H. Whyte’s Is Anybody Listening? (1952) at least showed me that the capitalists were not doing well at public discourse either.

The deep problem with public or policy sociology is the same as the problem of economics: its truths must be truths about the future. Little public discourse is about the past. But facts about the future are absent to both disciplines. The economists are satisfied to follow Euclid when he shows that the angles of a triangle sum to two right angles, now and in the future as in the past. But Euclid turned out to be wrong, too, as Einstein showed. There is no use doing rational action, individual or collective, to change the past.

Economics starts with the presumption that all action is directed toward the future, as rational action must be. Since economists suppose everybody knows the future sufficiently to act in their neoclassical way, they do not feel uncomfortable being pretty positive about their ability to understand that future. But this is not the case for sociology: Seymour Martin Lipset had a minor career project to show that sociologists and other social scientists were almost always actually wrong about the future. But the economists and Euclid have been right in one thing: only theory could address the future, since empirical research on the future was and, I predict, will be impossible. Only by theory empirically based on the past can we know, for example, whether training the chronically poor is likely to make them employable. But the American belief that education always works is not a well-grounded theory. Similarly, it is theory that tells us whether raising the minimum wage will produce more unemployment, not any careful analysis of future unemployment rates.

A public sociologist is more likely to use investigation to show how miserable it is to be chronically poor or that it has happened to more African American single mothers and their children than to white mar-ried (p.137) mothers and their children. They will show that in the past, especially the recent past, more of the chronically poor end up in prison or jail or are killed by their lover. This gives human interest to inequality of income and of life chances of children. But it does not tell us whether the poor in Norway or Sweden (where they are a lot better off than the American chronically poor) will be enough happier in the future to be worth the price. And, even if it is worth the price, it does not show us that social democratic governments will become more prevalent. When Christopher Jencks et al. (1972) suggested that giving poor families more money rather than more education would increase total happiness, we do not know enough about the future to say whether they were right.

As far as we can tell, the increase in the average income over the last few decades has not increased people’s reports of happiness in surveys. But this fact does not tell us anything either, because we do not have a theory of the relationship between reports and some measure of “true happiness.” Lenin of course had a different answer than Swedish social democrats about “What is to be done?” In the cross-section, richer people report they are happier, but over time greater riches do not seem to work. So how can we know enough about the future to contribute to controlling it through discourse relevant to individuals or policy relevant to public discourse about the government? And the few participants in public discourse who do not talk about the future will not be glad to know about our confusion on as elementary a subject as what makes people happy.

Truth about the Future

One fact about the past is that the gap in achievement test scores between African Americans and whites has been about a standard deviation since World War II. Another fact is that, on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, used in World War II, the achievement test score of African Americans has increased about a standard deviation when re-administered recently, so that they are now equal to the whites of about six decades ago. So whatever we did over the last half century was enough to close the gap. It did not close it because whatever it was we did that increased test scores was apparently done to whites as well as blacks. The most obvious thing we did to both races was to increase average years in school by about four years, or about half again as many as the eight that was common then. So one policy bet would be to give African Americans the time equivalent of six more years in school (or other (p.138) environments that expose the children to reading, writing, history, and mathematics). We know that achievement scores for African Americans can be increased, because we have done it. The crude data suggest that education as measured in years may contain the cause of that increase and that it apparently takes a lot (sixty years maybe) of whatever that is to have an effect as big as the gap. But do these data show anything about the future? Hardly. A median years-in-school for African Americans of about eighteen, half again as much, while holding the whites at a median of around twelve is not likely to be our future.

To see the trouble here, and why it is a trouble in public discourse, I will go back to my argument (Stinchcombe 1997) that Charles Tilly has taught us to study historical changes as “a sequence of futures.” Social forces produce a vision of the future that makes some ways of affecting the future (e.g., in Tilly, petitioning Parliament) seem real. That changes what is rational politics, and so changes politics. That is, for more or less rational people and corporate groups to act, they must have a view of the future and of how that future might rationally be changed. But the main lesson of history, “It was different in the old days,” is a consequence of people having had a different picture of the future. Since that picture changed over time and was different between places, so the course of history was different between times and places. To change our future in light of the facts above, we have to know in considerable causal detail how the change in scores came about, and how the racial gap in achievements came about.

For example, Barbara Heyns (1978; for similar but not identical recent results, see Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson 2001) many years ago satisfied me that most of the gap in achievement scores did not develop during the school year but instead before children entered school (this seems, from other evidence, to be much less true if they participated in Head Start) and during the summers after they entered. Rich and poor children learn at about the same speed as members of the other group in the year that they had started with the same score. For example, if a student starts grade ten at a reading level of the average eighth grader, he or she will learn as much during the tenth grade school year as the average eighth grader did during the eighth grade school year and will be ready in the spring to start the junior year learning as a ninth grader. (Note that, as Alfred Binet already knew, the standard deviation of achievement within both races as measured in year-equivalents increases with year in school, which undermines many statistical treatments.) But poor and African American students will then, on the average, unlearn a part (p.139) of that (or, in the recent results, not learn any more) over the summer, while the richer and whiter students will gain some. So the key differences are where a student starts the year, and whether he or she drops back, stabilizes, or keeps learning over the summer.

The argument is complex, even more complex than mine about how to run socialist steel plants. And no one, it seems, has been able to imagine a future in which summers were a different thing or in which students went to school more hours per day, or more days in the year, or more years, or one that distributed the extra time differently among the races and social classes. So there has been lack of interest in the results, very little more research along the same lines, and no theorizing among public intellectuals, sociological or not, about how to explore alternative futures.

This lack of an imaginable future means we still do not know whether the causes involved are during school or outside of school, though the preliminary evidence is that causes outside school, before starting school and during summers, are likely to be the main explanation. Imagining a future of homes and neighborhoods where poor and African American children will learn academic skills as fast as rich children learn from their homes and neighborhoods is difficult. Our future does not hold homes and neighborhoods for the poor with bigger and more subtle and abstract words, more paragraphs rather than short answers, and more useful mathematical reasoning. And that, I argue, is because we rely on participants in public discourse to sustain interest, so collectively we do not get interested in anything that is not in our imagined future. It is some comfort that during the most recent years citations to Heyns’s early work have been increasing.

My argument is that if we do not value the idle curiosity of our Heynses, our Stinchcombes, and our Burawoys, and stick them in ivory towers with tenure and without questions on the bottom line (at least not too often), we will never know. The phenomenology of the discourse differences between the rich and poor (the theory of what may lie between poverty and low outside-school learning of abstract knowledge) is probably along the lines laid out by Basil Bernstein (1971–74 and 1991). He emphasizes the difference between abstract (“context free”) and concrete (“context dependent”) discourse, suggesting that the middle classes and teachers use more abstract forms than the poor, and so their teaching and home life expose children to more abstractions, rarer words, more subordinate clauses and topic sentences, more arithmetic and quantitative reasoning. Nothing is more context free than a multiple choice standardized test question. (A theory of why a modern economy (p.140) or government may need people competent in abstract discourse is tentatively developed in my work on formality [Stinchcombe 2001].)

The application of such a theory to summers was diverted by Bernstein becoming a public sociologist before we knew the causes of class differences in patterns of discourse, or why the middle classes made money on it. What research there was assumed, because of the firmness of our belief in a future where schools are responsible for teaching abstraction, that the remedy to poor people’s failure to learn would be found in schools, not in summers. It did not encourage educational sociology to learn about the intellectual effect of the other four-fifths of students’ waking hours (my rough estimate for the United States) outside school.

I of course do not know whether this line of work would pay off in new knowledge nor whether my speculations about the line of theorizing that might work to figure it out would actually say anything about possible futures. I certainly could not sell it now as an essay to Atlantic Monthly, nor to the National Science Foundation as a grant proposal—it would require too much ruminating first. And it is even more problematic whether it would lead to building cultures of abstract discourse in the housing projects for poor single mothers to make part of their mother tongue.

My point here is that the puzzle I have outlined above has been there in the literature since the 1970s, with a lot of evidence in its favor. But unless we have a strong belief in idle curiosity about well-established puzzles, and an ivory tower to protect us, we will not have any truth about what causes social gaps in test scores to contribute to public discourse. And in this case, I would argue, a more powerful tradition of scholarly public intellectualism in Britain provided an alternative career for Bernstein and an alternative to solving the puzzle that he did so much to locate. The long gap before volume 4 of his Class, Codes, and Control (Bernstein 1991) shows some of that. Burawoy is trying to promote such alternative careers for sociologists.

Now let us look briefly and very sketchily at possible remedies, suggested by the above puzzle. Let us suppose that the figure of about half again as much teaching time (in some sort of social structure), at least for the poor and the African American population, would be required for whatever turns out to be the real problem. One place to look for money to pay for overtime teaching is at that being wasted on the crazy military policy of the United States. It is now arming so as to fight a strategic war in space against a very advanced and massive military engine elsewhere, that is, to fight the next Cold War, wherever and whenever it appears.

(p.141) If we could uproot this dogma from our Defense Department’s generals and admirals and their supporters in Congress, we would have lots of money left over after expanding the precollege education budget by half, especially if it were for only half of the school population, and to pay interest on our national debt. We then need a theory of how extreme and unlikely scenarios of the future get so deeply embedded in a bureaucracy and its institutional support and how these scenarios get enormous resources to carry out preparation for a science fiction future. We need sociologists to see the social basis of what C. Wright Mills (1956) called the military’s “crackpot realism,” which otherwise may be the future of most U.S. federal government spending. I do not have evidence, nor a good theory, about the degree of crackpot realism in the future. I have only idle speculation about how we might get expensive, unlikely scenarios forever.

The Untidy Clash of Theory, Evidence, and Policy

If it is true that only theory, not facts, can deal with the future and that much public discourse is about what sort of future we ought to have, how can we get out of the box of the institutionalized rigidity in our imagined futures?

So our second general puzzle is how views of the future get institutionalized in bureaucracies and in the relationships bureaucracies have to their suppliers, their legislative monitors, and how they get stably isolated from other discourse, from evidence on how well their plan works, and so forth. Many bureaucracies in many countries have created such isolated dogmatisms, or reestablished them after a period of heresy, purged opponents within, and the like. A typology of some of such isolated dogmatisms was embedded in Max Weber’s sociology of religion in Economy and Society ([1924] 1968). But that rough typology and the understanding of its mechanisms have not been much improved by our opportunities to study the processes in the Nazi bureaucracy (except that it was “banal”), the Stalinist bureaucracy, or the reestablishment of orthodoxy in the Catholic Church since Vatican II.

Then before going public, we need to analyze why we are so eager to accept that this is someone else’s business, not that of us sociologists, so we let disciplines further to the right of most sociologists have a monopoly on our military future and on the general sociology of bureaucracies’ knowledge of (scenarios of) that future. The other disciplines have not theorized bureaucratic intellectual isolation much. I have myself written a lot on bureaucracies while hardly touching the topic (but see indirect discussion in Stinchcombe 1995).

(p.142) Poking around in the nooks and crannies of comparative bureaucratic history to develop a theory will not get us a popular public, nor much discourse except to say that Eichmann was not really banal, but evil, or that abstinence propaganda may not have worked very well in spite of a couple of millennia of bureaucratically organized propaganda, but that it might work in our future, or that who knows about India, China, and Russia as nuclear powers fifty years from now? But this last is my point: we have no serious way to investigate that future. We have no serious way to investigate how much good sense there may be in all those classified documents or what social supports there are for increasingly fanciful scenarios or whence comes lack of investigation about whether the theories in those scenarios are any good.

The U.S. Army listens to the rare military sociologists we produce, like Charles Moskos. But combat troops and the strategic planners listen less. And we have no believable truth to tell them about how to make bureaucracies think (cf. Taylor 1984; Espeland 1998). Consequently we have nothing to tell public audiences about how to free up money from Star Wars to close the race and class gaps in academic achievement test scores, even if we knew how to close them.

If we had a bit more truth about what children do during the summer, or what massive extra years of schools would produce, embedded in a solid theory of what test results measure that produces higher wages and less unemployment, we might build a public sociology that had some truth in it. If we would bother to build such a theory, we might avoid a future filled with punishing more and more schools for failing to close that gap. Otherwise we have wind, and a vague feeling that the Japanese understand these things better than we do; but we, and perhaps they, do not know what it is that they understand.

And without a solid theory of why generals and people similarly situated believe they know all about the future, we will not understand why public sociology has nothing to say about our biggest public policy, strategically killing people on a very large scale some long time in the future.


My bet (and fear) is that public sociology will fit David Riesman’s (Ries-man and Glazer 1950) description of the “indignant” political participant: high in affect, low in competence. Burawoy is excepted, of course. But that for me is because Burawoy is curious and is ensconced in the great ivory tower in the Berkeley Hills, at least during the day.

(p.143) Further, as he well knows, I will tell him if I think he is wrong, and he will do me the same favor, whatever puzzle I happen to have been working on. That is the true definition of the ivory tower, with the necessary proviso that neither of us can punish the other for disagreeing. The normative key is that no curiosity is satisfied by a bad answer. The market for bad answers on editorial pages, in advertisements, and as rationalizations of our foreign policy is evidently infinite. That is the pot public sociology proposes to stew in. Even in the ivory tower, deans measure our teaching by what easily fits in the mind of a sophomore, the government by what easily fits in the mind of a bureaucrat. In both cases, occasionally a lot will fit. We can hope that those few in public discourse or bureaucracies will set the tone for the rest, but the democracy of teaching evaluations is more likely, in my vision (not a theory, yet) of the future.

There needs to be sociology with theory that is empirically solid enough to deal with the future, a public sociology later, with gentle peer pressure against saying things to the public that are provably false about the past or present, so that are unlikely guides to the future. In that gentle peer group, incompetent contradiction is valueless.

Enough truth to make a contribution to changing our view of the future and its possibilities is hard work. For a sociological theory to be solid enough to analyze even the rough outlines of the future is terribly hard work and, so far, nearly always fails. Public sociology may make us correct our course in the face of obvious failure, and may even help us guess what we did wrong. But evidence on why the war on drugs does not work, why we could improve African American achievement scores by a standard deviation over a half century but can’t do it now, why abstinence propaganda does not work but abstinence in the early modern West European late marriage pattern worked wonderfully (as far as one can tell from the low illegitimate birth rate), why Japanese militarism was not reconstructed as soon as MacArthur was out of the picture while American militarism is flourishing—all are scarce. If we do not know why some things work and some do not, we have very little truth to offer in a public discourse about major public policies or about individual future lives.


Bibliography references:

Alexander, Karl L., Doris R. Entwisle and Linda S. Olson. 2001. “Schools, Achievement, and Inequality: A Seasonal Perspective.” Educational Evaluation and Policy 23 (Summer): 171–91.

Bernstein, Basil B. 1971-74. Class, Codes, and Control. 3 vols. London: Rout-ledge and Kegan Paul.

(p.144) ———. 1991. Class, Codes, and Control: Structuring Pedagogical Discourse.Vol. 4. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Espeland, Wendy Nelson. 1998. The Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heyns, Barbara. 1978. Summer Learning and the Effects of Schooling. New York: Academic Press.

Jencks, Christopher, Marshall Smith, Henry Acland, Mary Jo Bane, David Cohen, Herbert Gintes, Barbara Heyns and Stephen Michelson. 1972. Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. New York: Basic Books.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Riesman, David and Nathan Glazer. 1950. “Criteria for Political Apathy.” In Studies in Leadership: Leadership and Democratic Action, ed. A. Gouldner, 505-59. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. (1968) 1987. Constructing Social Theories. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World. Repr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1974. Creating Efficient Industrial Administrations. With Zahava Blum and Rene Marder. New York: Academic Press.

———. 1995. “Lustration as a Problem of the Social Basis of Constitutionalism.” Law and Social Inquiry 20 (Winter): 245–73.

———. 1997. “Tilly on the Past as a Sequence of Futures.” In Roads from Past to Future, C. Tilly, 387-409. Review essay. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Lit-tlefield.

———. 2001. When Formality Works: Authority and Abstraction in Law and Organizations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2005. Logic of Social Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Serge. 1984. Making Bureaucracies Think: The Environmental Impact Statement Strategy of Administrative Reform. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Weber, Max. (1924) 1968. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Vols. 2 and 3, ed. G. Roth and K. Wittich. New York: Bedminster Press.

Whyte, William H. 1952. Is Anybody Listening? How and Why U.S. Business Fumbles When It Talks with Human Beings. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wildavsky, Aaron. 1979. Speaking Truth to Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis. Boston: Little Brown.