What role should sociology play in justice? This question and the concept of “public sociology” were the topics of discussion in a recent gathering convened by the Sociology Department on November 12 as part of its colloquium series. The event was hosted by Dr. Jim Cavendish, Associate Professor of Sociology, and featured guest speakers Dr. Stephen Turner, Distinguished University Professor in the Philosophy Department, and Dr. Susan Greenbaum, Professor Emerita in the Anthropology Department. The event was held in the stately Grace Allen Room in the USF Library. Close to fifty faculty and students were in attendance.
According to Cavendish, the interest in engaging the Sociology Department as well as USF’s social science community in a dialogue on public sociology “sprang partly from our departmental retreat in which we discussed various ways to frame what we do, but also from discussions among some faculty and graduate students about the role of sociology in defining and pursuing ‘social justice.’”
To draw colloquium participants more deeply into this discussion, Cavendish distributed—weeks prior to the event—eight academic articles that expressed differing views on public sociology. Two of those articles were written by the guest presenters, who were invited by the Colloquium Committee to discuss the role of the social sciences in addressing public debates that have moral/ethical dimensions, as well as their own writings that describe or illustrate their perspectives.
Turner gave a presentation on the origins of sociology and the historical context in which the debate on the public role of sociology has grown. Since sociology was introduced in the United States in the 19th century, social activism has played an important role in the birth of the discipline. However, in the late 19th century, prominent sociologists focused more on professionalizing sociology as an academic discipline in order to establish it firmly within the academy. Nevertheless, the debate over the role sociology should play in social justice continued.
Greenbaum then discussed her longtime work promoting social justice in the Tampa Bay community, from ethnohistorical work with the Martí-Maceo Society and Tampa’s Afro-Cuban community to assessing the negative impacts of federal housing policy intended to “deconcentrate” poverty by demolishing public housing and replacing it with mixed-income residential complexes. Greenbaum described social justice work as an intellectually and ethically defensible position for academics to take, noting that public anthropology has a long history in the U.S. and that doing applied research is a practical way for scholars to serve their communities. She also provided examples from her own work on the challenges scholars can face when social activism runs into conflict with public agencies and private organizations.
After the presentations, the colloquium paused for informal discussion and refreshments, and then reconvened. Turner and Greenbaum responded to questions from the audience and a lively discussion ensued as faculty and students analyzed the pros and cons of pursuing social justice while simultaneously meeting the demands and expectations of the academy.
We hope to see Sociology hosting more events like this one in the future!