Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Sometimes it is the things we find annoying that compel us to study them. This is certainly the case with me and discussions of the 'public intellectual'. As is widely known, the issue of the public intellectual was spurred largely by Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals (1987). Since then, there has been a more or less regular attention to the issue of the need for scholars to act as public figures. I will not attempt to map the entire issue here, but as I track the vagaries of the public intellectual debate, I have run across Charles F. Gattone's altogether acceptable book The Social Scientist as Public Intellectual: Critical Reflections in a Changing World, just out from Rowman & Littlefield this year.

Coming in at a slim 146 pages, Gattone's book charts a history of how social scientific thought has understood the public role of the intellectual. I admit that I initially came in wanting to hate this book. We've had plenty of books and articles that attempt to tweeze out how social scientists (and playwrights, and fiction writers, and poets, and painters...) have constructed their own public role. Is there anything new to say about this stuff? I mean, I get it. In one camp, you've got the intellectuals who chide other intellectuals for not being public enough. In the other, you've got some grumblers who problemetize this. It's like a double play: Benda to Gramsci to Said.

Thankfully, Gattone is thoughtful. Though The Social Scientist as Public Intellectual is not ground-shaking in its conclusions or its methods, it is a solid review of how major social scientists have approached what the question of public scholarship. Gattone's chapters each deal with one or two sociologists. It goes like this: St. Simon/Comte --> Weber --> Veblen --> Mannheim/Schumpeter --> Mills/Galbraith --> Bourdieu. It's always easy with a book like this to suggest other authors who could have or should have been included. Here are my suggestions, none of them surprising: Marx, Gouldner, Benda, Dewey, Lippmann, and Shils. And, of course, it would have been interesting to have seen something on more contemporary figures, like Henry Giroux, or Richard Rorty. Still, suggesting other possible chapters is the weakest kind of potshot. What matters is whether or not the author has pulled together a cohesive set of ideas. This Gattone does.

What's Gattone's point here? To a great extent, it's about how sociologists have become more skeptical of the public role of the social sciences since St. Simon and Comte. St. Simon and Comte believed that social scientists would (sooner or later) be able to set the rules by which society operated. Steady improvement would result from the implementation of the objective, positive knowledge that flowed from the social sciences. This was the beginning of one part of the modernist project in the social sciences, and many of the assumptions that St. Simon and Comte shared can be found (unacknowledged) in the public intellectual debate today.

Since St. Simon and Comte in the 19th century, sociologists have generated more complicated models for how public intellectual work can operate. Weber famously called into question the scholarly impulse to push one's moral sentiments on others. Veblen was characteristically thorny on the topic, outlining pitfalls and potentials of the public role. Mannheim and Schumpeter are portrayed as traumatized by the Great Depression and the spread of fascism/communism. Mannheim worried that if scholars failed to do something, to speak out, fascism would reign. Schumpeter worried that publicly involved scholars might be effective only at making the iron cage of modernism more constraining, more centrally planned. C. Wright Mills and John Kenneth Galbraith are twinned around hope more than fear. Mills placed great hope in the role of the public intellectual, whom he saw as able to redeem the promise of the social sciences. Galbraith hoped that intellectuals might prevent Western culture from becoming stagnant. Bourdieu outlined (but never fully implemented) a plan for intellectuals to organize themselves so as to stand up to the numerous competing interests that threaten intellectual autonomy.

So, fine. Gattone pulls together a good narrative, and revisits the issue of public intellectuals without getting stuck in one of the usual question-begging quagmires. However, allow me to raise a grander point here: there's more going on in the issue of public intellectuals than any of these (great) theorists seem to notice. What's missing? The media. Like much scholarship on public intellectuals, Gattone's book involves attention to three categories of social actor: the intellectuals themselves, the public, and political elites. Though there are occasions when intellectuals interact directly with the public or with political elite, it seems to me that these interactions are almost always carried out through the media. In other words: there is a major part of the structure of the role of the public intellectual that has been left out of this scholarship. Of the sociologists Gattone includes in this book, Bourdieu was the most concerned with the media (Mills might have been, if he had lived to write his next book). Gattone mentions Bourdieu's concerns regarding intellectuals and the media, but the underlying sense that direct contact with the public is characteristic of public intellectuals remains.

Perhaps I'm simply committing the sin of wanting an author to write a different book. The Social Scientist as Public Intellectual raises some excellent points, and will serve as a solid background for the issue of 'public sociologies' (more on that later). But for those hoping to see the sociology of intellectuals incorporate more of a concern for the media, there's a lot more to do.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,
Gattone is one of my professors at the University of Florida. (I actually found this blog while googling for the course webpage). I havn't read his book on the public intellectual, but I thought you might find it interesting to know that he also teaches classes on media and society.

9:46 AM  

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