Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Book Reviews

Social Science or Social Activism?

A Review of Charles F. Gattone’s The Social Scientist as Public Intellectual

Slavica Jakelić

Pastel of Max Weber, Edward Knapczyk (2012). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Should social scientists, in the interest of balanced scholarship, stay away from a direct involvement in public life, or are they, due to the nature of their work and vocation, intrinsically unable to do so? According to Charles F. Gattone’s The Social Scientist as Public Intellectual, these two questions have been at the heart of the social sciences from their beginning. The dichotomy clearly illustrates the fragile nature of the relationship between the sciences and politics, knowledge and ideology: it refers to people who are trained to observe social and cultural structures and symbols through scholarly analyses but are also called to evaluate these social frameworks by suggesting their change.

Gattone begins from the premise that the social scientist’s knowledge about the world is not a simple gathering and conveying of information, but an active interpretation of “phenomena in a comprehensive, innovative, and enlightening way” (xv). His concerns with whether social scientists are able “to forge analyses that are relevant to the ongoing transformations taking place in the present” (xv), and whether their “conclusions have any bearing on the future path of civilization” (xv), betray the author’s opinion that social scientists have not just knowledge about, but also responsibility for, the destinies of their societies. Gattone chooses to examine what is at stake in developing the proper content and methods of such knowledge and responsibility by looking at social thinkers who wrote about these matters. He argues that today we can build on the ideas of our intellectual predecessors by “looking at the relationship between their observations about the trends of their time and their suggestions about how social scientists might proceed as public intellectuals in the face of these changes” (xi).

To accomplish this goal, Gattone explores the ideas of nine thinkers: August Comte, Henri de Saint-Simon, Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, Karl Mannheim, Joseph Schumpeter, C. Wright Mills, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Pierre Bourdieu. He focuses on these authors because of, in his words, a “somewhat grueling list” of reasons (xii): first, the considerable time the thinkers spent examining the rationalization of social life and the manner in which it affects culture; second, their consideration of the coexistence of the democratic and authoritarian aspects of modern life and how the tension between the two impinges on the role of social scientists as public intellectuals; and third, the inclination of the thinkers to consider the ethical aspects of the role of social scientists as both observers of and participants in the world of politics.

Throughout six chapters, Gattone demonstrates, for example, that a number of social scientists from Weber to Bourdieu have been concerned that the growing rationalization of societies and the institutionalized structures of the academy constrain scientific individuality and intellectual originality. The result is often the inability of social scientists to evaluate societies in which they live as objectively and as critically as needed.

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