Communication as Perspective (part 2 of 2)

face2Michael Kennedy

Brown University

This is the second part of an interview with Michael Kennedy conducted by Labinot Kunushevci as part of the series of conversations with sociologists for the forthcoming volume Communication as Perspective: Interviews with Contemporary Sociologists.

We thank Labinot Kunushevci for permission to share this excerpt.

Labinot Kunushevci: What is your opinion of the future of Sociology in the sphere of knowledge and scientific disciplines and what is your suggestion for the improvement of sociological thought, enhancing inter-disciplinarity and the attempt to expand the focus of study in Third World societies?

Michael Kennedy: August Comte said that sociology is the queen of the sciences. We’ve come a long way since that hubris, but I still think sociology has the potential for playing a much larger role than it does. After all, there is no substantive area that sociology cannot engage; there is no method intrinsically foreign to its practice; and because sociology is most attentive to social problems from inequality and violence to the human role in environmental catastrophe, it bears a weight in figuring systemic contradiction and their address in terms those powerful may not recognize, initially, to be in their interest. Part of sociology’s mission, might I say, is to constitute that human interest from the perspective of those least heard in the articulation of the global good. That means, then, that the “third world” must be at the heart of a global sociology’s vision, but we also must figure how that comes about and what reference that invokes.

LK: How can one increase projects of cooperation among universities in light of the globalization of knowledge and the promotion of peaceful coexistence and solidarity between people?

MK: In some ways, those old “people to people” diplomacies seemed innocent and naïve, but I think, at root, they are right. We need to figure how to develop more cross-cultural/class/racial collaborative projects, for this provides the knowledgeable infrastructure for transformational practice. However, as the rise of chauvinism in recent years indicates, that is no antidote to the mobilization of hate. And we cannot mobilize enough interfaith dialogues and student exchanges to overwhelm that foundation for aggression. However, we might actually develop our collaborations around these very questions: what does hate look like in our own societies, and how might we recognize the global and systemic foundations for hateful practice?


LK: What is the role of the university today facing contemporary challenges, especially facing the risk that through controlled knowledge, the university can turn into an instrument of keeping the ‘status-quo’ and monopolization of knowledge?

MK: In some ways, we should be even more worried if those with power, whether through private capital or state authority, were disinterested in the university as such. That the world is moving toward an increasing valuation of knowledge capital is promising, but I agree with the premise of your question: we are at risk of seeing more dimensions of knowledge lose their status as a public good, and rather become more and more a source of power and privilege. Of course that is not intrinsically wrong; it’s a question of how that knowledge is mobilized.


LK: Is there potential for sociologists in the Global South to contribute to the discipline, not only as reactions and follow-ups to developments lead by “Western” sociology, but also as groundbreaking contributions?

MK: I think this is a great question. In my book, I compared in relative depth the degrees of influence Polish, Kosovar and Afghan social scientists have had on the English-language scholarly imagination. Poland was substantial, in part because at the beginning of the 20th century a Polish sociologist named Florian Znaniecki developed a great collaboration with an American, WI Thomas, resulting in one of the most important books for American sociology: The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. On that path, especially as Znaniecki himself wound up developing Polish and American sociology in the succeeding decades, one can see relatively terrific influence and example. From Afghanistan in this century, one ought appreciate anthropologist Ashraf Ghani’s example as a real intellectual force and innovator; his creativity and consequence now, however, are being tested as his nation’s president.


LK: What role can social scientists play in actual or potential intellectual movements for social emancipation?

MK: In the abstract, social scientists can play the following roles:

  1. Correct misrepresentations of historical and current struggles. Some representations are just plain wrong and deliberately misleading. Just today I read a great account of a mass rebellion by slaves in the early 19th century in Louisiana, USA. Slaveowners and the state not only repressed that rebellion, but undertook a mass campaign to distort its potential so that others would not emulate their struggle for freedom. Today, I am disturbed by how global media represent protest in Kosova (and is one reason why Linda Gusia and I wrote
  2. Engage critically what social movements themselves do. It’s not only the powerful who misrepresent, but movements sometimes become unaware of the conditions, and consequences, of their own action. They can get wrapped up in their own struggles so much so that they lose sight of the fact that they are losing their constituents. Alain Touraine and his descendants, with “interventionist sociology”, offer a great method for following up this line of thinking.
  3. Search for policies and practices that might meet the grounds of social movements’ protest. Don’t remain in the ivory tower, however. Embed those scholarly programs in protests and other transformative practices that can transform the terrain producing that very problem. Universities need to figure chains of translation that enable that kind of work to find administrative outlet too. Right now, across the world measures of inequality are growing dramatically and citizens rightly protest that systemic tendency. But what kinds of economic reforms will alter that trajectory? What kinds of cultural frames are necessary to make that a sustainable politics? That’s serious social scientific work.
  4. Reframe the meanings of crisis. Nowhere is that more important than in the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe. That crisis, manufactured by disruptions of life elsewhere, threatens to ruin the European Union. There are many scholars working across different sectors of Europe trying to address the systemic origins of the crisis, and help the refugees themselves, but it’s much easier to scapegoat all of them, and to take the actions of a few to be the threat of the many. In this moment, we need to be able to step outside normal politics to figure a vision that enables us to recognize our common humanity, political realities, and the practices that can transform the rules of the game. Otherwise we are on a path to an even deeper level hell in this decade. This is not the task of a brilliant individual, or an ideological persuasion of a nation’s politics. It needs to be the work of a transnational knowledge network dedicated to consequential solidarity.
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