Half-way through her studies for a Master’s degree in public sociology, Trish McCourt takes a look back at her experiences during the first year, and the impact of Michael Burawoy’s vision.
I began studying for my Master’s degree in 2019, after more than 25 years as a practitioner working in the field of social housing and homelessness. I’d not undertaken any formal academic study since a degree in Housing Studies more than twenty years ago, and had never studied a social science.
My personal reasons for choosing this course were varied, but I wanted a change from my many years working on the front line, in an increasingly financially stretched public service environment. And I was seeking a more academic challenge. What I found in this public sociology course was the opportunity to incorporate my public service career experience into a sociological exploration of the world.
The small group of my fellow students fell into two camps. Some were recently qualified social scientists with undergraduate degrees. The others came to the programme via less traditional routes – often with work experience in related fields. This gave a unique perspective to our studies together, in an environment in which the value of knowledge came both from the academic discipline of sociology and the lived experience of the wider world. We learnt from each other as our course progressed.
A reflexive dialogue
The place and value of public sociology has been hotly debated in the academic field. Back in 2004, US public sociologist Michael Burawoy presented his ‘11 Theses on Public Sociology’.
In essence, he argues that public sociology does not take place within the ivory towers of academia, but instead is a reflexive dialogue between sociologists and their many ‘publics’. Sociologist and public inform and transform each other, to create new and exciting ways of thinking and social change.
The course I studied reflected these ideas in both its structure and its content. But it also gave students the chance to look at how public sociology can be used with a range of current social issues.
In a module on decision-making and leadership, a group of us chose a project developing a social media campaign for rough sleepers during the current Covid 19 crisis. The theoretical sociological background of some of us, and the practical experience of others meant the work we produced was much richer than either perspective alone.
In a further module on ecology in contemporary societies, we looked at the role of social science in addressing climate change. We found that natural science approaches have largely failed, with ‘social’ aspects downplayed or ignored. Public sociology can help to find solutions and change behaviours effectively.
We also studied media and communication in detail, looking at transmedia and participatory media cultures. In the assessment, I used storyboarding to demonstrate how to use selective media platforms to raise awareness and create solutions for my chosen social issue of rural homelessness.
In the second year, I’m now taking modules on research methodology and inequalities and public engagement. I’m writing my dissertation on the ways in which community allotments and gardens can create social change, exploring whether the strategic objectives of such projects match the lived experiences of those taking part. This will include the role of allotments in intentional community housing schemes.
On a personal note, the course has opened my eyes to the excitement of the exploration of our social world and given voice to the questions I have been asking all my life. My career experience of working with disadvantaged and often marginalised communities has been welcomed and valued in the classroom.
Although I have often questioned where I fit into this new university life, I have persevered because I have been continually fascinated and curious at what I have found. Through the lens of a reflexive, real and living public sociology, I have seen possibilities for the creation of what Burawoy (2005) calls ‘a better world’.
Burawoy, M. (2005) American Sociological Association Presidential Address 2004: For public sociology. British Journal of Sociology, 56(2), 259–294.
Trish McCourt is studying for the MSc in Public Sociology at the University of Northampton.