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‘Occupy Wall Street is interesting from a sociological perspective’

President of the International Sociological Association on new trends in the discipline and more

education Updated: Dec 14, 2011 10:36 IST
Rahat Bano

Michael B Burawoy, president of the International Sociological Association (ISA), was the guest of honour at the Indian Sociological Society’s diamond jubilee celebrations hosted by Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. To mark the occasion, the university organised the XXXVII All India Sociological Conference, inaugurated on December 11. Excerpts from an interview with Burawoy, who is also professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley

How is the study of sociology different in different countries?
Sociology does look different in different countries. There are three major figures in it — Weber, Marx and Durkheim, who represent different traditions of thought. It depends on how different countries relate to these forefathers. In the United States, they are taken very seriously, so too in Europe. In a place like India, the question is whether they should take them seriously. In many places in the south (southern hemisphere), that is India, China, Latin America, and Africa, sometimes people say this is a northern hemisphere thought. They can be seen as problematic of these figures.

India is very interesting in the sense that sociology is closely related with anthropology. Indian traditions have been affected by British as well as by American sociologists and anthropologists. There’s an indigenous tradition of sociology…That means studying Indian villages, caste, ethnography. Caste is taught in Western universities too but the best studies are by Indian sociologists.

The big debate now is whether Western theories are applicable to India…
India has been influenced by anthropology. Here it’s as much as sociology as anthropology.

What do you study more in it?
We study things like industry and urban problems more. The difference lies in the proportion.

Tell us about your experimental course, Global Sociology, Live! (in which video lectures are posted) on the ISA website. When did it start?
About a year ago. Participating in ISA’s congress, which is organised every four years and forums, organised every two years, is expensive. About 5000-6000 people turn up but most sociologists can’t. So, I wondered how we could reach more people. We started Digital World — we bring out a newsletter, Global Dialogue, in 12 languages including Hindi, five times a year. It has articles on sociological perspectives on world events.

Coming to Global Sociology, Live! I brought together famous sociologists from around the world who have interesting global perspectives. Through video conferencing or Skype, they give lectures to 25 students at Berkeley. They are undergraduate students carefully chosen for their diverse backgrounds. The sociologists give a 15-minute talk followed by 45 minutes of discussion. This is video-recorded and downloaded on the ISA website. There are now 12 seminars (videos) available on the website.

The second step is for the second semester. We plan to have Public Sociology, Live! We look at famous sociologists around the world who are embedded in research in their countries. They will give short lectures. There will be questions. It will be videoed and downloaded on the website. The universities will have parallel courses around these series of courses (videos). The idea is, students around the world then write comments on Facebook or a website and build a global community of sociologists. They could sign up for a debate. I’ve been on a mission with respect to Public Sociology, Live! for 10 years now. It’s (this proposed initiative) is basically sociology which is beyond the university.

What are the new trends or topics in the sociology curricula?
They are related to neoliberalism or marketisation — the rise of markets in all areas of sociology. What sociologists are interested in are the consequences of the market, people’s response to markets, for instance, struggles around dams and SEZs. If you know about the Occupy protests (like the Occupy Wall Street protests) — that’s all about markets. So, there’s an increased interest in the sociology of markets and consequences of markets. In Egypt, for example, a lot of impulse was unemployment, poor working conditions. Another is globalisation — what it means. Gender continues to be an important topic, so are race, class and caste. Cultural sociology is on the upsurge but it’s not clear what it means.

Besides bureaucracy, teaching, research, the NGO sector and the media, are there new career avenues for those with a degree in sociology?
In the US, students take it as an undergraduate degree and then do a professional course such as in administration, law and social work. I think sociology is a good platform for any profession. It allows you to be sensitive to social issues.

In which field would you like to see more sociologists?
There should be more sociologists in the economic field, in journalism and in businesses.

Michael Burawoy picks the best varsities for sociology across the globe

United States
* Harvard University
* Princeton University
* University of California-Berkeley
* University of Wisconsin-Madison
* Columbia University
* Yale University

Europe
* University of Essex
* London School of Economics
* Manchester
* Ecole Normale, Paris
* EHESS, Paris

Asia
* Jawaharlal Nehru University
* University of Pune
* University of Delhi
* Central University of Hyderabad
* Peking University, Beijing
* Tsinghua University, Beijing
* University of Tokyo

Australia
* University of Sydney
* University of Canberra
* Australian National University

The big debate now is whether Western theories apply to India Michael B Burawoy, president, ISA and professor of sociology, University of California-Berkeley