Humans of Humanities – Interview with Michael Burawoy

By Edmar Machado, Leonel Salgueiro and Raphael Lebigre,

We are delighted to introduce the Humans of Humanities, a new project of Circuito Academico. In Humans of Humanities we discuss the difficulties, the pros and cons of the sociologists’ everyday practice, and the challenges of the professional career. To do this, we will hold interviews with sociologists around the world, trying to reach different realities and points of view about the profession. As first interviewee, we are honored to introduce Michael Burawoy, professor at University of California, Berkeley.

Humans of Humanities tries to show the backstage of knowledge production, its human side. In order to capture the various reactions and spontaneous responses of respondents, and think together about the subjects discussed, the questions are not sent in advance.

Check out the inspiring conversation we had with Michael Burawoy, who very kindly granted us a few minutes of his time during his visit to Brazil in 2015.

C / A – What do you prefer, publish or perish?

R – I definitely do not want to perish. So I must publish. The big question is how important is publishing for a scientific career? From my point of view, publishing is an important aspect of a career, but there are other things too. I think teaching is no less important. To cultivate that sociological imagination in others gives me the greatest delight.  Engagement with people beyond the academy is also important. We not only publish in scientific journals, but conduct interviews on television and radio, contribute newspaper columns, produce blogs, and so forth. Publishing can be for one’s peers, that is one’s fellow sociologists, but it can also be part of a dialogue with people working in trade unions, with companies or agencies of the state, with social movements, and so on. We scientists should be able to convey our ideas in different ways to different audiences.

C/A – For you sociology is a profession or a vocation?

R – Oh, that is a tough question.  I both live off sociology as well as live for sociology. Irving Louis Horowitz, a famous US sociologist, referring to the proportion of each day they spend doing sociology, distinguished between those who spend 8 hours, 12 hours and 24 hours. I tend to think of myself as a 24 hour sociologist.  Yes, I live for sociology, it has become an end in itself, a principle of life. I’m very privileged in that the way I live off sociology allows me to also live for sociology. There are very few who have a sufficiently secure income from sociology that allows them to pursue it night and day without worrying about material constraints or losing their job.  There lies the danger – that I will lose the sensibility of empathy with those less fortunate. That’s why I think it’s important to study people very different from oneself. I have immersed myself in working class communities in different countries both as an object of study and as a reminder of my own privilege.

C/A – We, undergraduate students, see many of our colleagues leaving the university and sociology because it is something unreachable. So if a student asks you a reason to not give up what would you say?

R – True. The possibility of pursuing sociology in a formal way has become more difficult all over the world.  It’s difficult to earn a living as a sociologist. If one is after a secure existence one would be well advised to become an engineer, a doctor, a business man – and even then one’s livelihood can be precarious. But sociology can be more than a job, it can be a way of life, a disposition that once learned never dissipates. If one thinks of the classics of sociology – Marx, Weber and Durkheim – they each had a critical orientation to the world, a way of seeing how things are determined and beyond our control on the one hand, but how things could be different on the other hand. Sociology has both an anti-utopian and a utopian way of thinking. We can take this perspective into our everyday worlds, thinking how the world appears enduring but how it can also change.

So, about my own career and my desire to be a sociologist – I was trained as a mathematician but lost interest in the subject as I became enraptured by the student movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In those days sociology attracted so many of us who thought of making a better world. I myself began as a sociologist in Africa, in Zambia, where I worked and studied between 1968 and 1972.  Zambia had only recently won independence.  We were all interested in where postcolonialism would take the country – toward socialism, capitalism, or some mixture of the two?  What were the chances of consolidating democracy and economic independence. Those were heady days when anything seemed possible.

C/A – Could you tell us something or someone who inspired you to follow and not give up?

R – I had wonderful teachers in Africa, Marxist anthropologists who shaped my outlook on social science.  Apart from my teachers, if there is one person who has inspired my thinking it would have to be the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci.  Here was a man who hailed from a very poor background in Sardinia, who suffered physical pain all his life, a man who was very concerned about inequality and domination, and who respected the intellectual qualities of all. He was a spokesman for the working class movement in Turin, especially during the factory occupations of 1919-1920. He was a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and imprisoned by the fascist regime for his political activity. It was in prison that he wrote his famous “Prison Notebooks” which contain the most penetrating analysis of “hegemony” to be found in Western Marxism. He, too, like the sociologists, had his utopian and anti-utopian moments, recognizing the durability of capitalism but never losing sight of its possible transcendence. I could talk about Gramsci for many hours, but the Circuito Acadêmico only gives me five minutes, so I will end here.

2015-06-03 17.35.45Check out the Portuguese version by clicking here.

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