‘There is no question in my mind that the intellectual belongs on the same side with the weak and unrepresented’ (Edward Said)


Edward Said who is one of the most influential theorists of Postcolonial studies, in his book Representations of the Intellectual (1996) discusses the public role of the intellectual. Said’s striking words that will be considered in this essay indicates the idea that the intellectual should take the side of ‘weak and unrepresented’ (1996:22).

Having discussing Said’s clear indication about the position of intellectual in the society, it is necessary here to explain what Said meant by the intellectual. Although there are many definition and conceptualisations about the intellectual, Said articulates it through Gramsci (1971)’s definition of intellectual that underline its function in society and says; “everyone who works in any field connected either with the production or distribution of knowledge is an intellectual” (1996:9). Said challenges the definition of the intellectual in Western societies in relation with knowledge industries and speaks of production of intellectual as professionals or figures of social trends. He argues that the intellectual cannot be a ‘faceless professional’, a ‘member of a class just going about her/his business’, ‘co-opted by governments or corporations’ or ‘hired’ agents of the information industry. Instead, the intellectual should be someone ‘whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug’ (1996:11). He underlines universal principles as the base of the intellectual thinking, and the intellectual should concern and defend freedom and justice for all people.

Said’s points about representations of the intellectual addresses the views and concerns of public sociologists that emphasise long-lasting debates about the role and position of the public sociologist as a public intellectual. Particularly, this view of intellectual echoes Burawoy’s vision that defines public sociology as the conscience of society. This view stresses the active role public sociologist play in the society beyond the producing knowledge. However, there is a further debate on values and moral judgements and their effects on the position of sociologist that many scholars involved such as Becker, Gouldner, Hammersley or Said.

Sociologists Herbert J. Gans and Michael Burawoy distribute an image of the public sociologist as a public intellectual who uses sociological knowledge and ideas on the public stage. Gans argues that ‘a public sociologist is a public intellectual who applies sociological ideas and findings to social issues about which sociology has something to say’ (2002:3). The term ‘public sociology’ -though introduced by Gans, became associated with Burawoy, who is one of the most influential theorists of public sociology. Burawoy explains public sociology as ‘a sociology that seeks to bring sociology to publics beyond the academy, promoting dialogue about issues that affect the fate of society, placing the values to which we adhere under a microscope’ (2004:104).

Burawoy’s assertion of public sociology centralises moral values and sees sociology as ‘mirror and conscience of society’ (2003:1). However, Burawoy’s indications of public sociology have been questioned by some. The interaction between the sociologist and the public he defines criticised as an ‘activist’ vision of public sociology; and more crucially, ‘conscience’ he highlights questioned as infusing moral judgement into public sociology (Hausknecht, 2002). Hausknecht argues that Burawoy’s view of public sociology places sociologist’s as a kind of ideologue who believes his/her own ‘vision of what is best for the rest of us’.

However, Burawoy (2003:2) in his response to Hausknecht, defines his ideas with a strong believe that sociologist can be the conscience of society without ‘privileging certain values’. He stresses the importance of ‘critique’ and interrogation of public values. According to him, remaining silent means supporting the view that ‘public values are private property, leaving moral entrepreneurs, politicians, and other pundits with a monopoly of the interpretation of society’s values’. Instead, he considers ‘expertise and critique’ in ‘a mutually supportive role’ and states that ‘a critical public sociology would mobilise our expertise to reappropriate public values for public discussion’.
Hausknecht’s view does not emphasise value-free position for sociologist yet the discussion between Burawoy and Hausknecht about the public sociology addresses a long-lasting debate about the problem of value commitments that many other theorists involved. Said (1996) and Gouldner (1973) share the idea of the commitment to universal principles. According to Gouldner (1973), sociology should be committed to the truth as well as to justice, peace, and human unity.

However, Hammersley opposes this idea of plurality because according to him one value may prioritise other and ‘political considerations arising from the pursuit of unity must override the concern with truth’ that ‘opens the way for bias’ (1999). Moreover, Hammersley (1999) considers Gouldner’s ideas regarding the role that sociology can play as ‘grand conception’ and concludes his response to Gouldner’s article (1973) by saying that in analysing the social world, the sociologist should freeze her/his ‘commitments to moral and political goals other than truth, in order to maximise our chances of achieving a sound factual and theoretical understanding of the world’. Like Weber (1949), Hammersley also highlights separation of the facts and values for objectivity and support Weber’s idea of value neutrality. Weber (1949) considers value neutrality as the responsibility of sociologist and stresses acknowledging particular values and put behind to avoid personal biases in doing social research.

The problem of value commitment signifies another debate of sociology that reveals the problem of taking a side. Becker concludes this debate by indicating that social scientist ‘cannot avoid taking sides, for reasons firmly based in social structure’ (1967:239), therefore, replace the question with another one; ‘whose side we are on?’. He discusses taking side through the study of deviance that emphasises sympathy with the people studied. Becker speaks of ‘established order’ to explain the relationship between subordinate and superordinate about truth and credibility. According to him, there is an ‘established order’ that ignores the truth of subordinate and a ‘hierarchy of credibility’ that considers the truth of superordinate as most credible. Becker refuses to accept imposed knowledge that ‘everyone knows’ and writes:
“As sociologists, we provoke the charge of bias, in ourselves and others, by refusing to give credence and deference to an established status order, in which knowledge of truth and the right to be heard are not equally distributed. … By refusing to accept the hierarchy of credibility, we express disrespect for the entire established order.” (1967:242)

Gouldner (1968), although finds Becker’s answer to his own question implicit (and considers his expression as ‘a specific standpoint’ for the study rather than being the side of the deviance), shares ‘Becker’s underdog sympathies’. He sees taking the underdog’s standpoint as ‘the intellectual obligation’ of sociologists. However, Gouldner does not give much importance to the lacking power of the underdog; rather underlines suffering as ‘worthy of sympathy’. He speaks of sociology and the reality of suffering and says that suffering of some, as unknown by the public, is ‘a special and important part of reality’ which one of the responsibilities of sociologist ‘to understand and communicate’ (:105).

These ideas about the responsibilities and side of the intellectual endorse Said’s quote that this essay considering. Said declares that he believes doubtlessly, the intellectual should take the side of ‘the weak and unrepresented’ (1996:22). Indeed, the point Becker, Gouldner as well as Said bring forward is a salient reality for sociologist in their journey of producing and applying knowledge to the public issues. It is their commitment to the universal values that lead them to take the side of suffering (Gouldner, 1968), of subordinate or deviance (Becker, 1967) and of weak and unrepresented (Said, 1996).
On the other hand, the sympathy of sociologist for the underdog brings another question forward that what if taking side affects the development of social theories and the application of knowledge of sociology to the public issues? It is obvious that taking side opens a way for accusations about political or practical values biasing their work as some sociologists such as Hammersley argue. However, is it possible for the public intellectual to ignore his/her values and positions affecting the way they explore and discuss social world?

Becker answers to the question of value commitments and states that there is no option for doing social research ‘that is not biased in one or another way’. However, he stresses the importance of scientific standards of techniques and theories to protect the validity of the results from bias. According to him, regardless of the side taken, sociologist should ensure that the methods used in research are sufficient to prove the beliefs she/he sympathetic ‘untrue’. He says that ‘we must always inspect our work carefully enough to know whether our techniques and theories are open enough to allow that possibility’ (1967:246).

Said speaks of the complex interaction of public and private worlds of the intellectual addressed in the debates. The ideas, values and believes intellectual defends originated from their own experiences and positions, however, when published become public. He argues that ‘there is always the personal inflection and the private sensibility, and those give meaning to what is being said or written’ (1996:12). Said points out the vocation of the intellectual ‘for the art of representing’ in talking, writing or teaching that make the ideas publicly recognisable and ‘involves both commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability’ (1996:13). Said speaks of Sartre as an influential intellectual and an activist and says:
“When we read about,-Sartre’s involvement with Simone de Beauvoir, his dispute with Camus, his remarkable association with Jean Genet, we situate him (the word is Sartre’s) in his circumstances; in these circumstances, and to some extent because of them, Sartre was Sartre, the same person who also opposed France in Algeria and Vietnam.” (1996:14)

Indeed, it is not unknown that the majority of sociologists share left-wing/liberal ideas. Therefore, it is also debated how the intellectual makes a balance between her/his political positioning and public duties. Foucault offers a perspective into this through politics and ethics. He says that ‘the role of an intellectual is not to tell others what they have to do’ as well as ‘the work of an intellectual is not to shape others’ political will’. Instead:
“it is; through the analyses that he carries out in his own field’ the role of intellectual is, to question over and over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb people’s mental habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is familiar and accepted, to reexamine rules and institutions and on the basis of this reproblematization (in which he carries out his specific task as an intellectual) to participate in the formation of a political will (in which he has his role as citizen to play)”. (1988:265)

In a similar sense, Said argues that public performances of the intellectual ‘can neither be predicted nor compelled into some slogan, orthodox party line, or fixed dogma’. He suggests that ‘standards of truth about human misery and oppression were to be held to despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primaeval loyalties’ (1996:7). Moreover, he considers representations of the intellectual as ‘activity’ which ‘dependent on a kind of consciousness that is sceptical, engaged, unremittingly devoted to rational investigation and moral judgment; and this puts the individual on record and on the line’ (1996:20).

The questions, as well as answers, are too many; moreover, it will likely be more and more, since social science deal with society and various multi-dimensional forms of human interactions. For me, commitment to universal values broadens the perspective of public intellectual and encourages her/him to be the conscience of society against established orders and dogmas. In this respect, I agree with Said about being on the same side with the weak and unrepresented. As Burawoy says, ‘in times of market tyranny and state despotism, sociology—and in particular its public face—defends the interests of humanity’ (2005:287).

Said, in his lectures, began to discuss representations of intellectual by reminding an essential duty. However, I will place his statement here to conclude this essay; “One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication(Said, 1996:6).

Becker, H. S. (1967). Whose side are we on? Social Problems, 14(3), 239-247. doi:10.2307/799147
Burawoy, M. (2003). Public sociologies: Response to hausknecht. Footnotes: The Newsletter of the American Sociological Association, 31(1)
Burawoy, M., Gamson, W., Ryan, C., Pfohl, S., Vaughan, D., Derber, C., & Schor, J. (2004). Public sociologies: A symposium from boston college. Social Problems, 51(1), 103-130.
Burawoy, M. (2005). 2004 ASA presidential address: For public sociology. American Sociological Review, 70(1), 4-28.
Foucault, M. (1988). Politics, philosophy, culture: Interviews and other writings, 1977-1984 Routledge.
Gans, H. (2002). More of us should become public sociologists. ASA Footnotes, , 8.
Gouldner, A. W. (1968). The sociologist as partisan: Sociology and the welfare state. The American Sociologist, , 103-116.
Gouldner, A. W. (1973). For sociology. American Journal of Sociology, 78(5), 1063-1093.
Gramsci, A. (1971). The prison notebooks: Selections, trans. and ed. quintin hoare and geoffrey nowell smith.
Hammersley, M. (1999). Sociology, what’s it for? A critique of gouldner. Sociological Research Online, 4(3), 20/05/2017. Retrieved from http://www.socresonline.org.uk/4/3/hammersley.html
Hausknecht, M. (2002). Models of public sociology. ASA Footnotes, 30(9), 6.
Said, E. (1996). W. representations of the intellectual: The 1993 reith lectures.
Weber, M. (1949). Max weber on the methodology of the social sciences Free Press.