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Shared Space, Complementary Roles

As codirectors, the two of us have carved out distinct if complementary roles at MRAP, and our experiences hint at the range of public sociology engagement. One of us, Gamson, has been a kind of vicarious public sociologist, with the other, Ryan, doing the public sociology as what Burawoy (echoing Antonio Gramsci) calls the organic intellectual. She has been the creative force behind the numerous collaborations with grassroots community groups on using the mass media to achieve a more just society. Gamson has had the privilege of being able to go along for the ride, watching and bringing into the discussion some insights and techniques from professional sociology and using his standing in the profession as a past president of the American Sociological Association to open doors in the university.

Rather than being an advocate, Gamson sees himself as a potential resource for those groups who share the values and preferred framing of the social and political issues that interest him. Being a resource here means doing first-rate professional sociology. One owes this to one’s partners—the advocates who are attempting to create a more just world. They need to be able to assess with some accuracy the nature of the opportunities and constraints they face, the weaknesses and strengths of their adversaries, the dynamics of the contest in which they are engaged, and their own internal problems in carrying out their mission. The sociologist in this partnership has a responsibility to help the advocate partners to be objective in the following sense: separating their desires that the world ought to be a certain way from a tough-minded assessment, based on the best available evidence, of whether it actually is that way.

Ryan’s involvement with MRAP grew out of a desire to reflect on years of organizing in union, community, and international settings. The tough- minded assessment of existing conditions is essential but not sufficient to guide movement strategies. To craft strategy, movements also need to assess themselves in light of those conditions, to tap wisdom from other movements, and to establish routines that support self-reflection, strategic positioning, and knowledge production. Our activist partners came to appreciate our combined skills, the whole of MRAP being far more useful than any single person or element.

 
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