Michael Burawoy on Sociology and the Workplace

Originally published on Social Science Space April 2016

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Michael Burawoy

Michael Burawoy – the subject of the latest Social Science Bites podcast — is a practitioner of what we might call ‘extreme ethnography.’ Since earning his first degree — in mathematics — from Cambridge University in 1968, his CV has been studded with academic postings but also jobs in manufacturing, often with a blue collar cast, around the world. Copper mining in Zambia. Running a machine on the factory floor in South Chicago – and in northern Hungary. Making rubber in Yeltsin-era Russia.  All with an eye — a pragmatic Marxist sociologist’s eye — on the attitudes and behaviors of workers and the foibles and victories of different ideologies and resented as extended case studies.

Decades later he’s still at it, albeit the shop floor is changed: “No longer able to work in factories,” reads his webpage at the University of California, Berkeley, “he turned to the study of his own workplace – the university – to consider the way sociology itself is produced and then disseminated to diverse publics.”

In the podcast posted at Social Science Space, Burawoy tells interviewer Dave Edmonds about his various factory experiences, and some of the specific lessons he learned and the broader points — often unexpected — that emerged from the synthesis of his experiences. “I am definitely going with a Marxist perspective and it definitely affects what I look for,” he says. “But it doesn’t necessarily affect what I actually see.”

He also goes in as a “sociological chauvinist” who nonetheless draws from whatever discipline necessary to get the job done. “I was trained as an anthropologist as well as a sociologist, [and] I’ve always been committed to the ethnographic approach to doing research. Studying other people in their space and their time, I am quite open to drawing on different disciplines. I do this regularly whether it be anthropology, whether it’s human geography, whether it’s economics.”

Burawoy has been on the faculty at Cal since 1976, twice serving as sociology department chair over the years. He was president of the American Sociological Association in 2004 (where he made an explicit push “For Public Sociology” in his presidential address), and of the International Sociological Association from 2010-2014. He’s written a number of books and articles on issues ranging from methodology to Marxism, with some of his stand-out volumes 1972’s The Colour of Class on the Copper Mines: From African Advancement to Zambianization, 1979’s Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, and 1985’s The Politics of Production: Factory Regimes Under Capitalism and Socialism. In 2013 his paper, “The Roots of Domination: Beyond Bourdieu and Gramsci,” won the SAGE Prize for Innovation and /or Excellence for the journal Sociology.

To hear the podcast, or to read or download the transcript, visit Social Science Space HERE.

Social Science Bites is made in association with SAGE Publishing. For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE.

 

     
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