Six Sociologies

By Graham Scambler

Sociologists will be familiar with Michael Burawoy’s ‘four sociologies’, namely, professional, policy, critical and public. Professional sociology encompasses the bread-and-and butter tasks of the discipline, asking and endeavouring to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about social phenomena of interest. Policy sociology aspires to support the formulation and implementation of policy across such domains as education, jobs, welfare and health by constructing usable evidence bases. Critical sociology demonstrates a reflexive concern with the discipline’s modus vivendi. And public sociology, Burawoy’s favoured project, seeks to inform and stimulate engagement and discussion in civil society and the public sphere.

I have previously suggested that professional sociology might be said to be represented by the scholar; policy sociology by the reformer; critical sociology by the radical; and public sociology by the democrat. Furthermore, each sociology/sociologist might be associated with a distinctive mode of discursive engagement. Thus, the scholar’s mode of engagement via professional sociology might be characterized as cumulative, the aim being to furnish an ever more comprehensive narrative of social order and social change. The reformer’s mode of engagement via policy sociology is cast here as utilitarian, the object in this case being to improve the way things are organized and accomplished with the interests of greatest number in mind. The radical’s mode of engagement via critical sociology is meta-theoretical, a form of sociology oriented to reflexivity and self-interrogation. The democrat’s mode of engagement via public sociology is communicative, the aim here being to insinuate sociology’s project and accounts into the public sphere to provoke rational discussion, debate and decision-making.

It is the purpose of this short blog to introduce two further types of sociology to add to Burawoy’s four. There are ‘foresight sociology’ and ‘action sociology’. Foresight sociology is committed to exploring institutional and organizational alternatives. How might greener technologies be most effectively deployed? What is the best model for a fit-for-purpose housing programme? What might a better health service look like? Action sociology follows up on public sociology, contesting ideological opposition to evidence-based conclusions and recommendations. I have suggested that it is the visionary who pursues foresight sociology, deploying a communicative mode of engagement; and that it is the activist who fights sociology’s battles under the rubric of a strategic mode of engagement. These ideal types – and remember that this is what they are – are outlined in the Table.

Table: The Six Sociologies

Professional Scholar Cumulative
Policy Reformer Utilitarian
Critical Radical Meta-theoretical
Public Democrat Communicative
Foresight Visionary Speculative
Action Activist Strategic

I have offered an important qualification in addition to stressing the ideal typical status of these concepts. I am certainly not recommending that all sociologists contribute to each of these six sociologies. What I am arguing is that the sociological community as a whole should cover all six bases.

 In a published piece on the sociology of health inequalities I gave examples of key questions that might be posed of each type of sociology. Thus:

  1. Professional sociology/scholar: which social structures or mechanisms are causally critical for health and longevity through each phase of the lifecourse?
  2. Policy sociology/reformer: how might evidence-based research on health inequalities most effectively be translated into telling interventions?
  3. Critical sociology/radical: what obstacles indicative of relations of power contaminate/neutralize sociology’s comprehensive array of contributions to research on health inequalities and its dissemination and impact?
  4. Public sociology/democrat: what kind of routes and media offer the best prospects of participatory engagement via the protest sector of the public sphere in decision-making pertaining to health inequalities?
  5. Foresight sociology/visionary: how might different types of organizational and/or institutional change deliver a more equal distribution of health and longevity?
  6. Action sociology/activist: how might sociologists best resist being ‘rubbished’, ignored or side-lined on health inequalities by those with a vested interest in a status quo conducive to their widening or deepening?



Burawoy,M (2005) For public sociology. American Sociological Review 70 4-28.

Scambler,G (2015) Theorizing health inequalities: the untapped potential of dialectical critical realism. Social Theory and Health 3/4 340-354.



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