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The Structural Transformation of Sociology


The advent of public sociology over the past decade represents the end of a string of crisis moments in sociology. Since the 1950s and, especially, the 1960s, sociology was argued to be in a crisis because the discipline was thought to be conservative and contributing to sustain the status quo. As a result, the 1970s witnessed a radicalization of sociology, but the 1980s saw a general decline of sociology. Upon a resurgence during the 1990s, the crisis advocates have come back with a vengeance in the form of a renewed commitment to a heavily politicized sociology under the heading of public sociology, a perspective that is now thoroughly institutionalized and widely embraced. In sociology, the effects of the 1960s thus began to be felt in earnest some 40 years late.

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  1. Article II of the ASA constitution reads: “The objectives of the Association shall be to stimulate and improve research, instruction, and discussion, and to encourage cooperative relations among persons engaged in the scientific study of society.”

  2. After 2004, several sociology departments spontaneously began to self-identify as having a special interest or concentration in public sociology. Examples include departments at George Mason University, Ithaca College, Florida Atlantic University, American University, and UC-Berkeley (Deflem 2005). Based on an online search, the number of departments explicitly espousing a public sociology agenda has in recent years increased manifold and now also includes Missouri State University, Syracuse University, Saint Louis University, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Salem State University, Humboldt State University, and Baker University, among others (Google search, October 30, 2012).

  3. When my course “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame” at the University of South Carolina was first announced late October 2010, it became the number-one Lady Gaga news story in the world, with multiple thousands of news reports and commentaries appearing on the internet, in print, and on radio and television. Sadly indicative of the public perception of sociology but ironically also confirming the societal relevance of fame and celebrity, the course objectives were routinely misunderstood, not only by the sensationalist entertainment media, but also by certain conservative outlets, where the course was misinterpreted as part of a non-academic trend in higher education (e.g., Allen 2011) when the exact opposite was true (Deflem 2012). In organized sociology, the situation was even more troublesome. The ASA newsletter Footnotes published two notices about the course (mentioning only three media sources) despite the fact that I was no longer a member of the Association and had not given permission for the notices to be published. Public sociologists even claim what is not theirs.

  4. An article in the American Sociological Review (Volschoa and Kelly 2012) was recently received on a blog to imply that sociologists had declared that Republicans would be bad for America (Science Codex 2012). Even more interestingly, in the comment section, somebody remarked that “anthropologists” should not write such work, especially not just before a national election, to which another commentator remarked: “If only they were anthropologists, then it would just be 90 % non-scientific. Since this was a sociologist and a political scientist this was instead 100 % made up.”

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Correspondence to Mathieu Deflem.

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Deflem, M. The Structural Transformation of Sociology. Soc 50, 156–166 (2013).

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  • Sociology
  • Public sociology
  • Sociological profession
  • Radical sociology
  • Higher education