Intellectuals and Public Responsibility


The contemporary use of the term “intellectual” can be traced back to the petition signed by French writers, teachers, and students to protest the 1894 arrest of Alfred Dreyfus. The event became known as “the protest of the intellectuals,” with the word “intellectual” used to describe a person who combined learning and public engagement. Arguably the response to the Dreyfus Affair, as a cause célèbre, set a mode of intellectual engagement based around protest. This fits a certain image of the intellectual as challenging the status quo, exposing hypocrisy. But not all intellectuals are as radical as Emile Zola. What might be crucial to intellectual identity is the ability to stand outside the different sides of a debate.  If it is, it must also include standing outside of the interests attached to, and possibly controlling, these debates.  If it is not a particular location in a political conflict, but possibly the ability to bring into view what is at stake in social conflicts, then do intellectuals give their attention to the moral and philosophical depths of public life? But do intellectuals sometimes turn arguments into political conflicts, and thereby turn political conflict into argument, making it a contest of power: a contest of authority judged by ‘experts’. Does this correspond to Gramsci’s development of the concept of ‘cultural hegemony’ to describe a specifically intellectual form of dominance, but one that is distinct, yet ultimately dependent on control of the means of production.[1]

This is largely a paraphrase of David Franz’s (2007) ‘Intellectuals and Public Responsibility’ that gives us an interesting overview of the intellectual: Nietzsche’s “genius,” who “merges with the primal architect of the cosmos”; Thomas Carlyle’s notion of the intellectual as a kind of “hero”; Alexis de Tocqueville’s comparative perspective on democratic intellectuals as agents of disruption or agents of order and, what I will return to later, Marx’s note on Feuerbach, that:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.[2]

But are the entire workings of, and the role of intellectuals within various political systems completely transparent and open.  Pierre Bourdieu wrote extensively about the ‘honor systems’ of esoteric elites and the risks that popularity poses to this elite honor.[3]  Alvin Gouldner argued that a major episode in the emergence of the modern intelligentsia was the changing form of the revolutionary organization which evolved from a ritualistic, oath-bound secret society into the modern “vanguard” party:

When the Communist Manifesto remarks that Communists have nothing to hide, it is exactly a proposed emergence into public life which is implied  The Communist Manifesto was written by Marx and Engels for the “League of Communists,” which was born of the “League of the Just” which, in turn, was descended from the “League of Outlaws”. This latter group of German emigrants in Pans had a pyramidal structure, made a sharp distinction between upper and lower members, blindfolded members during initiation ceremonies, used recognition signs and passwords, and bound members by an oath.[4]

So what League have social scientists swore their allegiance to: the League of Communists, the League of the Just or the League of Outlaws? This will reveal who’s side they are on.  Indeed we still see the pledging of ‘oaths’ with the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ whereby doctors swear to practice medicine ethically by saying:

I swear by Apollo the physician and by Asclepius and Hygieia and Panacea… to bring the following oath to fulfilment… [5]

No such allegiance to ancient Greek Gods is required by social scientists: or is it? Possibly an oath is intended as a replacement for taking sides — one way out of the horns of the dilemma, the introduction of a third category of a higher power, distinct from the two conflicting positions: such as Apollo.  But if I returned to Gouldner: the secularisation of intellectuals is an important feature in their 20th century development — what doctor actually believes in Apollo?  Clearly the allegiance, symbolically at least —although it is thought to have an influence on behavior — serves some similar purpose to answering some aspects of the problem of taking sides that I have posed.

Not ‘taking sides’ also points to an ability or desire related to a person’s perception to remove influence, personal emotions or prejudice and gain accuracy in that perception in an unbiased, independent manner beyond these other inhibiting individual perceptions.  Ultimately this is in tune with a philosophical concept of the actual existence of something, out with reference to certain impressions or ideas.  In the real world, real doctors have to make compromises and have mixed abilities and resources that complicate the choices they can make and thus determine who’s ‘side’ they we can say they are on.  The same problem is faced by applying social science ideas to real society and its subsequent unexpected (and possibly unwanted) outcomes and consequences.  There is a difference between a social scientist philosophically believing something and the challenges faced by applying these beliefs: the applied social sciences as such will develop more rapidly under some conditions than others.  If I were to ask what theoretic and conceptual tools are vital to their work: would not taking sides be top of the list of replies?  For Gouldner:

Unlike pure science, the applied social sciences are not oriented solely to values intrinsic to science—such as increased information, objectivity, prediction, parsimony, replication, and the like. Applied social science is characterized by an orientation to the values of laymen, as well as of scientists. These lay values, extrinsic to science as such, are regarded by the applied social scientist as legitimate points of orientation for his professional and scientific work.[6]

Via Gouldner these can be summarised as:

1. The reduction of various forms of social deviancy, as exemplified in efforts to rehabilitate criminals or juvenile delinquents.

2. Improvement of the efficiency or effectiveness with which diverse lay goals are pursued, as exemplified in the work of some industrial sociologists or applied anthropologists,

3. The reduction of tensions or conflict such as the work of some race relations specialists,

4. The reduction of tensions that a group experiences in relation to its “environment,” such as those found in personnel testing, market research, and public relations surveys.

Thus we are constrained to include among our dependent variables certain ‘social problems;’ the social scientist is ultimately concerned with identifying those independent variables which can not only account for, but which can, using the medical metaphor remedy, these “social problems” but who has s/he sworn allegiance to?  Gouldner offers us a creed (near enough to an oath) as such, regarded by the applied social scientist as legitimate points of orientation for professional and scientific work and it also makes Marx’s observation on philosophers’ interpretation of the world and a new desire to change it.  For Gouldner: “This would seem to be the tacit creed of applied scientists everywhere.”  He delineates two sub-models of its social system, the “clinical” and the “engineering,” but also introduces the ‘Promethean’ in Marx to challenge the doctor’s god.  Indeed Gouldner describes Marx in somewhat medical terms: Marx’s task with the proletariat, was “an effort to reduce their suffering,” as his “diagnosis” was that their increasing misery and alienation engendered endemic class struggle; his “prognosis claimed that this would culminate in revolution; his “therapeutic prescription” was class consciousness and active struggle.[7]

The social scientist is confronting questions for which laymen (politicians) often believe they have answers. Gouldner’s concerns in his debate with Howard Becker were with the acceptance and rejection of the dominance of a value-free doctrine in social science.  Gouldner, presents this as a false dichotomy and takes issue with Becker’s statement that sociology has to chose between the standpoint of subordinates or superordinates, typified by the ‘Chicago School’s’ work on social deviance.

Gouldner finds that Becker actually avoids the issue and that the standpoint they take speaks for rather than truly studies its subject.  Gouldner argues that although Becker’s subject was ‘deviants’ his later work became focused on rule-makers and rule-enforcers who manage deviancy as a social interaction, whereas the subject should be studied from the standpoint of the subject’s conceptions of reality.  Gouldner argues that Becker looks at the rule-makers and looks from the rule-maker’s standpoint.  Gouldner concludes that Becker would answer the question of ‘who’s side are you on’, with the reply ‘whoever is being studied at a given time,’ and that Becker’s ability to identify with social outcasts conflicts with the sociologist’s professional interests.  For Gouldner sociology should be instrumental to the furtherance of human emancipation and embody the “ancient human aspiration for self-knowledge.  If that is not a high calling, then none is.”[8]

Objectivity can be taken mean that a researcher has described their procedures explicitly enough that others following the same procedures will come to the same conclusion. What Gouldner decried as mere ‘technical routinisation’ of the codification and explication of the research procedures: it simply instructs us  to justify that an assertion is objective: we are left with little concerning what objectivity actually means as a concept, i.e. what its connotations.  Are only those findings which can be replicated to be considered to be objective?  Gouldner suggests the possibility that by using this standard any limited empirical generalisation can be held to be objective “however narrow, partial, or biased and prejudiced its net impact is, by reason of its selectivity.”

…the modern conception of an objective social science was born with early nineteenth century Positivism.  This set itself the task of creating both an objective social science and a new religion of humanity, each informing the other and aimed at reuniting society.[9]

The openly religious impulse he finds projected onto the Social Scientist is one where ‘the realm of the objectivity is the realm of the sacred’.  So it fulfils the quasi-religious function of an oath or creed, essentially based on Positivism’s attempt (as a science) to replace Christianity as a determining factor of the social order.


If I were to set out the difficulties of answering this objectivity question we could start by observing that if what we mean here by ‘taking sides’ is the selection of evidence to the exclusion of countervailing evidence that would definitely lead to different conclusions, then there is not much in the way of debate to be had: the answer would be ‘yes’.  If we have in mind a sense of balance that means that the middle ground between two opposing viewpoints is privileged as the best possible outcome then there is little debate to be had either.  (I am reminded of C. Wright Mills’ observation that balance was often the mid-point between two platitudes). If social research can be proved to be unconsciously one-sided, then again the answer is yes, but with this particular problem, a difficulty arises as to when and if this occurs.  If it happens in the underlying assumptions and value judgements, that their one-sidedness has gone un-recognised in the work, but still impinges on the analysis, then clearly this is also a compromise.  Strictly speaking, for a work to be solely focussed on not being one sided, and this is taken as proof of objectivity, then this too is one-sided.

Taking sides suggest a clear polarisation of debate where one may not exist and an active stance on the part of the side-taker where one may not exist.  People take sides and have them ascribed to them in a debate and regret it later: ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ is not always good reasoning, it tends to be contingent: the Nazi/Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 being a case in point.  In 1950s America, and beyond, it was a common tactic to refute an argument by saying it was on the side of the Communists or if we go back further, the Devil.  We also have the concept of the two sides being manipulated or constructed by a third party (possibly remaining hidden):  the ‘Cold War’ period from which the Gouldner/Becker debate emerges was one of double agents, agent provocateurs, front groups and factionalism.  As we move into the 1960s this was also a period of division and conflict: the generation gap, the Vietnam war, student radicalism, the Women’s movement and the Civil rights movement, all of which called into question conventional wisdom on side-taking.  These were divisive issues and influenced the notion of social conflict as an important factor in understanding and interpreting society.  If there is no conflict in society then there is no need to take sides.

If taking sides means choosing in terms of choosing one idea at the expense of another, with subsequent significant measurable consequences, then no one can escape this process, it is an integral part of aesthetic choice: it may well define it.  Taking a side may mean a researcher was forever labelled a such-and-such type of person by other, who themselves forever hold to an overly rigorous group belief or dogma in this respect and themselves proceed to merely illustrate phenomena via these ideas, then no matter how artful these ideas are on either side, there is still a problem with objectivity, because we may never know who to believe.  Many a famous scientists dies without witnessing the vindicated of their ideas.  And what if our researcher is on the side of reason: are they fatally compromised?  Who judges this.

Sociologists may have become adept at turning ‘fatal compromise’ into a money spinning venture — this was the charge Gouldner levelled in his (1970) ‘The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology,’ and we could see something similar in Anthony Giddens closeness to the Blair Government and the ‘third way’.  Much research is funded by large business interests: the science here has been notoriously one-sided, such as the tobacco industry’s defense of its product.  So the perception of a fatal compromise could also be the result of a one-sided assessment — there is no reason to suppose that both sides of the argument have equal power and influence in terms of the reception or even the information gathering side of a research project.  Gouldner’s critique of Becker was that he was speaking for his subject.  Now it might be that a social researcher is employed or called upon to do just this (it was not in Becker’s case) to defend a certain point of view as an ‘expert witness’ in a trial or by commitment or employment to an advocacy group to contribute to their work.  We must say that people are allowed their political convictions and that, if openly acknowledged, our judgement of their compromise might be different.  It would appear that ideas need to be attached to interests for them to prevail, flourish and become widespread — what of the ivory tower purist who has never compromised?

But what is a fatal compromise — what dies here?  Is it integrity, authenticity, are we saying that a fatal compromise is simply one leading to failure or disaster.  All of our definitions seem predicated on our researcher being caught out in some way: as with Laud Humphreys’ (1970) ‘Tea Room Trade,’ and Gouldner himself.[10] A fatal compromise must be a judgement of some sort: but it implies tolerated levels of compromise and some sort of cut-off point.  So if one-sidedness is semi-allowed and compromise seen as an exchange (possibly necessary exchange) this makes such an absolute definition problematic — indeed: what if both sides accuse the social researcher of one-sidedness?  Is that unanimous proof?

For Gouldner a commitment made on the basis of an unexamined ideology might allow us to feel righteous, but he felt it left us blind and that “Sociology begins by disenchanting the world and it proceeds by disenchanting itself.” [11]

I will close by observing that this dates back to Aristotle and his writing ‘On Interpretation,’ on the relationship between language and logic, possibly too it wanders into the domain of discourse analysis.  Can such analysis tell us whether someone is being objective? Possibly this is too much of a claim, but discourse analysis can be used to help us in the process of understanding art, behaviour, patterns of speech and so on.  It represents an effort to understand the basis of meaning: how people’s outer actions can be used to explore inner meanings. It can aid our research and writing in terms of how: (a) It can make us think about how we establish connections and how our understanding (and that of who we write about) is conditioned — it can help us think about how this has an effect on our understanding’s relationship to the truth. (b) It highlights how those who influence our thought, interpenetrate in our aprehension of linguistic and non-linguistic meaning and its relation to objective reality — it can highlight the social nature of meaning and thought. (c) It tries to develop a critical social theory and build a critique of ideology.


[1] Franz, David (2007) ‘Intellectuals and Public Responsibility,’ The Bibliographic Review, Spring,

[2] ibid.

[3] Bourdieu, Pierre (1988) ‘Homo Academicus,’ Trans. Peter Collier, Stanford University Press, examined how French academics and intellectuals negotiated the tensions between elite prestige and popular influence during the 1968 Paris protests.

[4] Gouldner, Alvin W. (1978) ‘The New Class Project, I,’ p. 156, Theory and Society, Vol. 6, No. 2, September.

[5] Sokol, Daniel (2008) ‘A guide to the Hippocratic Oath,’, Sokal, a medical ethicist, also states that the next part seemingly concerns physician-assisted suicide, saying: “And I will not give a drug that is deadly to anyone if asked, nor will I suggest the way to such a counsel.” He adds that two leading scholars of the Oath, Littre and Miles, have suggested that this passage alludes to the then common practice of using doctors as skilled political assassins.  The full oath can be found at:

[6] Gouldner, Alvin W. (1957) ‘Theoretical Requirements of the Applied Social Sciences,’ American Sociological Review, p. 93, Vol. 22, No. 1, February.

[7] Gouldner, Alvin W. (1957) ‘Theoretical Requirements of the Applied Social Sciences,’ American Sociological Review, p. 93, Vol. 22, No. 1, February.

[8] Gouldner, Alvin W. (1973) ‘For Sociology: Renewal and Critique in Sociology Today,’ New York, Basic Books 1973.

[9] Gouldner, Alvin W. (1967) ‘The Sociologist as Partisan: Sociology and the Welfare State,’ The American Sociologist.

[10] McLemee, Scott (2007) ‘Wide-Stance Sociology,’ Inside Higher Ed, September 12,

[11] Gouldner, Alvin W. (1968) ‘The Sociologist as Partisan: Sociology and the Welfare State,’ p. 103 and 105, The American Sociologist, Vol. 3, No. 2, May.

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