What is our role in social justice as applied sociologists? In this great debate from 1971, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky disagree about the fundamental qualities of “human nature” and the key task of social science in helping humanity achieve its collective potential. Chomsky believes that the social sciences should draw up a framework for an ideal society where creativity, freedom and scientific discovery will flourish. He sees it is our task to help to put this plan into action.
Foucault argues that there is no ideal concept of social justice that can be universally applied. Instead, he sees that social scientists are tasked with critiquing social institutions and relations of power in different societies.
Interestingly, Foucault’s perspective reflects academic sociology (with an emphasis on critique of social institutions), while Chomsky’s argument is closer to applied sociology! Applied sociologists work with policy and community organisations to affect justice organisations and practices.
…one of the tasks that seems immediate and urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: that we should indicate and show up, even where they are hidden, all the relationships of political power which actually control the social body and oppress or repress it. What I want to say is this: it is the custom, at least in European society, to consider that power is localised in the hands of the government and that it is exercised through a certain number of particular institutions, such as the administration, the police, the army, and the apparatus of the state…. But I believe that political power also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not.
One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. Institutions of knowledge, of foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.
It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.