In the ocean-fed air and mild August sunshine of America's most beautiful city, optimism flows easy. But the real mood-lift these past few days was in the windowless conference rooms of two downtown mega-hotels. More than 5,000 American sociologists, plus a few foreign scholars, held their largest and, many said, most vibrant annual convention for years.
Bush and Kerry were campaigning through nearby states. Their soundbites were rarely mentioned, but the lack of serious debate is one reason for US sociology's new political engagement after decades of quiet since the 60s.
The profession's center of gravity is moving left. There is a drive to inject ethical standards into the analysis of what most agree is a US society becoming increasingly polarized beneath its veneer of shared consumerism.
Above all, sociologists are starting to challenge the intellectual stranglehold of American economists who have managed to get the neo-liberal model of competitive individualism and corporate globalization to dominate public discourse and policy-making for the past 20 years.
Words like "empire" and "inequality" popped up frequently at this conference after their post-Vietnam war dormancy. New phrases like "the corporate state" and "global apartheid" appeared.
Half the world's PhDs in sociology are taken at American universities. The US has 13,000 career sociologists, a potential for extraordinary intellectual hegemony. They flexed their muscles last year, becoming the only US professional association to oppose the invasion of Iraq. A few unions denounced the war and even the normally conservative trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, passed a mildly worded vote of criticism. But with the exception of the sociologists, America's professions were coy about raising their collective voice.
It was no accident that this year's conference theme was "public sociologies". It was chosen by the American Sociological Association's president, Michael Burawoy, a modest Mancunian ethnographer and sociologist who emigrated in the 70s. He distinguishes public sociology from professional sociology, which he describes as work aimed primarily for academic journals and peer review - "solving puzzles". It also differs from policy sociology, which is "solving problems" for mainly government or business.
Public sociology, by contrast, is a conversation with society about values. Burawoy is careful to argue that it does not have a single orientation since a third of the sociologists who voted rejected the anti-war motion. He also insists that the three types - professional, policy and public - are inter-dependent. Without rigorous scholarly standards no public sociology will be taken seriously.
Most controversially, Burawoy wants to "provincialize" American sociology. This may sound odd since US intellectual life has long been scarred by insularity. Burawoy means his slogan provocatively. The famous "end of history" claim that US liberal democracy and market capitalism were the only models left was a sign, in his view, that many Americans were trying to universalize the particular. They should realize their culture is not always preferred else where. To make the point, he invited high-profile foreigners like Arundhati Roy, the anti-globalization campaigner, and Mary Robinson, a former UN human rights commissioner.
Sociologists' relations with the state vary in time and place. The South Africans and east Europeans present were ex-dissidents who described how the advent of democratic and legitimate governments in their countries had brought new problems. Debate narrowed, intellectuals were less in demand and disappointment with rising social inequality and the new governments' economic policies was leading to public apathy.
Jacklyn Cock, author of a path-breaking exposure of the plight of domestic workers in South Africa, called on sociologists to stand in solidarity with the new social movements. But she warned against romanticizing civil society in the struggle against globalization's injustices. "The real issue of our time is how to reinvent the state," she said.
Her point applies with greatest force in the US. Behind the rhetoric of small government, the US has created a monster state where political, economic and media power is dominated by corporations. America's political scientists ought to be taking the leading role in analyzing this distortion of democracy but, according to their sociology rivals, their profession is in a conservative phase. It churns out graduates for the foreign service rather than critics who want to reform the system. Sociologists have to move alone.
Four days in California are not going to change the world. But it was hard not to feel that something big is stirring in US academic life. The dominance of Reaganomics is under serious intellectual challenge. Clinton's third way is rejected as neoliberalism in a different guise - welfare-cutting, support for the out-sourcing of US jobs and unfair "free" trade.
The foreign subjects of America's global empire have been restless for years. Now some of the sharpest minds are raising questions. Even if John Kerry wins control of the White House, the rebellion is unlikely to stop.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004