Dr Martin Luther King: “Public Sociologist Par Excellence”

Dr Martin Luther King Jr was born on the 15th of January 1929. Our American colleagues and others might know that King had a degree in sociology and theology (of course!). As the Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Sociology notes, King remains “a public sociologist par excellence.” In celebration of the passing birthday of this pre-eminent sociologist and progressive activist, I made you this meme with one of my favourite quotes by King. Here, he argues that education is not simply about accumulating knowledge, but rather to develop a sense of morality based upon principles of social justice and then acting upon these values.

As an applied and public sociologist, we can see how Luther’s sociological training influenced his “change management” leadership style, which David Frantz describes as:

building a vision, networking, communicating powerfully, identifying and dealing with differences, creating leverage to motivate people, and conceptualizing alternative strategic paths. (p.157)

If you’re still studying sociology and you wonder what you can do with a sociology degree, think about King as a model for what applied sociologists can achieve outside academia.

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education. - Martin Luther King Jr
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education. – Martin Luther King Jr

A couple of days a go I tweeted about yet another study that shows that social science graduates are the worst-paid science professionals. This is disheartening, especially if you’re still studying, but don’t despair! You don’t have to transform society in major ways, as King did with the civil rights movement in America. You can transform society through applying your knowledge and social justice principles in your daily actions. You can demonstrate these exceptional leadership skills in your work with local communities, in government departments, in not-for-profit organisations and in industry. I’ll return to this topic in the coming weeks, with some more examples of the types of settings and projects in which you might apply these applied sociology leadership skills.


I also tweeted a link to Margarita Moonie’s post on “positive sociology,” which seeks to reorient our discipline’s focus from social inequalities to “human flourishing and the common good.” I wouldn’t advocate that we stop focusing on social inequality, and a few of you agreed in your tweets. Still there is something useful in Moonie’s post, which is to emphasise sociology’s role in positive social transformation. Here I see a link to King’s life’s work, as well as to the writing of another highly respected sociologist from Australia, Stephen Crook. In 2003, Crook argued that sociology students need to hear better stories about the applicability of their degrees to tangible social problems. He writes:

As someone remarked, in a phrase that has stuck in my mind, `We need to tell them better stories.’ Perhaps, sometimes, we do need to tell them–our students–better stories. A diet of unrelieved gloom focused on the evils of class, patriarchy and racism, or the threats posed by environmental crisis and the global economy has a strong appeal to me but not, I think, to most 18-year-old North Queenslanders. Perhaps we need to tell them stories about the skills they can acquire to help them make what they want of their lives, or about the ways their communities can be strengthened, or the types of transnational institutions that might promote ecological sustainability. [My emphasis]

This doesn’t mean stop studying inequalities and focus only on positive topics as Moonie seems to be arguing, but rather to move beyond the “merciless critique” of social problems to also focusing on the practical ways in which inequalities can be addressed. Theologian Alton Pollard notes that towards the end of King’s career (cut short by his assassination), King moved from primarily motivating African Americans to seek out civil rights, to putting out a broader call to action. King directed his leadership to all of society’s poor and oppressed (though Pollard notes that these groups also tend to be predominantly people of colour). King is cited as calling for a broad scale social transformation:

For years I laboured with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.

Public sociology and positive social transformation happen through the dedicated efforts of applied sociologists and other activists who work on little projects in local neighbourhoods, as well as on large scale social movements. We can’t all be Martin Luther King, but we can certainly model our behaviour on his leadership and draw inspiration from his application of social science principles.