Karl von Holdt

Biography

Associate Prof Karl von Holdt is Director of the Society Work and
Development Institute at Wits University. He has been involved with the
trade union movement for over two decades, most notably as editor of the
South African Labour Bulletin and as co-ordinator of COSATU’s September
Commission on the Future of the Unions, and as a senior researcher at
COSATU’s policy Institute, NALEDI.

Karl von Holdt was a member of the Board of the SA Post Office (1997-2003)
and has worked on hospital transformation at Chris Hani Baragwanath
Hospital. He is the author of Transition from Below: Forging Trade
Unionism and Workplace Change in South Africa (UKZN Press, 2003),
co-author of Conversations with Bourdieu: The Johannesburg Moment (with
Michael Burawoy, forthcoming) and co-edited (with Eddie Webster) Beyond
the apartheid workplace: studies in transition (UKZN Press 2005). Current
research focuses include social cohesion, social fragmentation, health
systems, collective violence, and the state.

Readings

Read “Transforming Hospital Functioning in Johannesburg,” then join the discussion on Facebook!

See below for the full lecture and global discussion!

von Holdt & UC Berkeley

Discussion Summaries and Comments

Facebook Comments on Lecture Video:

Michael Burawoy (UC Berkeley): Dear Michael

Of course sociological practice in the four (or three) different sites has different dynamics, different pressures, different languages, and exploring the hospital case should allow me to reflect on these different dynamics, which I think it is really important to do, and interesting, but a task which I have barely begun; however, this particular way of slicing sociology up makes it difficult to talk about power and critique – which is why talking about “public sociology” seems to lack the spice of contestation and struggle. The one place in this schema where there is critique is the relation between critical sociology and professional sociology, but what about the other sites, public and policy? Public sociology and policy sociology, it seems to me, are necessarily partisan in some sense, even if it is a different kind of partisanship to that of the tied intellectual (for example a union intellectual). I think there may be a coherence to this partisanship across different sites of sociological practice, each understood as a field of power, but each also linked (as we have argued they have to be!) by an interconnected structure of power. When I have to manage a R5 million contract I’m certainly subject to different constraints and pressures then when I am marching to demand action, and in each there will be a different way of negotiating power, but they are also projects which can mutually reinforce each other in a process of critical engagement. Thus antagonistic interdependence, which gives rise to paradoxes and contradictions, as well as synergies, of engaging in a contestation across three different modes of sociology – that’s what I would like to think through more systematically. That’s also why I find attractive the idea that critical sociology is one way of engaging in the terrain of professional sociology – I’m not sure that it can be different from professional sociology in the same way that public sociology differs from professional sociology…

Certainly no one would self-describe their sociology as reactionary, and I would not seriously propose using that term. But surely there is a sociology that sees the invasion of Iraq as necessary, that supports modernisation in Colombia through mining indigenous land, or that supports strategic hamlets in a struggle against the naxalites (just as there was a sociology that supported apartheid)? – And if so that differs substantially from our sociology. How do we capture that distinction? Or perhaps the distinction is a more banal one, between a critical sociology and a mainstream sociology that is more or less comfortable with the status quo to which it adapts itself… In which case, following my inclinations, I would say there is a contestation between critical sociology and mainstream sociology in the field of professional sociology.

To sum up, the distinction between public, policy and professional
sociology is a real one, and should be rigourously investigated. But, at least as important, how does one characterise contestation within each, and how does one conceptualise and explore the significance of a single project that ranges across them, whose name could be critical engagement or critical sociology? You’ve begun that task by analysing the disjunction between Bourdieu the public sociologist and Bourdieu the professional sociologist…

Cheers!
Karl
—————————

Dear Karl,Yes, of course when one engages in public sociology then one brings sociology to the table otherwise it is, as you say say, just activism. See the contrasting seminars with Castells and Bello. See also Soler and Flecha on their dialogic method. Still I think your “critical engagement” is the perspective of the subject — you Karl VH undertaking a projectseeing it in holistic terms — but the sociological perspective on your work recognizes different dynamics in the 4 types of knowledge and their antagonistic interdependence. It is the difference between folk theory and analytical theory. No matter how we conceptualise what you do — it was fascinating in its detail! Best, Michael.

PS> Equally I think the distinction between progressive and reactionary sociology is untenable. Nearly everyone makes sustainable claims that they are progressive. Who would you say is a reactionary sociologist in South Africa today? Or is it that all northern sociology is reactionary, and Southern sociology progresssive? I think the fields of sociology can’t be divided into good and bad. There was a very famous debate on this matter between Becker and Gouldner which you might want to read. Ah well, that’s a much longer discussion.

Ryan Matthew Kwock (UC Berkeley): Thank you, Dr. von Holdt for sharing your research experience; I really enjoyed hearing and learning from them.
I agree with your idea that power and critique are fundamentally embedded within Burawoy’s four spheres of sociology, and I am very interested with your outlook on these spheres, pairing critical with professional and public with policy. Even with your policy background working with the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, your move into professional and critical sociology along with your above comment seems to render public sociology and policy sociology as ineffective and invalid because of their ties to partisanship and power relations. I find that public sociology cannot be tied so strongly with the commonly associated problems of policy sociology. Even if policy sociology is affected by partisanship and power, public sociology exactly aims to disseminate this power (whether it be from the client or from academia) and engage with a public to break the ties of partisanship and empower through their heard voices.
This, though, may be a lofty ideal, and thus I understand your speculation. We have questioned many of the sociologists involved in this course how/can they actually bringing their research and knowledge to their publics, if it affects their publics, and if the publics even care. Even with these problems, I can only envision a solution that pushes the ideal of a public sociology more, versus just associating its downfall with the problems of a policy-led sociology. Problems of power and critique can only be triumphed with the dissemination of this power and the openness of this critique.
Ultimately, I think you hit upon a very important point that has been a reoccurring theme in our course: tension. Garavito’s sociological windmill self-destructs when we are too burdened with these tensions, but we cannot turn away from Burawoy’s four sociologies, for their interdependence and ability to work together are necessary in times of change.

Wits Sociologists (Johannesburg): Response from Karl von Holdt:

Dear Ryan – thanks for reflecting so deeply on the comments I made during my talk. It is crucial to consider questions of power in relation to different sociological practices. That is exactly why I want to argue that public sociology is necessarily a partisan sociology – this is because the public arena is an arena of contestation between different interests and different powers, and public sociology is an attempt to intervene in this arena. Such intervention requires a choice about whose interests are to be served – those who dominate, or those who are dominated? It is pretty much an assumption underlying all our discussions of public sociology that it should ally itself with the cause of the dominated or oppressed, and this means that it is partisan. This is something it should be proud of, rather than embarrassed about. Thus, for me, public sociology is no less partisan than policy sociology. It is also why I argue that critical sociology is partisan, though in a more abstract and theoretical way, in that it attempts to approach the problems posed by professional sociology from the perspective of the subaltern.


Barcelona (April 19, 2012):

Contribution session 7: Karl von Holdt
Transforming the South African State

Karl von Holdt spoke about a project to transform a hospital, achieving social justice through transition from below. Some of the policies implemented were decentralization of control, affirmative action, public health. Those changes were a positive transformation even the initial and later resistances in front of them. The role of sociology in that case was crucial. Transformation included everybody, all social actors, from cleaners to nurses; a similar situation we could appreciate in the lecture by Marta Soler and Ramon Flecha. Von Holdt also explained the process of hospital’s change and highlighted the assemblies made by very diverse people. In addition, the research team was made by people with different background and economic level.

Public sociology is involved in breaking down the hierarchical structure in the area of health, through the inclusion of the different voices. Health has a very important social dimension due to its impact on people’s lives, and also on the gender, class and ethnicity dimension. For instance in Spain the life expectancy of the Roma women is 54 years old, much lower than the rest of Spanish women (84). In front of that, how could we incorporate the demand and the elements that help eliminate racial differences, especially within the crisis context, where these differences are increasing? Of course, this is a challenge, but what about the resistances? In order to change a system, we should take into account the resistances of the own system. The solution which von Holdt gives consists of working together with people who have a low background level. Thus, the power to win the bureaucracy is stronger. In this speech, policy sociology has an important role, because of the necessity to do a change at the institutional level, in order to achieve both efficiency and equity. Sociology is useful to transform institutions, even if there are difficulties, the change can be done.

Furthermore, we highlighted how important is the social research in the field of health in order to reduce these social differences. Researchers such as Rima Ruth, from the Harvard School of Public Health, are finding evidences which demonstrate the influence of class, gender, racial, economical and ethnicity discrimination on health. For instance, she found doctors who used a technical language with people with low socioeconomic background and a colloquial easier code with academics. Health literacy research can contribute key elements to promote access to health to everybody and in conjunction with public sociologists. The public sociology of von Holdt on possibilities and unveiling resistances to hospital change opens up an avenue that health researchers could also take and, in the end, achieve better conditions for the people.

Ryan Matthew Kwock (UC Berkeley)Hello Ana! I couldn’t agree with you more about the element of resistance within the system preventing actual change and progress to social institutions, such as health. Indeed, Prof. von Holdt attributes the downfall of his transformation project because of internalized racism that is apparent throughout the entire South African medical system. The project’s goal to replace white elites with black elites failed as racialization caused white clinicians to prevail over the black administration. This seems to be an inherent socialized, racial problem that occurs because of unequal access (e.g. to education, wages…etc). Therefore, it would appear that the only way for this project’s goal to succeed is to change the entire surrounding social system – an optimistic yet challenging endeavor. On another note, it is interesting how you bring up the importance of policy work in bringing about this change. I would agree that the policy realm is the route to enacting actual, practical change, but going back to Prof. von Holdt’s seminar, he seems to be focused elsewhere. He realizes the tension in working the political realm (i.e. serving a client). Currently, he seems to gravitate towards the professional and critical realms, so as “not to change the world but to understand it.” Disheartened by the bureaucracy of the policy arena, he seems to rely on the critical eye during times in need of change. Thus, we must ask ourselves, where do we think Prof. von Holdt lies in terms of Prof. Burawoy’s 2×2 box? Is he policy or professional oriented? Better yet, does Prof. von Holdt even subscribe to the dimensions of this box?

Ray Abád (UC Berkeley): Ana, I also thought that your summary was a thought-provoking response to Von Holdt’s lecture, As Ryan brought up, the situation as it exists in South Africa is a unique one in which a history of institutionalized racism which has left many persistent remnants that have led to gross inequalities throughout the nation. In your summary you brought up the importance of sociology in creating social change, specifically policy sociology, however, in this situation, as we learned from Karl Von Holdt, it is very difficult to try and change legal policies in post-apartheid South Africa due to the persisting racial inequalities, these inequalities go beyond simple discriminatory interactions between citizens, they actually allow for highly bureaucratized institutions (like this hospital) to perpetuate these unfair practices. As we learned from Von Holdt, the most effective part of his policy work in the South African hospital took place early on in the project when he and his team were working with local trade unions and employees to uncover the problems of the institution and creating a dialogue with the management and other intellectuals. During this time they organized a march with many employees and other members of the community involved, this action can be seen as organic public sociology which was essentially the wheels to the policy work that was being done that led to a 5 Miilion Rand bond being granted to make improvements to the system. As brought up in our discussion with Von Holdt, had there been more organic public sociology done, there might have been a greater possibility for success/change in the realm of policy.

Berkeley (March 23, 2012): 

To critically analyze the lessons learned from Karl von Holdt’s project at Chris Hani Baragwanth Hospital, our class discussion focused on the context of a pre and post apartheid society and situating efforts to create transformative structural change within the larger social order at the time. Given the unequal racial order of the past, the post apartheid society tried to mobilized blacks into elite positions in society by creating access to opportunities. Which was good in theory but because of pass limitations to skills training there was an ambiguity to who had “abilities” that ended up contributing to racial domination and only creating a symbolical representation of a new order. Our class made the link between the pass context of racial order pre and post apartheid being directly underlining many of the dysfunctions the hospital faced and increasing patient care and as well of the racial tensions in the downfall of the transformative project.

In our discussion, we related this notion of racial tension in the hospital to the theoretical work of Frantz Fanon. In Fanon’s work, he discusses two potential paths to decolonization, one of which is relatable to South Africa. He proposed that by merely replacing the white elite with a new black elite, past structures of domination would only be perpetuated. For him, the bodies themselves are interchangeable and do not affect overarching power relations. As in the hospital, the constitution of a new black elite did not contribute to any organizational change in the hospital’s infrastructure. In our discussion, we proposed that this in turn negatively affected the hospital project as racial tensions and domination were only reproduced.

Our class also discussed von Holdt’s project as it relates to the Critical Communicative Methodology that Soler and Flecha spoke of. For them, a balanced dialogue between groups is crucial, and we wondered if this might have been missing in the hospital. Given the existent racial tensions and resistance from multiple actors, an equal dialogue may not have been possible. Indeed, such a thing would be difficult to achieve anywhere, let alone post-apartheid South Africa.

Ultimately, our discussion pointed to the challenges of constituting balanced communication within a highly racialized context. We viewed von Holdt work as an example of the complexities of policy sociology. The project shows when public sociology and transformative projects are historically located there can be issue with implementation because of the social issues. Thinking more locally about reorganization on a structural level von Holdt’s project highlights the dilemma of managing the clients needs, the public opinion and social factors to take into consideration that created the public matter.

M Ridho Taqwa (Asosiasi Program Studi Sosiologi Se-Indonesia, APSSI): exacly, these is a good idea!

Wits Sociologists (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg): Response from Karl von Holdt:

Dear Davene & Parijat – thank you for this account of your discussion, which is very interesting indeed. I think you are right that Fanon can be used to help in an analysis of dynamics in the hospital and health department, although it is very important not to ignore the fact that many of the new black officials were committed to improving health care. There is thus an ongoing contestation within the elite between those who are self-interested, and those who have a genuine interest in improving the conditions of the people.

Regarding your suggestion about a balanced dialogue between groups, that was indeed an important dimension of our organic public sociology at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. The transformation plan was developed through a very substantial process of dialogue between different groups such as shop stewards, cleaners, clerks, nurses, doctors and managers, which culminated in a three day workshop to hammer out a strategic plan for change which had support from all groups in the hospital. The main problem came from a small group of managers in the hospital in alliance with very powerful officials in the health department beyond the hospital. With these groups, all attempts at dialogue failed. Thus any analysis of dialogue must also include an analysis of power structures and interests, as there are interests that oppose transformation and will do their best to obstruct it. In the end, despite attempts at dialogue, these interests managed to dismantle the achievements of transformation.

Davene Mignott (UC Berkeley): Thank you for your comment; you bring up a great point about the genuine interest of workers wanting to improve patient care. I think that your comments about including an analysis of power structures and interests also highlights that sometimes outside factures can move away for achieving the based goals of transformation to improve patient care. The project thus moves away from being patient centered and becoming more about opposing interest and in the end the patients lose.

Laleh Behbehanian (UC Berkeley): Correction – this summary was written by Davene & Keli Benko. My apologies for miscrediting…

Minh Quoc Nguyen (UC Berkeley): Davene, I am very interested in your comment about how opposing interests can seize the possibilities of transformative efforts. By “the project thus moves away from being patient centered and becomes more about opposing interest,” I take it that you are referencing how collaborative and genuine efforts to improve patient care (in this case the transformative dialogue within the hospital’s staff) was ‘usurped’ by privileged/opposing interests (the small group of managers and powerful officials). This reminds me of a concept I recently learned in my Development Studies class with Professor Hart. In the class, we are talking about how “locals” are invoked as spaces of civil struggle against the present-day concept of economic modernization. “The local” is invoked by what our professor calls both the New Left and the New Right, camps with radically different goals. In other words, actors with completely different agendas draw upon the same communities—the same localities or publics—to promote their interests. For example, a progressive leftist group may invoke the a specific local/public to argue for increased equality of material resources, while an opposing right-leaning group may invoke the same local group/public to argue for the maintenance of structures of privilege. In other words, both those with genuine intentions and the privileged/self-interested may make opposing claims on the same public. It brings up a question that goes beyond, “who are our publics?” Perhaps it’s also useful to ask, “how are our publics also spaces of contention?” How do we account for alternative representations of the same public, especially by those who claim to speak on the public’s behalf? Elites who are self-interested can misrepresent the public, so how could we possibly hold them accountable? Or what if all representations are intentionally misleading? I think these are some interesting questions that come out of your comment.

Johannesburg (March 29, 2012):

Like previous scholars we have listened to in the past weeks, Karl von Holdt once again highlighted that a public sociologist always moves between policy, professional and critical sociologies, indicating the close relationship amongst these sociologies.

However, we strongly felt that Karl’s presentation epitomized some of the fundamental challenges facing the notion of public sociology. He described the march that brought different stakeholders together as the high point of public sociology in his work at Baragwanth Hospital. This begs the question whether any sociologist who participates in a march or engages in mass action is a public sociologist. Clearly this is not that case and to imply as such shows a misunderstanding of public sociology. In South Africa we participate in marches all the time, therefore are we all public sociologists? Our main concern here is that public sociology is being used so loosely that it is losing its analytical weight. Is activism synonymous with public sociology because Karl seems to be a professional sociologist who went out and did some public activism.

In his talk, Karl said he came “to understand the world and not to change it”. This statement on its own is antithetical to what public sociology sets out do. Just the mention of these words is a denial of public sociology because we believe a defining characteristic of a public sociologist is setting out to change the world around us. As scholars we should also take our position power seriously otherwise we can be destructive. Karl, in his role at NALEDI when he was carrying out this research, had a lot of legitimacy and making remarks about not intending to change the world can filter through to the stakeholders who might take up the same stance, hence the lack of implementation of turnaround strategies.

On another note, Karl illustrated the dangers of policy sociology. This pertains to genuine burn out that can lead to destructive analysis of issues. His case shows someone who tried and did everything he could as a policy sociologist but after it didn’t work out, he was so disillusioned that he went to the other extreme of becoming destructive in his analysis as shown by statements like; “I try to understand the world and not to change it”.

Lastly, Karl has written excellent sociological accounts about the way social relations operate at Baragwanth Hospital and if he had talked about this a bit more, we believe it would have enriched the discussion.

Wits Sociologists (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg): Reply from Karl von Holdt: Dear Wits sociologists – I’m sorry my talk was so unclear, but at least Facebook provides opportunity to clarify a couple of points.

The march at the hospital was not public sociology because there happened to be some sociologists marching with everybody else! It was public sociology because a public consisting of workers, nurses, community members, doctors and professors marched in support of a transformation plan that had been developed through a process of sociological research, including dialogue between all kinds of health workers. This was, in other words, sociology forged together with a public , sociology on the march!

My talk was about the cycle of public sociology – policy sociology – critical sociology, and how all three of these come into play in the struggle to transform society. The comment about trying to understand the world, not change it, pointed to a particular moment in the cycle, that is, when the failure of the public sociology struggle for transformation, and the policy sociology implementation of transformation, had both reached stalemate. At that point, continuing unexamined efforts to “change” the world were clearly not effective.

The point then became to try to understand the reasons for this – precisely, to “understand” the world. This move to critical sociology took place in the University. My comment, then, is an affirmation of the role of sociology in trying to understand the world so as to change it; in this process there are moments when it is best to engage in a deep sociological reflection, rather than rush around like a demented windmill. It was the analysis produced by this sociological reflection that in turn circulated in the world beyond, including in the presidency, and became the basis of a renewed attempt to change the world through a broader research agenda. I hope this clarifies that the withdrawal to “understand” the world is a moment in a bigger cycle. Without such sociological reflection, attempts to “change” the world can be fruitless or have unintended consequences.

Michelle Kolpack (UC Berkeley): Thanks, Witts Sociologists and Professor von Holdt, for sharing this interesting exchange. Yes, it is an important distinction that because this project was based on sociological research with transformative goals, it was public sociology. The activist component was not only collective action among employees and sociologists. The way it was organized and produced within a larger framework of academic methodology and inquiry is really inspiring to me.

I am wondering if Professor von Holdt ever hesitates to refer to the general project as a failure. This project was incredibly success in many ways! I am attempting to express this without minimizing the immense frustration and negative consequences that employees, patients, researchers, and all stakeholders must have felt when the path towards the ultimate goal of hospital transformation collapsed. However, to avoid burn out when practicing public sociology, it must be necessary to counter the pain of negative results with recognition that they are also positive results because they are crucial for learning. The overall successes and failures of this project provide priceless lessons for public sociology!

This point is closely tied to Professor Burawoy’s description of relationships between research and knowledge in public sociology and its intersections with critical, professional, and policy sociology. As we’ve learned, reflexive knowledge is goal oriented. It is about at ends (i.e., regarding a social issue or specific research project) which critical sociology tends to emphasize. Instrumental knowledge is for the research means. It is central to professional and policy sociology. Or, alternatively, it sounds as if Professor von Holdt might argue that both reflexive and instrumental knowledge are significant to the critical sociology that cuts across policy, public, and professional sociology. It is an interesting point that critical and acritical approaches (those of elitism that uphold the status quo) can exist in each of these three forms of sociology. Either way, the disciplines of sociology and their corresponding knowledge for means and ends are mutually important and cannot be separated. If a project goes smoothly and all or most goals are reached, the outcome could be extremely positive and rewarding. On the other hand, it would not provide us with the same opportunity to understand the complex means of implementation and methodology within a given context.

The project at Chris Hani Baragwanath is ideal for analyzing how/why various approaches are effective or ineffective within the possibilities and limitations for mitigating structural (i.e., bureaucratic/institutional) obstacles. Goals would therefore never be reached without the instrumental knowledge we gain from projects like this. Furthermore, as Professor von Holdt explains, achieved goals can include unintended or unexpected outcomes. I agree that action through public sociology is imperative. But achievements in any form of research even have the capacity to be more harmful than helpful because of the unconscious reproduction of oppressive structures. Careful preparation and reflection is required in all types of sociology. However, by switching specifically to critical sociology, Professor von Holdt is utilizing the successes and failures of the public sociology in Chris Hani Baragwanath to inform other sociological endeavors. Because his current work turns the failures of the public sociology project into valuable analyses for empowerment, is no aspect of the public project a total failure, but rather a nuanced mix of beneficial and detrimental outcomes between past research and its expanded versions in the present?


Michelle Kolpack (UC Berkeley): Hello all, sorry for the long posts. I have wanted to ask you all and Professor von Holdt for your perspectives about something more specific. Professor von Holdt, after your presentation, I asked you about the role of racial conflict in the project’s collapse. You explained that the collapse was largely the result of political/power dynamics embedded in the bureaucratic institution. Although it did not cause the collapse, you also explained that black administrators acted to sabotage the project to protect their own power. Is it accurate to say that most people realized this, but the administrators’ racial discourse was powerful mainly because researchers and workers in a similar level of hierarchical power were white, and therefore could not openly confront them? I specifically wonder how this issue might have manifested if egalitarian-aimed dialogue, like CCM, had been systematically employed throughout the project.

If all stakeholders (i.e., the hospital and government staff, union reps, and researchers) had dialogue in large, open and transparent staff meetings, could discursive deconstruction have to some degree minimized the abuses of power? It seems that black administrators might have expressed frustrations from assumptions that white elites were threatening to regressively appropriate the social and economic authority they had finally accessed. Even if the sabotage was more out of selfishness than insecurity, could any of the adamantly supportive, black workers in subordinate positions have openly and effectively expressed how the black administrators were defining and exploiting the black struggle for person benefits? Might the courageous nurses have expressed during dialogue meetings how the project genuinely promoted racial justice and positively impacted them as black women of a lower economic position?

Castells tells us that discursively disseminated ideas are at the root of power and where there is power there is counter power. Even if the administrators would not have felt less insecure, nor shifted their interest from personal greed to racial justice, I do wonder if black workers’ counter discourse could have disempowered the administrators’ excuse for resisting the project. However, might even the strongest union solidarity have been unable to mitigate the labor hierarchy for sufficiently honest communication?

Julian Roberto (UC Berkeley): I do believe that public sociology is loosely defined but I feel that we should not fear equating activism with public sociology. If we define activism as engaging in actions that lead to what we believe to be positive change in the world, then public sociology is in fact activism. If we are to engage in effective public sociology, sociologists must not fear this association. I am convinced that this fear is due to sociologists fear of loss of legitimacy.

I believe that sociologists who are worried about this are “guilty of looking for a promotion” as Sari Hanafi once said. Public Sociologists must understand that they will loose legitimacy in the professional world during their engagement in public sociology. We must accept that making change will cost us our legitimacy and may result in a loss of our privileges (such as higher pay, maybe promotions). I, however, believe that this cost is worth it. Most of us did not become sociologists because we wanted to academically study society but because we wanted to make the world a better place. We must not forget this fact.

Sao Paulo (April 8, 2012):

Thanks a lot Karl for this terrific interview!!
Firstly, it’s really amazing how the South African experience of post-apartheid regime looks like the Brazilian post-dictatorship experience. Here several critical sociologists also have engaged themselves in the process of transformation of the state during the democratization of the country.
Likewise, these sociologists have experienced similar challenges in terms of facing the limits of social change in societies more democratic, but still structurally unequals.
So Karl highlights the existence of different types of critical engagement in the styles sociological.
This seems central: even working on different fronts in different moments, the critical engagement helps to guide the sociologist in its search for social transformation.
Indeed, by dividing the sociological field into two subfields, Karl drew attention to the struggle between conservative sociology and sociology of emancipation.
Without the notion of critical engagement, all those four styles of sociology tend to become more and more conservatives. We need to reflect on the critical engagement and find ways to feed it.


Tehran (May 9, 2012):

Lecture 6: Transforming hospital functioning – Discussion Summary: Student Sociological Association of Tehran University and Iranian Sociological Association.

Karl Van Holt’s project in regard to a large organization alongside movements, minor and marginal groups and the state, shows varied possibilities of public sociology. His division of sociology into critical sociology and reactionary sociology is also a valuable one. In this way a critical sociologist initiates, protects and increases a public, but a reactionary sociologist in order to be a public sociologist only preserves and extends a public.
Since the “Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital” project has been unsuccessful, what we discuss here would be a pathological assessment of Von Holt’s work as a public sociologist, but because the situation of post-Apartheid South Africa is very complicated, our understanding of the problem and our pathological analysis might not have enough accuracy.

As Van Holt says:” after Apartheid the union decides to transform the hospital into a people’s hospital” and therefore he goes there to do so. The first question raises here that does the main problem of the project come from the public or rather it is placed as an order (comes from above)? It seems that Van Holt starts the project as a policy sociologist and his policy approach leads him to a fad sociology. In this narrative the movement is not an organic public sociology but rather populist sociology, because the object is policy, not the public.
Second question is that to what extent creation and protection of a public with a shared problem has been Van Holt’s concern and to what extent he has been successful? It seems that he separates himself from his public with doing some focus groups and his policy aspect dominates his public aspect whereas here similar to Roman Flecha he had to stress on the method being communicative in addition to be critical. Moreover, if different publics were shaped around variety of shared problems among different groups of the hospital, the project would not come to an end without resistance from these groups and they would put more efforts in order to force their ideas to the state. In other words, even though the project looks organic from outside, from inside it is the same old traditional unilateral approach which does not engage the public and tries to go on with changing some of the managers and workers of the hospital. This lack of participation leads to workers’ indifference towards the authority.
The next point is his lack of sociological insight in the project. His lack of true understanding of post-Apartheid social conditions and his miscomprehension about the power structure resulted in reduction of Structural conditions into individuals and he thought that by changing some of the managers he can remove the domination structure. In other words domination and its criticism as the main concern of the public sociology has been assumed correctly by Von Holt, but he is mistaken by the ways in which the domination can be challenged. If we set Gramsci’s famous formula of “pessimism in thought and optimism in practice” as the base, it looks as if Von Holt’s project is the optimism in practice and our criticism of him is placed on the other side, pessimism in thought. He has a kind of optimism towards democracy in South Africa and has forgotten about the strong bounds between liberal democracy and bureaucracy. How can change occur in a fragment of a huge system in the shadow of bureaucracy and keep that fragment like a secure island? This is also a common misunderstanding in countries like Iran where the reforms come from above.


One thought on “Karl von Holdt

  1. you bring up a great point about the genuine interest of workers wanting to improve patient care. I think that your comments about including an analysis of power structures and interests also highlights that sometimes outside factures can move away for achieving the based goals of transformation to improve patient care. The project thus moves away from being patient centered and becoming more about opposing interest and in the end the patients lose.

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