Burawoy and other advocates of public sociology encourage the discipline to engage with issues that are of significant public and political concern. These include debates over public policy, political activism, the purposes of social movements, and the institutions of civil society. If public sociology is considered to be a "movement" within the discipline, it is one that aims to revitalize the discipline of sociology by leveraging its empirical methods and theoretical insights to contribute to debates not just about what is or what has been in society, but about what society might yet be. Thus, many versions of public sociology have had an undeniably normative and political character—a fact that has led a significant number of sociologists to oppose the approach.
The term "public sociology" was first introduced by Herbert Gans in his 1988 ASA presidential address, "Sociology in America: The Discipline and the Public". For Gans, primary examples of public sociologists included David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd (one of the best-selling books of sociology ever to be written), and Robert Bellah, the lead author of another best-selling work, Habits of the Heart. In 2000 (four years before Burawoy's ASA address), sociologist Ben Agger wrote the book Public Sociology: From Social Facts to Literary Acts, which called for a sociology that addressed major public issues.
However, the Northwestern University race scholar Aldon Morris argues in his book The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (2015) that W. E .B. Du Bois was practicing public sociology long before the term was incorporated into the mainstream disciplinary vocabulary, and that scientific racism prevented Du Bois' contributions from being recognized by the discipline for nearly a century.
Morris argues that Du Bois built the first actual scientific department of sociology during his tenure at Atlanta University, a historically black college, predating the "scientific revolution" of the Chicago school (who are often credited with turning sociology into a rigorous, empirical social science). To Du Bois, robust empirical sociological research was necessary in order to emancipate American blacks from the tyrannies and oppressions built into the racist fabric of American society. Through thorough inductive research, Du Bois sought to dismantle and delegitimize social Darwinist, biological, and cultural deficiency explanations for racial inequality, which were not grounded in empirical evidence, but relied on grand deductive narratives that had no basis in scientific analysis.
Du Bois and his colleagues made use of the scientific method and robust empirical inquiry with the dual goal of turning sociology into a real social science committed to empirical investigation, and using their findings to liberate, empower, and emancipate American blacks from the violence of racist oppression. Thus, long before Gans or Burawoy began emphasizing the virtues of public sociology, Du Bois had been serving a marginalized public through his scholarly research, failing to receive credit where credit was due.