The topic of this chapter is far from new, although it is not as old as sociology itself. It was, for example, not a problem that would have worried Comte or Saint Simon, the founders of sociology as a social science, or even their French successor, Durkheim, who was more explicitly concerned with education. However, it is certainly an issue that sociologists have wrestled with since Max Weber wrote his famous essays, ‘Science as a vocation’ and ‘Politics as a vocation’ (Weber 1948). More than 50 years later the argument between Howard Becker’s ‘Whose side are we on?’ (Becker 1967) and Alvin Gouldner’s ‘Sociologist as partisan’ (Gouldner 1968) set the terms of the debate when I started teaching sociology at the end of the 1960s. This chapter is not an attempt to review those earlier debates; it has two much more limited aims. The first is to ask what might be learned from my experiences of trying, as a sociologist, to influence education policy in two very different contexts: England in the last three decades of the twentieth century; and South Africa since Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Both contexts, I am assuming, have something in common with the problems that many sociologists of education have faced in the past three decades. As such, the chapter is personal and reflexive, and makes no claims to be a comprehensive statement of the range of different positions or of the circumstances of the two countries in the periods under discussion.