Archive for the ‘Public Sociology’ Category

As Shamus on Scatterplot posted earlier in the month, Washington State University has decided to eliminate its rural sociology program and, with it, the jobs of eight faculty members.  Today, Inside Higher Ed posted a report on the topic:

That a land grant university would simply abolish the discipline — and in particular a rare freestanding program that is well respected nationally — stunned rural sociologists. Many have come to expect that sociology departments (general ones) will be more occupied with issues of criminology and sexuality and suburban youth than with aging populations in rural towns or the new immigration that is changing those communities.

And they say they have seen agriculture colleges focus more of their research on genomics and biotechnology and less on family farms. So Washington State’s decision has come to be seen as mattering nationally — and is galvanizing scholars who have no particular ties to the university and whose frustration extends beyond that one institution.

An interesting aspect of the report is the idea that rural sociology is a candidate for the chopping block because rural life itself seems less important to some than it has in the past:

And thus the reaction to Washington State relates very much to concerns about land grants generally. “There aren’t very many rural sociology programs around. There’s a general perception that rural doesn’t matter anymore. Whenever financial problems arise and administrators get a little touchy about how they are going to manage budgets, this is the sort of thing that happens,” said Kenneth Pigg, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, one institution that still has a freestanding program.

Pigg said that social sciences were once viewed as central to the land grant mission — that departments of rural sociology (or agriculture economics) were applying research to help rural communities. “Now, with the emphasis on life sciences generally, you don’t see that at a lot of universities,” he said. Pigg’s work currently focuses on the impact of technological change in rural areas. While many have said that the Internet is “a savior” for rural life, Pigg said that there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the impact it has and the lack of real access to technology of many people outside of urban areas.

I think that closures such as these point to the increasing importance of public sociology.  While we need to do work that is relevant to public concerns, sociologists also need to have a larger role in informing the public about why our findings matter and which concerns are socially important.  If our discipline is to survive the public needs to know the benefits of taking a sociological view in addition to a biological or psychological view on human behavior.

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A new post on the Chronicle of Higher Ed website provides an interesting look into the challenges faced by academics who are accused of being superfluous to their public institutions.  Mindy Stombler, of Georgia State University, is one of the three at the school to be labeled “expendable” by two members of the Georgia House of Representatives.  Those who have followed the story will remember that Stombler is listed as an “Oral sex expert” in GSU’s “expert guide,” which lawmakers confused with course titles.  Check out the excerpt below and then head to the Chronicle for the full article.

While I am not embarrassed to be known as an “oral sex expert” (when you teach sexuality to college students, eventually little embarrasses you), and the label provided lots of fun and fodder for my friends and colleagues, I was surprised by how quickly the fact that I was a sociologist (hired as a generalist) who taught and did research in a variety of areas was so quickly reduced to this one titillating label. I was also surprised that it took repeated testimony and contact with reporters to impress upon them that I was neither teaching “how to” courses in oral sex nor hired due to my expertise in oral sex. (And I have a CNN headline T-shirt to prove it: “Oral sex, prostitution classes disputed.”)

Kirk Elifson and I (along with our department chair, Donald Reitzes) were called to testify in front of the higher-education committees of both the Georgia House and the Senate. We clarified that we were not teaching courses on oral sex or male prostitution. We then discussed the importance of our research on those topics, and how it benefited the public. For me that involved talking about current patterns and interpretations of oral sex, increased rates of oral sex, and the public-health risks of unprotected oral sex.

Both our testimony and news interviews went well (the headline in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution read: “GSU Sex Experts Wow Georgia Legislators”). Editorials around the state supported us, and the local Atlanta press began reporting the story accurately (particularly the Journal-Constitution and Southern Voice). It seemed we were out of the hot seat and could begin recovery (and get back to work!).

Enter CNN.

CNN decided to pick up the story after we thought the controversy was over, and it produced a report that implied, once again, that we were teaching oral-sex courses at Georgia State. The report did not include the university’s official statement but did include a close-up of my name, my photo, and the introductory sentence from video of my testimony. CNN’s coverage ignored the existing facts already in print and was insulting to Georgia State, its professors, and its students.

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A post on the Contexts blogs includes a discussion of teaching introductory courses as a form of public sociology, prompted by a post on Inside Higher Ed:

In other words, if you really want to be a community organizer or an “organic intellectual,” give up tenure and embed yourself in a grassroots organization for a decade or so. If not, then perhaps a more humble definition of public sociologist is in order. While there are a variety of venues for a modest public sociology, Michael Burawoy has identified a skill that perhaps best suits the vast majority of sociologists seeking a more public voice: “Students are our first public.” Anyone aspiring to be a public sociologist must first dedicate themselves to the craft of teaching as a Weberian calling.

One thing that I have enjoyed about my graduate program is the opportunity to share sociological insights with a wide range of students at a large public university.  While I have made a choice to turn away from my large public university in favor of a small private one, a major factor in this decision was the desire to maximize the effectiveness each dose of the sociological imagination.

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