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Posts Tagged ‘Public Sociology’

Social ScienceBill O’Reilly!

Lately, some of my Facebook friends have been posting a link to Herbert Gans’s 2002 entreaty to become public sociologists. In it, Gans states that anybody can become a public sociolgist but cautions that “Audiences are the ultimate gate keeper” and that “public intellectuals must be willing to speak to topics that interest them, and with frames and values that are comprehensible and acceptable to them.”

The above photo, in which a bookstore’s Social Science section (which consisted of one shelf) has been overrun by Bill O’Reilly, indicates that we might not be doing the best job of this. The Social Sciences section was next to the politics section, so it is likely that these books overflowed from there (although I would argue that they don’t belong there, either!) but I couldn’t find a single book on this shelf that was actually based on social science research. The next shelf was related to crime and was filled mostly with the “true crime” genre.

I think that Nathan Palmer’s recent reminder that, for our students, we are the public face of sociology is important, but we still appear to be failing Gans. If none of sociology’s best sellers appear in a bookstore in a rural area of the country and people’s idea of sociology itself is derived from Sudhir Venkatesh’s appearance on the Colbert Report, then maybe we are too focused on what our colleagues think of our work and not focused enough on what our neighbors think of it.

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At the end of my last post, I noted that the difficulties I faced writing an entry for an academic encyclopedia are likely to be shared by sociologists attempting to reach a broader audience. The lack of peer review* in this type of work also means that there is a greater possibility for distortion**, as Philip N. Cohen highlights when critiquing W. Bradford Wilcox’s recent article about fatherhood at Slate. The greatest danger with these types of articles that are aimed at a broader audience is probably not deliberate distortion but the type of subtle distortion that occurs when we try to remove the context and subtlety from the research we discuss.

*Incidentally, I’ve been told that the experience of writing for Contexts is similar, though the fact that Contexts articles are peer-reviewed hopefully reduces the likelihood of distortion.

**Of course, the recent controversy surrounding Mark Regnerus’s work demonstrates that the possibility for distortion exists within peer-reviewed work as well.

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I recently wrote an academic encyclopedia entry for my area of specialization; it was strange. The first reason for strangeness is that I associate writing encyclopedia entries with graduate school. Several of my graduate student colleagues wrote encyclopedia entries that had been passed on to them by professors – sometimes these professors coauthored the entries and sometimes they did not. This association is likely faulty – I’m sure that many professors, even those at my graduate institution, have written encyclopedia entries that I am not aware of since they aren’t likely to be publicized much – but it still made the thought of writing one myself seem strange.

This association was easily overcome by the fact that writing the entry would be relatively easy since it in my area of expertise and it would count as a form of the “evidence of scholarly activity” my school wants to see; the second was more difficult. The instructions and sample encyclopedia entry made it clear that I was to write with no citations in an authoritative tone. As an academic, the first of these requirements was difficult. After years of citing everything and instructing my students to do the same, I had a hard time writing about research findings without the context provided by authors and dates.  As a sociologist, the practice of writing in an authoritative tone was also difficult. I’ve read a number of psychological studies where the authors state that their findings “prove” a hypothesis while sociologists are more likely to say that their findings “demonstrate” something. For the encyclopedia entry, though, I had to write as if the findings by one or two groups of researchers could be taken as fact. I attempted to overcome this as much as possible by mentioning the context in which studies were conducted (e.g., “a nationally representative sample” or “a study of women in their 30s”).

In the end, I think that the difficulties I experienced were similar to the obstacles sociologists face when communicating with the general public. We like to emphasize the contexts in which research was conducted in order to recognize the diversity of the social world. This diversity also prevents us from making broad declarative statements regarding the generalizability of our findings. The public, or at least the media that typically exposes the public to our research, likes short, easily digestible statements (possibly in bullet-point form). Finding a comfortable middle ground is a challenge that we have to face if we want to reach beyond the ivory tower.

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Keep Calm

In the past few weeks, there have been two relatively high-profile attacks on sociology (recognizing, of course, that anything reaching beyond the walls of sociology departments is relatively high-profile). In the first, N+1 published an article claiming that there is “too much sociology” because everybody already sees the world sociologically. In the second, Justin Trudeau’s argued that it is necessary to examine the root causes of problems like terrorism, prompting Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister, to state, “This is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression [that I just made up].”

Beyond potentially causing the ASA to shut down its website, I see these attacks as a positive sign for sociology. In my experience, lots of sociologists wish that policymakers would pay more attention to our ideas while lots of people in the general public have no idea what sociology is. (Admit it, half of your family members have jokingly requested that you don’t psychoanalyze them.) The fact that some, even some in positions of power, are criticizing sociological ideas means that they are at least vaguely familiar with sociological ideas. That seems like progress to me.

*The buttons in the picture above are available for sale at this website. According to their creator, all proceeds will be donated to the Canadian Sociological Association’s student research award. I have already ordered one, adding to my growing collection of sociological buttons.

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After a few interactions with my school’s media relations people I’ve concluded that if you are interested in serving as a source for the media (local or otherwise) but you are a small fish in terms of research productivity you are probably much better off making your home in a small pond where even your most insignificant publications and presentations will get the attention of the media relations folks.

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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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