Public Sociology in the Age of Twitter

Over the weekend, Nicholas Kristof wrote a widely read piece asking where the public intellectual has gone. For those of you who may have missed the editorial, Kristof argues that the culture of PhD programs and the tenure process have forced the academy inward, celebrating dense prose published in little-read, high-priced journals. He notes that academics have been slow to embrace blogging and the use of social media platforms. Kristof also argues the research academics produce has far fewer consequences or conclusions for policy and the public than it has in the past, meaning that the “public intellectual” is a dying breed.

Almost immediately, the various public intellectuals that Kristof couldn’t find took to their blogs and Twitter accounts with gusto, reminding him and us that there are indeed many academics that have made a point of sharing their work on public platforms. Perhaps my favorite response comes from a guest post at Tenured Radical. The writer argues that, as a public university professor, she works as a “public intellectual” every day of the week. Kristof has re-tweeted many of the critiques, creating a running dialogue about his piece on his Twitter feed.

Part of what is driving the debate here is that there is no widely acknowledged definition of what a public intellectual is. As sociologists, however, we do have some notion about what it means to be a public sociologist. During his term as President of the American Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy outlined an expansive view of the profession of sociology that is far too long and detailed to do justice to here. He argues that public and policy sociology are two of four subsets of the discipline (the others being professional and critical). Burawoy views public sociology as having both traditional (e.g. newspaper op-eds) and organic (e.g. engagement with activist organizations) forms. In contrast, policy sociology involves direct engagement with the policy process by, for example, offering policy prescriptions, testifying to legislative bodies, or otherwise engaging in the legislative process. In practice, I believe that all of these are often understood to some degree as applied sociology, a term Burawoy does not use.

Burawoy, of course, was writing in 2004, long before the smartphone on which I read Burawoy’s speech this morning was invented, and long before Twitter and the blogosphere entered our lexicon. I think it is important to recognize that the advent of these tools is what is driving Kristof’s critique of the academy and many academics’ responses to his criticisms.

After browsing through these critiques, I have a couple of thoughts that I think are worth sharing. The first is that many academics have pointed to the outpouring of criticism on social media by self-styled public intellectuals as evidence that Kristof is wrong. I think that this is a misguided conclusion. Of course the people who are tweeting and blogging about their research or academic are the most likely to disagree with Kristof – they’re engaged in the activities Kristof is pointing to. This is selection bias, however, and we should know better.

There is a more important question, however: is having a Twitter account and a blog sufficient to be considered a “public intellectual”? I would argue that this is not the case. If we extend Burawoy’s commentary on public sociology into the age of Twitter, I think that an important point emerges – we have confused the method of engagement with the content of the message. Tweeting or blogging about issues that largely concern professional or critical sociology does not make the messenger a public sociologist simply because the method of engagement is public. The same can be said for blogging or tweeting about a narrow topic of research that has little value to policy makers or little public audience. This may mean that you are on the cutting edge. More likely, though, it means that there just is not a large intellectual market for these ideas. This is not a bad thing – we need academics with the passion for these topics. What it does not mean, however, is that sharing these ideas on Twitter or a blog suddenly makes the writer a “public intellectual”.

I find myself agreeing with Kristof, therefore, that there are just not that many public intellectuals anymore. The goal of public sociology and the public intellectual have not changed in the age of Twitter, only the means for disseminating the messages have. As before, applied research is still a dirty word in sociology, even if it has become passé to admit it in public circles. I say this as someone who cares more about the policy implications of my research than the social theory it advances. I feel for my fellow PhD students whose enthusiasm for a topic is tampered by criticism that it is not sufficiently sociological. There is a fine line to be walked here between what makes us sociologists and what makes our research influential to a wider audience.

If there are researchers out there who fit Burawoy’s or Kristof’s definitions of a public intellectual, there are great barriers to sharing that work widely. Kristof is right to point out that tenure requirements are decidedly ‘old-school’ (pun-intended). No one involved in Work in Progress is going to get tenure because of it, even if our posts may get more readership than some of the journal articles we publish.

Academics interested in engaging in public sociology on the web go into the job market with few skills for sharing our work widely. Most PhD curriculums do not include training in the nuts-and-bolts of running a website. You do not learn HTML or CSS in graduate school. You do not learn the fundamentals of using an FTP client, or the art of designing simple, effective digital media. These are critical skills for the public intellectual, as are more general computer skills in terms of designing and producing high-resolution graphics and data visualizations (also under-taught and under-appreciated skills).

So, rather than endlessly criticizing Kristof as so many have done recently, I think we need to take his critiques seriously. Yes, perhaps there are more of us out here sharing our work than his article acknowledges. The reality, however, is that we are in the minority among academics. There are structural barriers in terms of the tenure process and the lack of digital skills being taught to PhD students. There are also cultural barriers, time constraints, and the reality that very few of us have the time and energy to do it all.

We’ve seen a lot of this here at Work in Progress. Running a blog platform can be exhausting, introducing the concept of blogging to academics not used to the format can be difficult, and finding the time to make blogging a priority can be a struggle. In-spite of this, I think what we are doing is vital for the academy even if there still room for our own blog to grow and mature. It hurts to hear that we’re not living up to our potential, or that we’re not engaging in research that has a wide audience. Maybe it hurts more from someone outside the academy, but this does not mean that mean we should ignore Kristof’s criticisms or call for greater public engagement.

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