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Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson recently had an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on “How sociologists made themselves irrelevant.” He discusses how sociologists have had almost no influence on the design of policies dealing with poverty among black youth and related problems such as unemployment, gangs and incarceration, despite the fact that these topics have been core topics of sociological research for decades. He argues that the main problem is that “In the effort to keep ourselves academically pure, we’ve also become largely irrelevant in molding the most important social enterprises of our era.”

As a result, sociologists have been reticent to engage in public discourse. The main shapers of policy have been economists, who often come to radically different conclusions than sociologists, based on differing theoretical assumptions, which affect research design. For instance, sociologists find that moving people out of ghettos has strong positive effects on outcomes for black youth, while economists find that such an effect does not exist. Patterson wryly quips that the rational response to the finding that neighborhoods have no effect on youth outcomes means that scholars should advise their children move to the inner city to take advantage of low rents!

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Which_way_homeby Herbert J. Gans

The United States, like other modern economies, is experiencing a new and possibly long-lasting era of rising economic inequality, which may result in further political and class inequality. Consequently, sociologists should be asking themselves what roles they and their discipline can play in understanding these inequalities, particularly the societal changes and social costs they are likely to bring.

However, the discipline as a whole also needs to become more relevant to the country, and thereby also make itself more visible and valued. Although the current rise in inequalities is global, the differences in national political economies, and in national sociologies suggest that every country must find its own answers – as long as global implications and consequences are also considered. What follows is my attempt to suggest a more detailed scenario, or a vision of where American sociology should be headed.

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In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof lamented the lack of influence of professors in “today’s great debates.” Many academics took to the blogosphere retorting that, yes, in fact, public intellectualism is alive and thriving in the academy. My colleague Chris Prener posted a more sympathetic response on this blog, arguing that having a twitter account and a blog does not make an academic a public intellectual. It is the content of the message, not the medium, which matters.

Both Chris and I agree with Kristof that there are not enough public intellectuals because of structural and cultural barriers within the academy, including a tenure process that rewards only academic output and places severe time constraints on the ability of academics to engage wider audiences.

Unfortunately, Kristof completely loses the plot when he suggests that economics is more engaged in “real-world debates” than sociology because the former has more Republican members (plus more “empiricism and rigor”).

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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.

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Have you ever wondered why sociological research and insights do not occupy a more prominent place in U.S. policy circles or in the American public consciousness?   Sociology’s performance in this regard may reflect the discipline’s efforts to promote (or avoid) approaches like public sociology that actively encourage engagement with the public.  Research about U.S. culture and individualism, however,  suggests two other reasons sociologists may get a chilly reception when we try to promote our research in the U.S.  Read More

Just a quick note on upcoming content.

First, we would like to welcome Adia Harvey Wingfieldwho has joined us a blog editor. And also welcome to Rachel Sherman who will be coming on soon as a regular contributor.

We are planning on getting a number of other regular contributors in the near future, with a goal of getting up to half a dozen new blog posts each week. Until we get fully up to speed, we’ll probably be posting around one or two new posts per week. All new posts will be announced on our Twitter.

In addition to contributions from our regular contributors, we are commissioning a number of pieces for Discussions and Panels. Among topics we expect to be coming soon are:

  • Ed Walker on Occupy Wall St.
  • Ofer Sharone on digital media and the job search
  • Dave Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman on egalitarian essentialism
  • Jeff Sallaz and Victoria Johnson on Bourdieu and the study of work organizations
  • Work, Gender, and the Media
  • Financialization and work
  • The new labor scholar/practitioner network that is being set up (coordinated by American Rights at Work)

Contact is if you have any more ideas for Discussions or Panels. And if you are a sociologist interested in posting something, please do be in touch.

More than a decade ago I was asked to organize an “Author Meets Critics” session dealing with Richard Sennett’s Corrosion of Character.  Given the author’s prominence, it was no surprise when 200 people showed up for the session, and heard a set of probing comments from a distinguished panel. I reserved a few minutes for my own humble comments, and took that opportunity to lament how rarely our works succeed (as Sennett’s often do) in resonating with lay audiences. An old lament, I know. But it’s true. As a former colleague once put it, it’s as if many of us aren’t entirely comfortable allowing perfect strangers to buy our books.

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