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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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