July 01, 2013

The Promise and Perils of Public Sociology

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Last week I had a request from a reporter to comment on a story he was working on. It’s always nice to know that someone wants my input on a current event. Beyond the momentary ego boost, I feel that it is important to encourage people to understand events through a sociological perspective and see how the broader context shapes individuals’ lives.

In the last several years the phrase “public sociology” has become increasingly common among sociologists. As president of the American Sociological Association in 2004, Michael Burawoy encouraged sociologists to think beyond the academic tradition of sharing our ideas only with other professionals in academic journals.

Burawoy described public sociology as “a conversation between sociology and publics” which could take on many forms: a blog like this, which aims to share ideas from sociology to sociologists and non-sociologists alike, for instance; and community activism, where sociologists use theory and research findings to create social change. Even teaching our classes can be considered a form of public sociology; most students who take sociology courses don’t become sociologists, but they are all members of society. Thinking sociologically is a tool to examine our lives and our society more critically.

Doing “public sociology” presents some challenges too. First, sharing our research beyond the boundaries of the discipline can mean our results are misinterpreted or misstated, sometimes in an attempt to make them more relatable or understandable to laypeople.

I have had this happen personally; when sharing the result of research, I mentioned a gender-related trend in that was reported as a generalization (“men think X”) instead of a probability (“men studied were more  likely to report X”). The first interpretation is simpler and more of an attention-getter, and the second a more nuanced interpretation that required more discussion, which did not fit neatly into the story. In another interview,  one where I spoke to a reporter at length, I said something sarcastically, which was quoted in the article without the context or tone, making it appear that I meant the opposite of what I tried to communicate.

Part of what sociologists do is to try and understand these nuances, and to provide depth to everyday issues that seem simple. The challenge of public sociology is to do our best to explain complicated issues in simple terms. We want sociological thinking to be part of the story, we just can’t always control how much sociology seeps in.

Another challenge I’ve faced as a sociologist is knowing when to stay away from a public conversation. Sometimes I am asked to discuss topics that are far afield from my research or special expertise, perhaps because I have been quoted in something a reporter read, or they find me through this blog.  I can feel pressure to “help” a reporter on deadline or by someone from my university trying to find an expert for a reporter in hopes the school will get some good publicity.

The reporter I mentioned at the beginning of this post contacted me for a story because he saw I did research on a similar subject, but his story was a bit different from what I had studied. When a major news organization contacts me it is exciting, but I just didn’t have the information he was looking for. I let him know that to my knowledge no sociological research had been done on the group he was asking about.

I could have offered my opinion instead of the results of research and answered his questions (reporters typically don’t ask for citations of studies as evidence) and as an “expert source” my opinion might have been stated as a fact. But then I wouldn’t have been acting as a sociologist; in fact, I might have contributed to the misperception that sociology is just based on opinion rather than on empirical evidence.

We might extrapolate from existing research, but it isn’t uncommon for reporters to ask us to speak beyond our area of expertise. A few years ago while speaking to a reporter about research results similar to her story, she pointedly said, “you haven’t answered my question,” as though I was an elected official purposefully hiding something from her. We can’t always answer their questions, nor should we if they are too far beyond the scope of the research we are familiar with.

Another challenge with presenting sociological ideas in a public forum is that public discourse itself can be toxic, especially when political issues are involved. One sociologist who studies political movements was a frequent target of a talk radio host and even received death threats.

Whether it’s rude comments online or nasty emails, presenting ideas that challenge well-entrenched ideologies can make some people react in strange ways, even if we are just presenting findings of a survey or discussing publically available data. In an age of talking–or arguing—heads, we can be drawn into the fray, sometimes unwittingly. Even when discussing or writing about issues that don’t seem controversial, people might feel the need to contact us directly via email to share their anger—sometimes about tangential issues that were central to our main points.

I didn’t become a sociologist so I could make up new jargon for lofty academic journals, nor did I do so to argue with people on talk radio, cable news or online.  I wanted  to be part of a larger conversation—like the one we have been having on this blog for the past six years. It can be very rewarding to be able to share our research with the wider world, but it is not without its challenges. What other roles do you think public sociology can have in the larger society?

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