April 04, 2016

Sociology for the Masses!

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman


This was a bumper sticker I remember seeing when I was in college. At the time, I only had a fuzzy idea of what these two words meant. After a little research, I realized that the phrase was a playfully pretentious way to encourage people to stop using big words that nobody understands. I'm sure many students wish they had a rubber stamp with these words so they could imprint them on some of the texts they must read. I felt that way when I was a student and sometimes I still feel that way. In fact, I often think that this slogan should be a rallying cry for sociologists everywhere.

Have you noticed that sociologists often saturate their language with so much incomprehensible jargon that it can be difficult for most people (including other sociologists) to understand what is being said? In a recent essay in Contexts, the American Sociological Association's magazine that proclaims to "make cutting-edge social research accessible to general readers," Andrew Linder writes that much of the research that sociologists publish is highly specialized, oftentimes esoteric, and basically incomprehensible for everyone except those who specialize in that particular narrow body of work.

The issue of obfuscation is not new to sociology, nor unique to us; it's always been a concern in the discipline and in academia. In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills wrote about this problem in his appendix, "On Intellectual Craftsmanship." He referred to the "serious crisis in literacy" among social scientists and their unnecessary reliance on "socspeak." Socspeak is a term Mills borrowed to denote the indecipherable language sociologists often use in their writing that most people cannot comprehend. In a clever play on words, Mills argues that sociologists who want to communicate with the masses need to "first overcome the academic pose" if they are ever to "overcome the academic prose."

Mills is correct. The potential for sociology will never be met if we are more interested in sounding intellectual and less concerned with being intelligible. Let's face it: there are a lot of problems in the world. The role of the sociologist is to study these problems in order to better understand them. Once we have greater insight into how and why things occur, we can work to change the social conditions that produce these problems. But sociologists won't have much to contribute to this social transformation if only a few people can actually understand what we are saying.

In order for sociologists to reach their potential and play a defining role in making the world a better place, we need to break free from our tendency to use language that is exclusive instead of inclusive. We also need to approach sociological knowledge as if it were an epistemological epidemic (how's that for obfuscation!) that we want to unleash on the world. What I mean by this is that sociologists need to infect others with the sociological imagination. We need to demonstrate to non-sociologists, in a clear and comprehensible manner, that it is highly beneficial to their lives if they see and think of the world through a sociological lens.

In short, if the potential of sociology is to be realized, then the audience for sociological work must be greatly expanded. We need to communicate beyond our insular sociological circles in order for sociology to be part of the mainstream public discourse. Sociologists have many important stories to be told and these stories ought to be shared with as many people as possible.

I should point out that I am in no way suggesting that none of this is happening already. I realize there are many dedicated public sociologists and scholar-activists who do an excellent job of ensuring that sociological knowledge is shared widely and freely. What I am suggesting here is that all sociologists get on board with this agenda. And when I say all sociologists, I mean everyone who sits in a sociology classroom, teaches sociological concepts, studies social processes, or just reads sociological books and articles in their spare time. If you ever think about sociological ideas, like by reading the Everyday Sociology Blog, then I mean you!

Are you on board? If so, you may be wondering what you can do. How do you share your sociological knowledge with a wider audience? And what role can you play if you are still a novice sociologist? It's quite simple: if we want to have a sociology for the masses we must to R.E.L.A.T.E. to the masses. Here is what I mean:     

  • We need to demonstrate the Relevance of our sociological work. Whether you are a student, an instructor, a researcher, or a closet sociologist, you should be able to convey how your sociological knowledge is relevant to your own life and important for the lives of others. At the very least, we should all have what career specialists call the elevator speech: a short, clear, and articulate explanation of the point you are trying to convey. In this case, the point you are conveying is why sociological knowledge is vitally important to our lives.
  • Related to this, we need to Extend our sociological knowledge into our spheres of influence. When we are with our families, friends, and co-workers, we should not shy away from offering sociological insights and invoking sociological explanations. If you are passionate about what you are learning, teaching, or studying then don't limit this knowledge to the educational or scholarly domain. Extend your sociological knowledge to the people with whom you interact daily and encourage them to see the world sociologically.
  • When we extend our knowledge to others we identify and create Linkages between people, places, and processes. In the classroom, this may mean that we connect what we are teaching and learning with what is being taught and learned in other classes—both within the discipline and outside of it. As researchers, this may mean we identify the intersecting themes and theories in our work. Drawing connections is crucial because it underlines our interdependence as thinkers and as beings. If we cannot create linkages with the masses, then sociological knowledge will never be for the masses.
  • Recognizing our inherent link to others—to all others—makes it more likely that we will feel compelled to use our sociological knowledge to Advocate for others. Sociologists uncover many injustices and inequalities through their work. The purpose of these insights is not to paint grim pictures of reality; instead, they should inspire us to imagine and create better realities. Sociological knowledge generates actions to alleviate these damaging social conditions because we recognize that they affect us all: We are the masses. This sentiment was expressed powerfully and poetically by Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson: "If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
  • If sociology is going to advocate for the masses we must be able to Transmit our messages to a wider public audience. We must broadcast our ideas beyond the classroom and beyond journal articles by using social media, popular print media, art, music, theater, and public presentations. In transmitting our ideas we cannot rely on socspeak and we must eschew obfuscation because this sort of language will not be understood. The goal for all of us, whether you are taking an introductory sociology class or teaching it for the umpteenth time, is to work on developing the communicative skills so that you are comfortable as a public intellectual.
  • Lastly, it is crucial that you EMBRACE that you are a sociologist. Don't shy away from this label or identity. Wear this moniker with pride. Refer to yourself as a sociologist so that it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. When you speak to others you should own the fact that you are a sociologist. It's nothing to be ashamed of! Communicating with this sort of enthusiasm, energy, and excitement is infectious and others will want to learn more about your perspective (and may even want to become sociologists themselves).     

The R.E.L.A.T.E. model is just one proposal for cultivating a sociology that is intended for and consumed by a wider audience. If you think there is an aspect of this model that is unnecessary or missing, then amend it. Or better yet, create your own model (and share it publically). The purpose here is to not argue about how to have a sociology for the masses; the point is to just do it!


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