Public Sociology: Engaging with Public

The assigned readings in last few weeks have helped me to understand public sociology from different perspectives. Public sociology is an indispensable field of sociology discipline which emphasizes extending the disciplinary boundaries and reaching beyond the academic institutions to engage with non-academic audiences. Traditionally, sociology as a discipline is often has a limited focus on maintaining the professional and critical knowledge within the confined boundaries of academia; however, public sociology requires sociologists to venture out of academia and collaborate with public. In his 2004 presidential address of ASA, Michael Burawoy encouraged the sociologists to engage with the political/public issues and not to restrict themselves by sharing their ideas with only professional/academic audience.

According to Burawoy, through professional sociology, academics can provide “expertise and legitimacy” to the public sociology (Wilson, 2007). William Wilson (2007) agrees with Burawoy; he explains that “sociologists’ knowledge of the way the world works enables them to make better cause-and-effect connections than can most observers in the public arenas” (Wilson, 2007). Wilson (2007) notes that even though it is evident that sociologists can influence public policy and contribute to public debate, they are often unable to reach the general public and get their ideas out as their research/work is published in academic journals, which are not easily accessible to general public. In fact, sociologists often feel that it is good that their research is not drawing much attention from media and policy makers as it protects the discipline from external pressures of pursuing specific research topics (Wilson, 2007). Buroway also shares the same opinion; he states “many professional sociologists fear public involvement will corrupt science and threaten the legitimacy of the discipline as well as the material resources it will have at its disposal” (Wilson, 2007). However, this type of behavior often leads to minimal exposure to work of sociologists and sociology discipline; as a result, sociologists are often left out of the decision-making in public sphere, it attracts fewer students, and face difficulties in receiving research funding from private and government agencies (Wilson, 2007).

Buroway emphasized that public sociologists should be able to reach multiple publics; these include but are not limited to general public, media outlets, politicians, government agencies, legislators, and community groups. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that media and social media are the most influential ways to reach public. Currently, most general public receives their news and research from either media or social media. For academics, it can work as a platform for reaching public easily and making their findings/research known to the public. In fact, Wilson (2007) argues that the work of a public sociologist attracts both media and academic attention, it can be considered good public sociology as opposed to bad. In his presidential address, Buroway (2004) provides an example of such projects of public sociology by addressing the Boston College’s Media Research and Action Project which “brings sociologists together with community organizers to discover how best to present social issues to media”. Communicating to the public via any type of media and social media helps academics/sociologists to voice their opinions, show their support for a cause, and eventually enables them to reach politicians and legislators who can find their work as a valuable contribution towards policy making.

Last week’s readings focused on how public sociologists and other academics can contribute to activism and social movements. We learned the importance of how academics can bring a valuable dimension to the social movements with their research findings and expertise. However, the author Amy Schalet of the article “Should writing for the public count toward tenure?” argues that public engagement does not count within the academy as a scholarly contribution. Faculties and academics are often dependent on their professional and published work for tenure, restricting their work in the public arena. However, when they contribute to the public arena by writing articles for the popular media or engaging in social movements, that work is not considered in the faculty evaluations. Loeb (2010) provides an example of this academy or public dilemma with the incident of Derrick Bell’s protest in 1990. Derrick Bell took an unpaid leave to protest against Harvard Law School’s refusal to hire a single female Latino, Asian, or Native American professor. He was given an ultimatum by the university to either return to his tenured teaching position or lose it, he chose to forfeit his position. Bell was taking a moral stand for what he believed in, for more diversity in his university. If we look at it from a wider lens, his stance was for greater public good. However, the popular media writings or campaigning for the public good does not count towards the tenure at academic institutions. The world where the academy is adapting to new technologies and modern interfaces, where we can obtain degrees online and classrooms are becoming digitalized, shouldn’t tenured faculties be able to receive academic credit towards their contribution in popular media?




Loeb, P. R. (2010). Soul of a citizen: living with conviction in challenging times. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Schalet, A. (2016, August 19). Should writing for the public count toward tenure? Retrieved February 27, 2017, from The Conversation,

Wilson, W. J. (2007). Speaking to publics. In D. Clawson, R. Zussman, J. Misra, N. Gerstel, R. Stokes, D. L. Anderton & M. Burawoy (Eds.), Public sociology (pp. 117) University of California Press.

2 thoughts on “Public Sociology: Engaging with Public

  1. Rucha, given that a lot of people now get their news from social media (and now there is a debate, which we’ll discuss later about ‘fake news’), do you think that sociologists would be mindful to take to social media? Dr. Cottom is a great example of someone who does. Should we continue to expand our definitions of publics?

    1. I think taking to social media is a need of the ‘time’. Academics shouldn’t be bound to their geographical location. Especially, if they are anything like Dr. Cottom, who has so much information to offer and can articulate her argument in 140 characters (:)), they should be able to take this opportunity of communicating via social media. Twitter and other social media platforms open up so many opportunities for idea exchange. Additionally, we are not just limited to 140 characters, we can add external links to that tweet to redirect to much detailed work. With pressures on academics to demonstrate the impact of their work, social media can definitely prove to be a step forward. Also, if retweeted, the work of academics has a potential of reaching thousands of people.

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