Public Sociology and Contemporary Social Problems

In last few weeks while reading about public sociology, I realized that the role of public sociologist in public, political, and social sphere is a much-needed one. In his article “What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?” Irwin (2017) notes that “sociologists spend their careers in understanding how the society works”. In fact, Gopnik (2015) asks “what is the point of sociology if it can’t tell us that murder is bad or Mozart is great?” I agree with both authors as I do believe that as sociologists we study how society works and eventually with the experience we can answer or at least analyze whether murder is bad or Mozart is great. However, what’s the point of all this if we can’t convey these opinions to the most crucial parts of the society: the public? Or use our expertise to contribute to bringing about some form of social change? Burawoy suggests that professional sociology provides expertise and legitimacy for public sociology. Similarly, Wilson (2007) urges that sociologists should publish intellectual empirical and theoretical work that adds to our own and to the public understanding of the society. In this digitally active world, sociologists have an ability to reach a wider variety of audience through social media and other digital platforms like blogs. However, are there any contemporary social issues that are not actively discussed by sociologists or sociologists aren’t much vocal about?


We have witnessed public sociologists like Patricia Hill Collins participating in research and debates on social problems related to race oppressions, gender, sexuality, and class as well as we read about Burawoy’s analysis on capitalism. However, I did not come across any conversation by public sociologists which explicitly focuses on the sociology of food, especially food shortage or famine. In his book “Soul of a Citizen”, Loeb (2010) states that “everyone in the world has an access to food, housing, and medical care” is a minimum standard to live up to Rabbi Hillel’s statement: “what is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary”. This may be true, I remember I was taught that food is one of the basic human rights. But, there are still millions of people that are starving all over the world. There are various organizations and activists who are actively fighting this massive human rights issue on different levels. However, there aren’t many sociological studies or public sociologists whose focus is analyzing this contemporary social issue of food. In this week’s readings, Loeb provides us with many examples of how people come together, create a sense of society, and fight with social problems together. What can sociologists as academics and citizens do to fight the contemporary social issue such as the one where people are denied a basic human right of food?

In their article “FOOD: A Human Rights Issue Ignored in Sociology”, Ratcliff and Tiamzon claim that sociology as a discipline has ignored food as a topic of sociological inquiry. They state the importance of the sociologically analyzing food or involvement of sociologists in the conversation about food as it is central to human rights and public health as well as pertinent to overall social, political, and economic well-being. In recent days, the famine in Somalia claimed hundreds of lives. This type of a catastrophic situation is a result of the intersection of many social, economic, and environmental setbacks. Sociologists with their expertise can provide a crucial perspective in coming up with a solution to fight these problems. Ratcliff and Tiamzon state that “Community-based activism around food has clearly been extensive and has had an impact on the quality and availability of food. Further successful mobilization in the field would benefit from published sociological research with its potential wide audience of professionals, activists, and students who could then better understand, and become more concerned about, food as a human right”. Irwin (2017) notes that economists are more likely to be involved in policy discussion than sociologists as they shape policy by focusing on most important aspect: the economic data. However, sociologists can provide a much detailed overview of a social problems and establishing its causes. With their research in the field, sociologists can be a part of providing a solution, creating awareness, and shaping policies.

In the spring semester of 2016 at VCU, I took a course “Sociology of Food & Nutrition. It indeed was one of the most enlightening courses I have taken. I could see the practical use of course’s content to engage in analyzing food related problems and changing certain behavior to support local sustainable food systems. I learned about US food system, right from production to packaging and consumers. I also learned about how food systems are interrelated to public health, environment, geography, policy planning, nutrition, and business. In our assigned textbook “Introduction to US Food System (2015)” by Roni Neff, he explains that problems related to food system are “wicked” problems according to sociologists as “stakeholders do not agree on the problem or its causes; each attempt to create a solution changes the problem; solutions are not right or wrong, just better or worse; solutions must be tailored to the situation, and they cannot be solved by people from any one discipline alone; multidisciplinary approaches are required”. I hope that we are able to get over this “wicked” problem to unite and engage in more active conversation about “food as a human right”.


Gopnik, A. (2015). The Outside Game – How the sociologist Howard Becker studies the conventions of the unconventional. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Irwin, N. (2017). What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Ratcliff, K., & Tiamzon, T. (2013). FOOD: A Human Rights Issue Ignored in Sociology. Societies Without Borders8(1), 122-136. Retrieved from

Neff, R. (2015). Introduction to the US food system: public health, environment, and equity. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

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

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.

One thought on “Public Sociology and Contemporary Social Problems

  1. Rucha, excellent points about sociologists being involved in the debates over food security and insecurity. I do think that as we see the growth of this sub-discipline (I know a few people who have just completed dissertations on this exact topic in Sociology), this will begin to change. Often we have left this discussion for the nutritionists and policy makers, but as we’re seeing, if people aren’t fed, there’s not much else they can do. Is this an area you’re particularly interested in working in? There’s a lot of great organizations both nationally and locally working on these issues. We can’t solve educational inequities if children are hungry. We also can’t expect to curb health-related illnesses if people only have access to packaged food. I think we’re starting to see the connections here. What I am also interested in is how big companies and lobbyists shape our views of these “problems”–from GMO debates to what a plate of food should look like.

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