Blog I: Introduction to Public Sociology

Public Sociology?

Public sociology, by definition can be described as a sociology that engages diverse publics, expanding beyond universities, where dialogues with publics are ongoing with regard to fundamental values (Zussman; Misra, 2007). Further, public sociology deals with a shift from traditional sociological methods of inquiry and application to a more practical, hands on approach to understand social phenomena.  Traditional sociology involves a focus on professional and critical knowledge maintained and confined to academic communities.  On the contrary, public sociology demands a different approach- calling for sociologists to leave their academic communities and engage with such audiences as policy makers, lawyers, community groups, employers, media, their students, and the general public in their natural “habitats” (Badgett, 2015).  Public sociologists implement a more subjective methodology to their audience(s), becoming a part of the social situation, seeking to involve all participants for hopes of effective, impactful change.

Why Public Sociology?

Considering the various other forms of sociology- professional, policy, and critical, some professionals in the field ask “why include public sociology as independent?”.  There are some sociologists who are of the opinion that sociologists already practice public sociology and question its relevance as an independent methodology.  According to Badgett (2015), when challenged to leave their “cultural exclusivity”, sociologists responded “many scholars, who pushed back, pointing out that many professors engage on public matters through their blogs, outreach to policy makers, and teaching” (p. 16).  In addition there is some concern the strong focus on public sociology is influenced by politics.  Specific to American sociology and its difficulties towards the end of the 20th century, some consider the question “ “Is public sociology a PR stunt to increase legitimacy?” (Kalleberg, 2005).  By contrast, Michael Burawoy, former president of the American Sociological Association, supports public sociology’s ability to return sociology to its calling, according to Zussman, Misra (2007), “Burawoy issued an impassioned call for a revitalization of sociology in a turn to a “public sociology” distinguished by its use of reflexive knowledge and its appeal beyond the university” (p. 3).  Burawoy’s support of public sociology is shared with professionals such as French sociologist Alain Touraine, and Patricia Hill Collins who is self-identified as unabashedly a practitioner of public sociology, while critics such as Lynn Smith-Lovin, Arthur Stinchcombe, and Douglas Massey show concern for too much political involvement (Zussman; Misra, 2007).  The debate continues with concerns for sociology as a discipline as well as the effectiveness of public sociology and its place within the academic community.

Value of Public Sociology-Within the Scientific Community and Beyond   

There is debate within the sociological community surrounding the application and effectiveness of public sociology.  The application of public sociology is dynamic, with varying degrees of support and criticism from sociologists.  Subsequently the level of effectiveness and necessity of public sociology varies with the same sociologists.  Proponents of public sociology support public sociology’s ability to reach beyond that of policy, professional, and critical sociology, allowing for a deeper understanding of social issues by engaging with diverse public audiences.  Public sociology, both traditional and organic, allow sociologists to observe and/or become involved in public debate, with organic sociology allowing professionals to work in close connection with local, oftentimes countercultures (Burawoy, 2005).  Of significant value to supporters of public sociology is its ability, along with policy sociology, to have a direct application to a public audience.  By contrast, both professional sociology and critical sociology take an academic focus which for public sociology supporters strengthens their stance.  Supporting claims that public sociology can benefit both academia and the public, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (2014) states “the application of sociology outside academia therefore has a significant benefit to sociology’s scientific influence and its significance to the general public” (p. 2).  Public sociology remains a topic among sociologists due to its effectiveness at reaching public audiences out of reach of other types of sociology.  As long as it can legitimize itself by proving effective when implemented autonomously, public sociology will most likely continue to prove valuable.

How to Implement Public Sociology

According to Karen Sternheimer (2013), “Michael Burawoy encouraged sociologists to think beyond the academic tradition of sharing our ideas only with other professionals in academic journals” (p. 1).  The obvious question when addressing Burawoy’s statement would then be “How does a sociologist” employ this methodology?  Academics as well as public sociologists can reach public audiences through a series of steps, leading them to engaging interactions with potentially diverse, more representative populations.  Instrumental in implementing public sociology is the ability to identify target audiences such as policy makers, lawmakers, teachers, activists, and the general public.  These audiences will allow sociologists to engage at varying levels (using either traditional public sociology or organic public sociology), significantly increasing the likelihood of producing sustainable, impactful results.  In addition to identifying audiences, sociologists must recognize the “big picture” when addressing social phenomena of interest, with focus on the details of the argument and objectively observing all audience involved in a situation before involving themselves in the debate.  Tools such as brainstorming charts that list pros and cons of debates can be used as well as flow charts that show relationships between arguments.  The process of public sociology is dynamic, with distinct steps to effectively initiate one’s role and work to implement change.  Through continued practice and a commitment to one’s audience(s) public sociology can effectively reach populations that arguably other academic types are not capable of.

References:

Badgett, M. V. L. (2015). The public professor: How to use your research to change the world. New York and London: New York University Press.

Burawoy, M. (2005). For public sociology. American Sociological Review, 70(1), 4-28.

Kalleberg, R. (2005). What is ‘ public sociology’? why and how should it be made stronger? British Journal of Sociology, 56(3), 387-393. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2005.00070.x

Sternheimer, K. (2013). The promise and perils of public sociology. Retrieved from http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2013/07/the-promise-and-perils-of-public-sociology.html

Zevallos, Z. (2014). Breaking down the otherness of applied sociology. Retrieved from http://www.sociologyatwork.org/otherness-of-applied-sociology/

Zussman, R., & Misra, J. (2007). In Clawson D., Zussman R., Misra J., Gerstel N., Stokes R., Anderton D. L. and Burawoy M. (Eds.), Public sociology: Introduction. Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

4 comments on “Week 2: Introduction to Public Sociology

  • Beni you do a great job here of summarizing the various readings and providing a comprehensive overview of what we know thus far about public sociology. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the topic–is there a specific approach or perspective you agree with more than others? Is it really a PR stunt for the legitimacy of the discipline? As we’ll discuss later in the semester, it’s really interesting how few sociologists you see interviewed on television. I think that’s changing with a shifting political landscape, but why is it that we can interview economists and political scientists frequently, but for some reason sociologists haven’t made the cut. Any thoughts?

    • Dr. Katz,
      I absolutely have an opinion in regards to collaboration between types of sociology. I am a huge proponent of collaboration among professionals, especially in regards to similar but distinctly different areas. Sociologists competing for recognition, either for PR purposes or ego’s sake are missing valuable opportunities to make significant change among the professional and public communities. I see the argument and value in considering the impact of politics and economics on sociology and so many other fields of study but it is important that sociologists and other scientific professionals work to keep their voices heard-this is also where collaboration is critical versus bickering among themselves. In reflecting on current and past social situations there is a lack of coverage for sociologists, thanks for making me aware of that. I would have to say the lack of input from sociologists and more for politicians and economists is the elevated levels of influence they have on policy and decision making-certainly this is tied to the influence of money and power. Learning more and more about sociology and social science it in many ways mirrors challenges of life sciences in terms of challenges to be heard over politics and economic issues-the Dakota pipeline one example that sticks out as I am typing. I am a naturalist and environmentalist and proudly becoming a sociologist so I would have to say that our viewpoints, and professions will continue to struggle for impact over the strength and influence of politics and money. Unfortunately in situations like food insecurity, the water shut offs from our Podcast, pipeline considerations (okay most social and environmental scenarios) the root issues of the debate are debunked by issues of money or somebody needing to achieve or keep a seat in office. I am not overly critical, I am just in favor of objective, well balanced and thoughtful responses to social issues where all audiences get equally addressed to make sustainable change.

  • I liked and agree with your points about knowing and finding your audience. The way to engage a public to make sure you are aligned with their perceived needs. Once there is common interest and a feeling of being on a common road, cooperation is a much smoother process. A sociologist’s job includes finding appropriate audiences and outlets for the research and direction one goes. Tailoring to an audience in a helpful fashion helps us all answer the “so what?” of our profession. Sociology is very applicable in the real world, but it is a part of our job to find pathways for this application. I loved how Badgett offers many suggestions for collaboration with different agencies, offices, non-profits and the like.

    • Tara,
      Thanks for your critique. I am enjoying reading Badgett, there are alot of great examples in the text that follow the content, especially in the provided Boxes. This whole greater conversation about Public Sociology is interesting, I am learning a great deal about the boundary between academics and the public. I enjoyed reading your first blog post as well, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Beni

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