Go Public, Write A Novel

Coinciding with the rise of social media, public sociology as an explicitly designated discipline is relatively new.  Its purpose is to bring the “publics” into the discussions regarding social issues and research that impact them. In turn, non-academic audiences gain information about what academics have learned and can be motivated towards social and political activism thereby contributing to the body of knowledge. Over the last decade, social media has allowed sociologists to reach wider audiences and for those audiences to interact in kind. But it may not be enough.

Kieran Healy gives three aspects of social media that facilitates public sociology. It is easier to share your work with others, to be seen and converse in “real-time” or “shifted” via comments and replies, and to measure engagement by counting reactions, comments, shares, etc. (Healy 2017:771). The second aspect is essential to the “public” part of public sociology; the ability of the public to interact regardless of the original poster still monitoring their post. The downside is as your impact grows you become a larger target for harassment from those who disagree with or dislike what you post. Additionally, the desire to measure engagement can be problematic. Academic institutions can easily track and rank the intellectual output of their employees since these measures lead to knowledge about what works on social media. Unfortunately, Academics are not being rewarded by their institutions if their online work successfully reaches and grows an audience. Amy Schalet (2016) points out in her article, “Should writing for the public count toward tenure?” that what does count is publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals or books through university presses. This latter point is an opening to another tactic public sociology can take, fiction writing.

Don’t consider yourself creative enough? Consider how creatives have found similar success and problems on social media as academics have. The Web has removed gates for many who wish to share their works, leading to a proliferation of fine art and storytelling. It has also allowed for an intersection between creative and academic works.  Ben Wellington’s I Quant NY blog, combines his skills as a data analyst with his interests in city planning and improv comedy to write articles on infrastructure data that people actually read. He explains in a TEDx talk that it was his capacity for storytelling that drew attention from people and city institutions (TEDx Talks 2015).  However, storytelling can be difficult when the story is on-going and dynamic, as is often the case for the socially relevant stories sociologist want to tell. Fiction is not so constrained since it can have an end even if it’s not “the end.”

Literary fiction has been telling us stories relevant to their day for generations. Larry Isaac (2009) illuminates novel writing as part of social movements’ cultural productions. Labor Problem Novels were popular enough in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to be a subgenre of their own. “This process of genre differentiation changed literary cultural stock in ways that provided new materials for class-based understandings of the world” (Isaac 2009:958). But a single story is more a reflection of the culture or attitudes from one group than an implement of social change. It is the collection of cultural output and their diffusion through society can push social change (Inglis 1938, Albrecht 1954, Savci 2006). Research from the last few decades suggests that cultural diffusion is not reliant on social elites and has more to do with our social networks and surrounding socializing forces, such as media (Strang and Meyer 1993, Pierotti 2013, Schwadel and Garneu 2014). Perhaps the proliferation of media is even the cause of this. Gabriel and Young (2011) demonstrated how reading narrative stories can provide a connection to fictional social identities. When surveyed afterward, readers had self-associations with either wizards or vampires depending on if they read Harry Potter or Twilight.

Public sociology should make use of the connections people form with fiction. Some university presses have imprints for fiction publishing. It is not enough for sociologists to put their works out into the world; they must be read and be popularly diffused.  When you think you are going to write the next “Outsiders,” write “The Outsiders” instead.

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