I would like to start a running column detailing some thoughts about Sociology and its role in the world. Public Sociology is the attempt to bring Sociology to the citizenry in such a way as to be helpful. It is a hijacking of the term public intellectual that is more popular in Europe. Really, if what we do academically doesn’t eventually reach the citizenry, and help folks make decisions about their lives and communities, then all that’s left is autoerotic amusement. And while I enjoy a good conference as much as the next academic, I wouldn’t want my valuable discipline to get lost in the fray.
That said, Sociology has not done a good job making itself known the last few years. Economists, Psychologists, Social Workers, Opinion Researchers, Pollsters, Criminologists, and many other social scientists have done a better job connecting their disciplines to an interested public.
I don’t know if it’s because of the politics of the discipline, the efforts of academic success, or what, but we need to do a better job connecting with people. Everybody who’s done at least a year of grad school in sociology has heard the explanation “Oh cool, my brother in law is a social worker too.” The only news service that ever seems to contact Sociologists for comment is NPR, and as much as I like it, some days I think only other academics are listening. So we clearly need to get out of the tower and onto the street.
Here we can be a little critical of the discipline. It is fairly easy to fall into thinking that since I study the social world, economics, politics, culture, and such, that I have some special insight into the social world. Even if I do, approaching the public in that way is counterproductive. We need to balance our insight with respect for the opinions and perspectives of the people we wish to address. Certainly, a parent of a new freshman feels he or she has some insight into the social world. Certainly a small business owner feels he or she has some insight into economics and human nature. Certainly the lawyer thinks he or she has some insight into politics and the law.
So in my attempt to get my discipline out to those who might benefit from it, I am also going to try and listen better. I will try and respect what the public is saying, even if I disagree. In the best of all possible worlds, my Sociology will help them make better decisions in their lives and communities, even if we don’t see eye to eye on everything.
So, if you wish to hear what I might have to say, check back from time to time. Let’s try for Mondays for a little while.