This week I've asked us to read the thoughts of some sociologists (and a journalist!) about whether sociologists and their research is relevant to the public and in particular, in the public spaces where people come together to discuss and create the policies and laws that shape our world, about whether it "should" be made relevant in these spaces, and about how it might be made more relevant.
We begin by reading Patricia Hill Collin's short article from Contexts where she proposes two strategies of intellectual activism and suggests that both are necessary for "working across differences and building communities in which dialogue is possible" (37). We read Orlando Patterson's critique of sociology as having made itself irrelevant in policy debates, part because academics avoid "engaging in public discourse," because they neglect to highlight the importance of culture and engaging in public discourse for cultural change, and because they do not participate in designing research that would make a difference in the lives of those who are disadvantaged within society. Fabio Rojas explains why activism and academia don't mix, suggesting that the structural features of the academy constrain the efforts of academics to engage with public audiences. Then, Nathan Jurgenson provides suggestions for how academics 'can' become relevant. Finally, Karen Sternheimer, over at Everyday Sociology Blog, discusses "the promise and perils" of working with journalists to share sociological perspectives and research on current issues with the public. This serves as a nice complement to the perspective of a journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich, on working with sociologists/social scientists (an article from the edited volume, Public Sociology).
So, your task is to read this collection of articles and try to make some sense of them. What do you make of this debate? I have summarized the main ideas of their work, but you should identify and synthesize their arguments. Where do they agree? Disagree? From this collection of work, what are the roadblocks to social scientists seeking to engage with a public audience? Should social science influence public debate and public policy? How might it be done? To whom should the work be addressed? In your response, recall C. Wright Mills' discussion about the role of the social scientist. What would he say to these questions? And finally, what do you think? What do you make of the fact that this is a debate being had by people with advanced degrees at universities? How might the conversation change if we were to think in terms of how people with social science training outside of the university setting (and outside of the PhD) might engage with the public?
I look forward to reading your thoughts. Is anyone outside of the class reading along with us? What do you think? Tell me in the comments.
References to printed works (I have linked to blog posts above):
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2013. "truth-telling and intellectual activism" in Contexts 12:1, Pp. 36-39. Temple University Press.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. 2007. "A Journalist's Plea." Pp. 231-238 in Public Sociology, edited by Clawson, Dan, Robert Zussman, Joya Misra, Naomi Gerstel, Randall Stokes, Douglas L. Anderton, and Michael Burawoy. Berkeley, CA: University of CA Press.