Conference Report: Bringing Cultural Sociology to the Public

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 3.

Bringing Cultural Sociology to the Public

Written by Daniel Hirschman (Brown),
Compiled by Ande Reisman (Univ. of Washington)


An annual feature of the ASA meetings is the Culture Section Professionalization Workshop, which focuses on a topic relevant to the professional development of graduate students and junior faculty by focusing on writing, publishing, and career opportunity skills. In Philadelphia for ASA 2018 the topic was, “Bringing Cultural Sociology to the Public.” The session focused on how sociologists, as scholars uniquely poised to weigh in on a variety of conversations relating to current events, can communicate their work to the broader public, particularly to influence news coverage. We featured Daniel Hirschman, Ellen Berrey (Toronto), Greggor Mattson (Oberlin College), and Jessi Streib (Duke). Panelists were asked to talk about how we can best communicate what we know about culture to create a better understanding of social problems and to offer advice for having the most purchase in the media. Daniel Hirschman has written a summary for those who were unable to attend the panel.

Screenshot from 2018-11-15 10-14-32Greggor, Ellen, and Jessi each illustrated a different approach to public sociology, which in turn connect to different strategies of engagement. I think we can perhaps usefully characterize these strategies as reactive, proactive, and promotional. These strategies reflect different temporalities, and draw on different genres and media. Greggor’s story is one about reacting to a particular claim that hit the news cycle. The goal of this reaction was to introduce sociology into a conversation begun by another discipline, and in so doing to offer a corrective to a misleading story. Greggor wasn’t planning to write long blog posts about the basics of sex vs. gender vs. sexuality or the way algorithms can mislead if you approach them with the wrong understanding of how the social world works. But the need and opportunity arose simultaneously with the circulation of the poorly-constructed “gaydar” study. Greggor was well-positioned to take advantage of the situation because he knew the topic and was already sufficiently connected through social media to other academics and to journalists, especially through his high-traffic blog. He was able to write a funny and insightful post that contextualized gayness as a social identity quickly enough to react to the news cycle and promote that post through his network, getting it into the hands of journalists in time to affect coverage of the underlying study.

Screenshot from 2018-11-15 10-14-40.png

Ellen’s strategy starts not with a news event, but with an argument that she wanted to get into the world. That is, based on her research, Ellen wanted to make certain claims about how diversity discourse limits conversations about race. Ellen then proactively looked for opportunity to connect that argument to larger story, in order to interest a wide audience. A Twitterstorm of outrage about Matt Damon whitesplaining race provided the hook she needed to make her argument relevant to the immediate conversation. But the purpose of her engagement was not primarily to comment on Damon, but to try to reframe diversity discussions more broadly. Here, Ellen drew on her training and experience in writing op-eds, drafting the core of the argument in advance and then tailoring it to be able to place it in a sufficiently prominent outlet, Salon,when the opportunity arose. Her presence (or lack thereof) on social media was largely irrelevant, though perhaps helped a bit in circulating the piece.

Finally, Jessi’s temporality was dictated by the promotional calendar of publishing. Her goal was to create a story, and thus help to share the insights from her newly-published book on cross-class marriages and how culture varies by class into a wider audience. In a sense, the publication of the book itself become the event whose timing Jessi took advantage of to repackage her arguments for different media. Journalists are on the lookout for new work that they can write about; Jessi’s role then became facilitating their stories that were prompted by the book The Atlantic, Vox, NPR, BBC, and others (as well as writing her own op-ed pieces for The Washington Post). And in her case, a social media presence was largely unnecessary—most of the outreach happened through traditional channels.

Each of these approaches highlights one useful way of engaging in public sociology. I want to add one more, which I borrow in part from a fantastic essay by Kieran Healy: doing sociology in public. While Greggor, Ellen, and Jessi all sought to bring wider attention to fully-formed arguments (either core disciplinary understandings applied to current topics, as in Greggor’s case, or newer research findings, as in Ellen and Jessi’s), another alternative focuses on making your work more accessible before it’s finalized. At the simplest level, this process can involve posting working papers on a site like SocArXiv, where other scholars and journalists or other interested individuals can access and read the work. This practice may also involve sharing data and code, or posting on blogs about data analysis or findings that are partial or still in-progress. This practice has the advantage of making your work literally accessible to a wide audience, in that most people will not be able to access research published in a paywalled journal. But it also makes it possible to engage with a wider audience while the work can still be changed. The benefit here to you is not just getting your work more exposure, or educating the public about sociology (both important goals!), but really improving the work itself. Additionally, it can dramatically shorten the lag between completing (at least a draft of) the project and when interested parties find it and are capable of learning from it. For example, Ellen Berrey and I posted a working paper to SocArXiv about trends in the consideration of race in college admissions, which we simultaneously submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. We didn’t promote the working paper much—a few tweets and Facebook posts, and left it at that. But, the news cycle happened to come around to affirmative action, and a Slate journalist saw our paper and wrote up an article about it without ever contacting us. Because we’d made our work accessible, someone else was able to do the work of translating it to make it relevant for the news of the day.

So, to try to summarize: you can approach public sociology with different goals in mind (changing a narrative, promoting an argument, improving an argument), and doing so may draw on different skills and resources (social media presence, op-ed writing, media connections, online outlets for works in progress). Think about what you want out of your public sociology, and where your strengths are, and figure out how to make the two work together.