A Sociology for Public Sociology: Some Needed Disciplinary Changes for Creating Public Sociology

Herbert J. Gans, Columbia University

Michael Burawoy’s dramatic reinvention of and powerful advocacy for public sociology at the ASA’s 2004 annual meetings has set off a process to incorporate public sociology into the current discipline. Although it is too early to determine what paths that process will take, so far there seems to be more discourse about public sociology than activity to advance it, or for that matter, a new outpouring of high quality public sociology. This essay argues that such activity–and outpouring–require some serious structural changes in the discipline and describes several urgent ones, both in the organization of the discipline and in sociological graduate education.

I emphasize urgent because the active development of public sociology is essential to the healthy future of the discipline. Although sociology is growing numerically in a variety of ways, its status in the social sciences and in American intellectual life has not kept up with that growth. Exciting intellectual work is being done in a number of sociology’s fields, but it does not show up often enough in the journals that speak for the entire discipline or in the now existing varieties of public sociology.

Moreover, public sociology is facing formidable competition from other disciplines. For example, a number of economists are now doing research on topics once considered solely sociological. Their work, sometimes called Freakonomics {{1}}, frequently offers counter-intuitive conclusions about taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life and the operation of major societal institutions. Because the researchers are economists, they have far easier access to the general public than sociologists.

Likewise, some historians are now writing about periods that have barely become history and are still part of our disciplinary turf. They appear frequently in the literary and other journals that appeal to the educated general public and their books are reviewed in the major general book reviews that almost uniformly ignore sociological writing.

Anthropology represents another emergent source of competition, for today’s social and cultural anthropologists are doing research in America. The research is often so similar to that done by sociologists that some of them have thereafter become sociologists. Furthermore, an increasing number of freelance journalists, a number of whom have clearly taken courses in sociology, are writing books and magazine articles on topics and with methods that verge on the sociological. Perhaps our most ambitious and well-publicized competitors are the life scientists and evolutionary psychologists who regularly discover new genes to instantly explain complex social phenomena that sociologists and other social scientists have labored long and hard to understand.

The Purposes and Varieties of Public Sociology

For the purposes of this essay, public sociology will be defined as sociological analysis (or if you will, description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation) that is intended, mostly in written form, to reach or actually reaches one or another audience in what is usually called the general public. This kind of public sociology is what most sociologists think of when they describe and do public sociology. My discussion therefore excludes what Burawoy calls organic public sociology {{2}}, which requires some very different disciplinary, organizational, and other changes in sociology.

The distinction between intent and actuality is important, for however much we want to reach that audience, the public sociology created to appear in print, electronic, and digital mass and “class” media has to be accepted by those media’s gatekeepers. True, we can write what we consider important or interesting, but if the gatekeepers do not agree, they may not open their gates. Then our work cannot become actual public sociology.

Obviously conventional written public sociology (hereafter just called public sociology) ought to help the discipline grow in quality and reputation, but it must do so by fulfilling what I consider public sociology’s primary purpose: to help people, in the general public and elsewhere, understand the society in which they live. In order to achieve that purpose, the discipline should produce public sociology that the public and we consider relevant to and useful for as many sectors and strata of society as possible.

Creating a relevant and useful public sociology requires discussion–and operational definitions–of relevance and usefulness. In a diverse, often polarized and conflicted society, for whom sociology is and can be relevant and useful needs discussion as well. Furthermore, that sociology must include both what people want to know and what we believe they ought to know as members of society, including even ideas and findings they, or media gatekeepers, would prefer not to know about.

In pursuing various forms of relevance and usefulness, the discipline also has to ponder its place in the division of labor, as well as what I hope is the eventual convergence of the social sciences. Meanwhile, sociology ought to exploit its distinctiveness and emphasize what it does best.

I suggest that sociology continues to be distinctive in four ways:

(1) Much of its empirical data, quantitative and qualitative, comes from ordinary people, obtained by going out into “the field” in various ways, but mainly through fieldwork, interviewing, and survey research.

(2) Sociology continues to venture into areas and subjects the other social sciences are reluctant or slow to study until we have been there first. Because we concentrate on ordinary people and still do relatively little data gathering among elites, we look at society from the bottom up more often than our sister disciplines.

(3) Sociology remains a skilled debunker of conventional wisdoms as well as an investigative reporter and analyst of social injustices. It also looks a little harder at what is taken for granted and unexamined in everyday life, by major institutions, and by the various sectors and strata of society.

(4) Sociology remains philosophically more adventurous than most of the other social sciences. As a result, it is sometimes more able to be detached and distanced than they, and it has not refrained from using relativism, relationism, reflexivity, constructionism, and other not always popular ways of looking at the social world.

Eye-Opening Public Sociology

Most existing public sociology is already completed empirical or theoretical inquiry which is summarized, synthesized, and rewritten for the various sectors of the non-sociological public. This is generally described as popularization. Sometimes, though not yet often enough, public sociology offers a sociological take on topics and issues of current interest or concern, although someday I hope sociological columnists and others will be able to supply that sociological take whenever the discipline has something useful and relevant to add to the general discussion.

However, I would like to suggest the need for another public sociology, which I choose to call eye-opening: original, insightful, and attention-attracting empirical and theoretical research on topics useful and relevant to all parts of the general public we can reach, written in English they can understand. In fact, if public sociology is to flourish, sociologists must regularly produce eye-opening studies that enable the general public to understand their society and others in new ways. Sterling examples include the Lynds’ Middletown, Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Liebow’s Tally’s Corner, Hochschild’s Second Shift, and Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, but a much longer list of past and present ones can easily be assembled.{{3}}

Eye-opening public sociology is in reality just a catchy label for original basic research–the best of the research we conduct and report as a discipline to an audience of peers and students. It becomes public sociology when it concentrates on topics relevant to the general public and when it is written in their English rather than the technical variety I think of as sociologese.

In that case, the gatekeepers of public sociology will not only become interested in the authors of such works, but if the discipline produces enough of them, the gatekeepers’ view of the discipline and other actual and potential public sociologists will be enhanced.

Topic-Driven and Theory-Driven Basic Research

However, basic research comes in two varieties. One is topic-driven, and if the topics concern or should concern the general public, it is a candidate for eye-opening public sociology. Actually, in order to attract the general public, the topics should include topical ones, that is, those on a subject or issue of the day, provided the researchers can proceed more speedily than academics do normally.

The second variety of basic research, which most sociologists conduct most of the time, endeavors to develop concepts and to formulate or test theories in the discipline; consequently, I think of it as theory-driven. Of course, theory-driven research also investigates topics but these are frequently different from, or differently formulated than, those engaging the general public.

Topic-driven research differs from theory-driven research in other ways.{{4}} It is not generally considered normal science or a candidate for paradigm change {{5}} and it does not seek to contribute to “the literature,” the disciplinary warehouse of research. Consequently, topic-driven research eschews conceptual discussions, theoretical explorations, and literature reviews, as well as the footnotes and bibliographies that show how much we stand on each others’ shoulders.

I do not mean to denigrate theory-driven research, for neither topic-driven research nor public sociology could exist without it. The general public will not pay much attention to debates about structure and agency and discussions of cultural and narrative turns, but these often play an indirect or even direct role in topic-driven research. Theory-driven sociology is therefore one of the raw materials needed to produce public sociology. Moreover, as long as the producers of public sociology are academics, their topic-driven studies must also satisfy enough of the occupational criteria of theory-driven work to enable them to find jobs and obtain tenure. Besides, many sociologists do both topic and theory-driven work, and the best of the former is generally also a contribution to the latter.

Some Dangers of Public Sociology

Despite its promises, public sociology may also bring with it some dangers for the discipline. One is writing it to publicize or show off the discipline or the work of its authors. Another is producing work that sociologizes common sense or already known ideas and findings, thus reviving old stereotypes of sociology as restatements of the obvious.{{6}}

A further danger is that public sociology becomes a new, and inferior track within the discipline {{7}}  and thus subject to the deadly effects of the academic transformation of new ideas.{{8}} A related danger is pandering to the audiences of public sociology by equating popularity with quality.{{9}} Conversely, the best public sociology is apt to be controversial, and we lack some of the skills needed for dealing with controversy.

These and other possible ways by which public sociology could hurt the discipline suggests we step carefully in venturing into new venues. More important, such venturing should be preceded or at least accompanied by changes in the structure and infrastructure of the discipline, especially its incentive systems and training programs.

Some Needed Changes in the Discipline

I will discuss only a few such changes, for the discipline in general and for graduate education. Needless to say, public sociology requires funding, and we need to justify receiving it. Although individual sociologists can produce brief work in public sociology on their own time, funding skillful practitioners of public sociology to do additional work would be desirable.

More urgently, public agencies and foundations are needed to pay for the eye-opening topic-driven research that I believe will result in the most desirable and effective public sociology. Research support is especially necessary because empirical studies that will most interest the general public are likely to be labor-intensive. Ethnographic and depth-interview research is more likely to get past the gatekeepers of public sociology than quantitative work, notable exceptions notwithstanding.

Public agencies and foundations that fund sociology are often concerned with social problems, public policy, and other topical issues that lend themselves to presentation as public sociology. Some even encourage research reports that can be turned into trade books, magazine articles, and documentaries. Many funders would probably be supportive if grantees were eager to report their findings to the general public, especially if they can come up with eye-opening work.

Since funding decisions are generally made by or with the help of peer reviewers, review panels will have to include more public sociologists or reviewers sympathetic to public sociology. Presumably some funders will ask applicants to demonstrate that their public sociology will pass muster with the relevant gatekeepers.

In an ideal world, sufficient funding would enable the best of the current and new public sociologists to spend all their time researching and writing. This is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, if ever; consequently, public sociologists have to continue to earn their living in the academy or elsewhere. However, as academics, new recruits cannot even become prolific public sociologists unless and until they are eligible for the same promotions, tenure appointments, and other rights, privileges, and rewards as theory-driven basic researchers doing normal science and contributing to the disciplinary literature.

At this writing, the number of people who produce public sociology often enough to be called public sociologists is small, and while some who are nationally visible may be respected in the discipline, others are wrongly disparaged as “journalists.”{{10}} In sociology as in the other social sciences, people who consider themselves scientists first and foremost are often critical of colleagues who seek to communicate their science to the general public, if only because it has to be reframed and simplified to appeal to such an audience. When sociologists who are hostile to public sociology control the academic power structure, in sociology as in other social science disciplines, scholars whose work is looked down on as journalism are not likely to obtain tenure.

A vicious circle operates here; the disparagement and discrimination that accompany public sociology are likely to end once there are more public sociologists, the general public has smiled favorably on their work, and the status and prestige of sociology have risen. However, few sociologists will want to put their career at risk until the stigmatizing of public sociology shows signs of declining.

Obviously, the incentive structure has to be changed, and university administrations can be helpful here. Many universities like the publicity and visibility they gain from faculty members whose work shows up in the mass media or is favorably reviewed in the book reviews that are read by the intellectual and political elite. Some university administrators know or believe that publicly visible faculty attract more and better students, heighten enthusiasm from trustees and legislators, and increase outside funding. But administrations must be willing to confront scholarly opposition to publicly visible new faculty. Some time will pass before theory- and topic-driven basic researchers, not to mention other public sociologists, will recognize their common interests.

Inside the Discipline

Incentive structure changes are needed inside the discipline as well. Because they benefit from name recognition, public sociologists probably have a good chance of becoming ASA and section presidents. Whether public sociologists have as much influence in the committees and networks that run ASA and its sections–or even want to have it–remains to be seen. In any case, the ASA and other sociological organizations must display their enthusiasm and support for public sociology. However, their interests are not too different from those of university administrations and most are likely to be supportive. The ASA is already very supportive, for example, through press conferences and other ways of assisting both public sociologists and some of their gatekeepers.

Probably the fastest way to alter sociology’s incentive structure is to increase the number of publications, including websites, that will publish public sociology. Individuals and groups, including academic departments can set up their own websites and establish public sociology blogs and list serves, but for now, careers are still advanced mainly by publication in print. In addition, the audience for public sociology remains too small to consider constructing commercial websites.

The ASA has made a modest start with Contexts but if audiences can be found, eventually there need to be other magazines. Moreover, these should not have to depend on ASA, or be limited by its peer review and other requirements. Meanwhile, I think even the mainstream academic journals could be more hospitable to public sociology. Some section, regional, and other sociology journals already have back-of-the-book sections for essays and other kinds of writing that do not have to follow the standard research report format and could therefore interest some members of the general public.{{11}}

The most innovative and lively publishers of public sociology will probably have to be independent of disciplinary and traditional scholarly auspices. If and when money is to be made or status gained from new public sociology magazines and websites, commercial firms and non-profit agencies may come to the fore, although in the long run, I hope that general magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Review of Books and their digital equivalents will regularly publish the work of public sociologists.

Needed Changes in Graduate Training

In addition to making room for public sociology in the discipline, changes will have to take place in the graduate training of sociologists. Perhaps such changes could even come first, especially on the part of departments that are prepared to pioneer. The most selective graduate schools are obvious candidates, particularly those located in or near major media centers, but nothing should stop small but ambitious graduate departments from taking the first step.

A logical possibility is to establish separate tracks in the curriculum for public sociology, and even for my suggested bifurcation of basic research into theory- and topic-driven tracks. The prime question, which is probably best answered by various curriculum experiments, is to determine how separate the tracks should be.

I would argue for partial tracks, if only because sociologists in training cannot yet decide in which tracks they will make their careers, especially not until independent career lines in various tracks are established. Moreover, good arguments can be made for cooperation and overlap between the tracks so that students can work in more than one and the tracks can enrich each other.

In any case, for the moment, the first step is the development of a handful of separate courses and the recruitment of faculty who will teach methodological courses and dissertation seminars that emphasize public sociology as well as topic-driven basic research. Where qualitative methods instruction is not yet available, training and practice in ethnographic research and qualitative interviewing will have to be offered. Quantitative researchers will have to learn how to conduct and present their research to audiences with little knowledge or patience for numerology.

Presumably substantive courses in particular fields, say the family or inequality, would be much the same whether students had theory- or topic-driven interests, although the papers and dissertations they would write are likely to be different. Large departments can even be imagined as sometimes teaching both theory- and topic-driven courses in the same subjects, if only to explore the similarities and differences between the two tracks. Perhaps the prime need is for faculty and students who want sociology to be topical, relevant, and useful, and can work on making it so.

If I were developing a curriculum for topic-driven basic research, I would recommend a joint course with a Graduate School of Journalism. Journalists are trained both to be topical and to write in jargon-free English, and sociologists–even those whose research interests are theory driven–can benefit from the journalists’ focus on topicality. Conversely, journalists could benefit from the sociological expertise in systematic research, even if most will never have the time or the sufficiently sophisticated audience to do much systematic research for their news stories.

Bringing sociology and journalism students together has another virtue; both are being trained to study society but in very different ways and for different audiences. Journalists are trained to look for novelty and outliers; sociology puts more emphasis on recurring patterns and the typical. Mutual familiarity with this division of labor should be beneficial to students in both disciplines. In addition, bringing the two disciplines together might reduce their exchange of distrust and disparagement.

I would also establish an introductory workshop and even an advanced one in the sociology of American society which uses daily newspapers, news magazines, and their internet equivalents as basic texts. These sources not only focus attention on topical subjects but they provide information about various parts of society that all sociologists ought to be familiar with. The news media are also fruitful sources of ideas for new studies–and they always offer opportunities for sociologists to extend journalistic research and to debunk incomplete or inaccurate news reports.

Such courses would be essential for students ready to undertake public sociology and topic-driven research but at least one such course should be required for all students. It is particularly necessary for students who so concentrate on the professional literature that they never read or view news of any kind, thus becoming incapacitated to understand the society they are being trained to study.

Since most other social sciences are now developing “public” tracks equivalent to public sociology, eventually a joint social science course in how to research and write for the general public ought to be created and taught widely.

More immediately, every department that seeks to train public sociologists must offer a writing course which will equip its students to speak to and write for the educated general public, and eventually even for less educated ones as well. Actually, I would require such a course for every sociology student, and include a section on code switching so that students can learn to write both for their scholarly peers and for the general public. Public sociologists in training would also be helped by a book-writing course, or at least a dissertation seminar that helps them either to write their dissertation as a book, or trains them to convert it quickly and with a minimum of effort to one that will attract at least some non-academic readers.

Nonetheless, for the foreseeable future the prime audience for public sociologists will continue to be the young educated public, that is, undergraduates. Most will not only be more receptive to public sociology than to the academic discipline but they will probably also pay more attention to topic-driven rather than theory-driven courses. Thus, courses that teach them about their society and what sociological analysis can add to their understanding of it will be more attractive than courses that teach them concepts and theories to prepare them for graduate work in sociology.

Consequently, sociologists who want to spend their careers teaching undergraduates rather than doing research should be trained primarily as public sociologists. Indeed, if they are sure they do not want to do research or to write, they should be trained for a teaching career, and in lieu of writing dissertations, develop courses that use public sociology and topic-driven research to enrich the undergraduate curriculum.

Recruiting Public Sociologists

For the past several decades, the discipline, at least in America, has primarily trained normal scientists, sometimes beginning with undergraduate majors. I assume that as public sociology becomes more visible, some majors and prospective graduate students will also become interested in it, but broader recruitment should be undertaken as well.

Disciplines which seek normal scientists attract hedgehogs, to use Isaiah Berlin’s classic dichotomy, who focus on one or a few closely related objects of study to make their careers and typically conduct theory-driven research. However, public sociology is better served by foxes who are able and willing to study several objects and fields, and are therefore flexible enough also to orient themselves toward the topical.

I am not familiar with aptitude tests that distinguish foxes from hedgehogs but would think that all scientific disciplines that are trying to develop public tracks could use such tests. In the meantime, prospective foxes are more likely to be found among undergraduate journalists and other writers–even budding fiction writers–who are discouraged from specializing in a single topic.

Actually, young journalists are sometimes attracted to sociology because they find reporting too superficial or hasty and want to dig to a greater intellectual depth. Consequently, journalism is a relevant recruiting territory for public sociology. I would also reach out to creative writing departments, for a significant number of novelists actually write sociology, even if their characters are fictional. Since they are frequently loath to recognize or admit that their work bears any resemblance to sociology, I would not expect fledgling novelists to instead become public sociologists, but their fiction might sometimes benefit from a properly designed course in sociology.{{12}}

Some essayists, social and even literary critics are also doing our kind of work. They write essays not research reports, but the best of their work suggests that sociologists would benefit from the humanist and philosophical intellectual training that is sometimes missing from the sociological curriculum. Concurrently, social criticism would benefit from contact with sociology. Some sociology departments might therefore benefit from cooperative ventures with socially inclined departments in the humanities, perhaps resulting, some day, in the emergence of scholars who can be both public humanists and public sociologists.

Other sources of future public sociology will become evident if and when more sociologists “go public.” However, the discipline must first put greater priority on becoming more relevant and useful to the larger society, and choose clear English over technical writing. If sociology would make its next “turn” in those directions, its desirability, prestige, and ability to attract lively young minds to its ranks should rise. Eventually, it might no longer even be confused with social work.

[This essay is based on a chapter from the just published Handbook of Public Sociology, edited by Jeffries, Vincent. Lanham (MD): Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, reprinted with permission.—ed.]

[[1]] Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. 2005. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow.[[1]]
[[2]] Burawoy, Michael. 2007. “For Public Sociology.” Pp. 23-64 in Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Dan Clawson et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.[[2]]
[[3]] Burawoy (2007:28) suggests Du Bois’s Soul of Black Folks, Myrdal’s American Dilemma, The Lonely Crowd, and Bellah et al.’s Habits of the Heart. Although eye-opening public sociology should not be judged by sales figures, a number of other obvious examples can be found in Gans, Herbert J. 1997. “Best Sellers by Sociologists: An Exploratory Study.” Contemporary Sociology 26:131-135.[[3]]
[[4]] My distinction resembles in some respect that between ideographic and nomothetic studies.[[4]]
[[5]] Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.[[5]]

[[6]] Stinchcombe warns that “we do not have enough truth to offer” (p. 135), and while he may be unduly pessimistic, he is also often right on target. See Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 2007. “Speaking Truth to the Public, and Indirectly to Power.” Pp. 135-144 in Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Dan Clawson et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.[[6]]
[[7]] Collins, Patricia Hill. 2007. “Going Public: Doing the Sociology That Had No Name.” Pp. 101-113 in Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Dan Clawson et al. Berkeley: University of California Press, here p. 103.[[7]]
[[8]] Hays, Sharon 2007. “Stalled at the Altar: Conflict, Hierarchy, and Compartmentalization in Burawoy’s Public Sociology.” Pp. 79-90 in Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Dan Clawson et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.[[8]]
[[9]] Smith-Lovin, Lynn. 2007. “Do We Need a Public Sociology? It Depends on What You Mean by Sociology.” Pp. 124-134 in Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Dan Clawson et al. Berkeley: University of California Press, here pp. 131-132.[[9]]
[[10]] Envy may be present too, especially if public sociologists write best sellers, are recruited into the national cultural elite, or spend some time on the celebrity circuit.[[10]]
[[11]] In my presidential address to the ASA I had suggested that the authors of articles in ASA’s and sociology’s other journals be required to write their abstracts in clear jargon-free English. Then journalists could read them, learn about what sociologists were doing, and perhaps write articles for the general public about their work. I still think it’s a good idea. See Gans, Herbert J. 1989. “Sociology in America: The Discipline and the Public.” American Sociological Review 54:1-16.[[11]]
[[12]] Gyorgy Konrad, the prominent Hungarian novelist, worked as a sociological researcher before he began to write novels.[[12]]

Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: publicsphere@ssrc.org