public sociology

Engaging publics: Do we need to re-imagine reality TV?

How to improve the way sociology is shared and made relevant to publics is something I have been musing over for a while, and something that was peaked during this years British Sociological Association Conference. The definition of ‘impact’ as required by the REF and actually creating I apart within the communities and publics that are the focus of sociological study are two very different things. Chris Shilling, in the Introduction to Live Methods highlights the way impact agendas are the living proof of Mills’ concerns that social research would become bureaucratised. What engagement with the public needs to reconsider is how to effectively reach those publics and not how to meet a tick box criteria on an assessment exercise.

Outputs that are considered to have ‘impact’ often include elements for wider consumption than an academic audience and some projects do this in exciting and imaginative ways (eg. Making modern mothers) yet, in the scheme of things, the audience of these outputs is limited. I would argue that this isn’t because they aren’t interested in the findings of research, but that it is not made accessible to them in the way they want to consume it. You see, contrary to many academics beliefs, not everyone reads for fun, nor do they all search the web for interesting websites!

What the publics are interested in, however, is gaining grater understandings of cultures, social groups and environments that are different from their own, or in some cases similar to see if they are portrayed accurately. Books such as Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work and Owen Jones’ Chavs do this effectively and yet, their penetration into a mass public is still, limited. My twitter timeline is not jammed by tweets about either of these and yet I cannot escape the barrage of updates for the latest reality TV show du Jour. This increasing thirst for ‘reality’ TV and shows such as My big fat gypsy wedding and Skint are not as distant from the cry for public sociology as some people may believe. Whilst these programs are flawed in many ways due to the editing process and the perceived need for suspense and drama within them the notion of bringing a chance for the public to better understand elements of society is not.

This overwhelming desire to act as a voyeur on other, often marginalised groups is something which carries with in great power, for it can demonise them and re-enforce negative stereotypes or, as it should in my opinion, convey a more realistic viewpoint that can help give a deeper understanding of the way other work through the challenges and opportunities of their lives. I would suggest that it is therefore Sociology’s job to provide accessible forms of its own work that can tap into this thirst for knowledge of the ‘other’, the desire to peek behind the curtains of those who they may know little about.

In the first chapter of the Sociological Imagination, Mills writes:

” Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live” (1970 [1959],  p.11)

I would argue then, that to help people better understand their own lives, it is Sociology’s duty to help increase the information accessible to them within their orbits. I opt for the word accessible here, over available as availability seems to be the sole concern of the impact agenda and not the idea of making the information accessible and in a relevant way. Therefore I would argue that instead of boycotting poorly constructed reality TV program’s, or sitting ranting at the TV as to how poorly portrayed these issues are, maybe it is time to re imagine how research is presented to the world outside of academia, beyond the journals and into those publics we study to help them to better understand the world around them. Undoubtably, Television has a role to play in this engagement but it is not the commissioning editors that will have the imagination to commission these modes of output, it needs to be the sociologists, for they are the ones who possess the Sociological imaginations and an understanding of exactly why Sociology is so important for everyone to be able to access.

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