book review, public sociology

Book Review: The Engaged Sociologist (4th ed.) Korgen & White

I happened upon The Engaged Sociologist through a recent email from Sage and the blurb looked decidedly intriguing so I thought I would get myself a copy. It has many excellent things going for it and certainly is something I wish I had discovered back when I first began my study of Sociology. it ends with a quote from Margaret Mead which just about sums up the whole premise of the book ‘using your sociological tools, you can help change the world’ (Mead cf. p.224)

Briefly, It is divided into 11 chapters, each taking a similar format followed by a final chapter that suggests some potential research projects which allow practical engagement with the aims of the book. The remaining chapters consist of a section of theory or background relating to sociological concerns or debates, an example of how a real life Sociologist (ranging from students to professors) has worked within that area to affect change, some exercises to put the abstract issues into real life contexts and related discussion points, and finally, some suggestions for ‘actions’ to use the knowledge of Sociology in the readers own community.

The book is written in a clear and accessible way, but is clearly aimed towards undergraduate students in its scope and delivery. It is supported by an excellent website which provides some resources to help support the practical activities and as such would make a good teaching text. What is does extremely well is shows the reader the value and implications of Sociology beyond the classroom and academia.

The book does, however, have its limitations. firstly, it is extremely US centric in its content. It constantly refers to US policy and examples that may seem alien to the average student outside of the continental USA. This is not to say the book is not useful for students across the atlantic, far from it, in fact it certainly enhanced my knowledge of issues that I had little knowledge of before. It may, however, need to be enhanced with examples in a more local context if it was used as a core text for a course in the UK for example. This us-centricity seems to carry through to the theorists cited in each chapter with notable omissions of Bourdieu and Foucault to give two examples.

Nonetheless, the book does fill a gap relating to the “so what?” question that faces many academics when teaching a introductory sociology module to students from a range of disciplines who do not as yet understand the value and power of Sociology. Whilst the americanisation of the examples might be too much for some to bear, especially if considering its use as a core text, it certainly has a value in every lecturers bookcase as a point of reference for some excellent, engaging teaching ideas that bring Sociology to life.

References

Korgen, K.O. & White, J.M. (2011) The Engaged Sociologist, Los Angeles, Sage

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IVSA 2013, visual sociology

Reflecting on #IVSA2013

My final image from the series I captured at IVSA 2013 comes not from the photo walk, but from a moment of clarity during a coffee break. Sitting on the lawn, I gazed towards the giant mirrored windows of the academic buildings and starting back at me was an image of myself, surrounded by people. Sometimes we focus in so closely on the nuts and bolts of academia that we miss the wider picture. The fact that it is the people that exist in the social that are inherently interesting and not the tools we use to capture them. Appropriate then that this image was the product of a mere iPhone and not the more complex set up that normally typists my best images.

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digital sociology, higher education, PhD, public sociology

Could blogging help to treat imposter syndrome?

A short blog for today but reflecting on some of the things I have been contemplating in the last few days.

Recently I blogged in response to a paper by David Beer on The wire. Through the wonders of twitter and the public nature of the blog, he responded with his thoughts here. What surprised me to some extent was the fact that he agreed with some of my comments and pushed me to reconsider others. If I had simply noted these comments in the margins of the paper, or in my own notebook then I’d still be wondering if I was on the right track.

The fact that so far this blog has been read by 900 people in the last month and that a number have told me how much they are enjoying my writing or finding some of the discussions I have begun useful is a huge boost. I think everyone suffers from imposter syndrome to a certain extent, worrying if they really do know what they are talking about and no, blogging doesn’t make this go away but it has certainly helped reassure me that I’m on the right track and spurred me to keep going.

I don’t think this is something that is only useful for students and early career researchers, however. Given the peer review process, rejection and putting yourself in a position where there is a high potential for a focus on negative feedback, a blog is a way to get ideas out there and to allow you to test them out and help you gain confidence in them. If you have more confidence in your ideas, it is easier to use negative feedback in a constructive way that helps you revise your work. Surely this is something that all academics, regardless of experience need from time to time?

public sociology

Why sociology needs to reach out to publics

Sometimes you contemplate an issue and then stumble upon someone who explains it far better than you could ever have done. In this case the issue was why the mission for public engagement of sociology is so vital and this is one of those times.

The task of sociology is to cast doubt on the public understandings that prevail – be they about the ‘war on terror’ or the nature of ‘immigration policy’ – and invite other voices to be heard and reckoned with

– Les Back (2007) The Art of Listening p.152

For my mind, this explains why sociologists cannot afford to ignore the need to realign the way they communicate their work with publics. If the academic insights and interpretations of the social world are not accessible to those publics then how can we hope to cast the doubt in their minds over their current understandings of the world?

IVSA 2013, visual sociology

(In)visibility of the observer and the observed – #IVSA2013 Photo Walk part 5

(In)visibility of the observer and the observed - #IVSA2013 Photo Walk part 5

Several of the presentations in the morning panels I attended at the IVSA conference focused on the issues surrounding visibility of the researcher to the participants in their research or photographs and the ethics surrounding that. There were also discussions of the partiality of representation of subjects by the way the lens frames them. This image seemed to draw together both of these concerns through the partial representation (and anonymity) of the subjects of the photo and their relation to the shadows of myself and two other photographers.

public sociology

Is ‘The Wire’ the solution?

 

Recently I commented on twitter that ‘I can’t help but think that some academics are scared of research being accessible and understandable to publics…’ and in response Dave Beer (@davidgbeer) pointed me towards a paper from City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, action that he co-authored with Rowland Atkinson in 2010. It highlights some interesting points of the value of well made drama, such as The Wire and its ability to foreground social issues in a ‘thoughtful and experimental way’ (p.530). They go on to discuss the valuable role that such a series can play in adult education and engagement of publics with deeper understandings of society, more commonly restricted to academic outputs and the challenges faced when academics struggle to communicate with each other in across sub-disciplines, let alone across the public-academic divide . This paper addressed several of the issues I explored in previous blogs here and here but it also opened up two questions in my mind. Firstly, whether any of this is possible so long as the REF framework restricts what can be valued in terms of public ‘impact’ through restrictive criteria and whether need to admit they need help in doing this effectively. The second question sits within why a program such as The Wire has the ability to capture the public imagination in a far greater way than most documentaries.

I have already explored the question of the REF and it’s restrictions on what it considers to be impact on this blog and won’t go into too much depth here but bringing back into focus some thoughts I had previously is important, there is a thirst in the general populace for programming that turns its lens on the social world, surely it is vital that social scientists (and I use that term in the broadest sense) play a part in ensuring the version portrayed is accurate and helps break down inequality and stereotypes, opposed to re-enforcing them. The only way this is going to happen is through collaboration with writers, producers and directors of these kind of outputs. By becoming instrumental in the production of social representations, social scientists can aid in engaging the social imaginations of the general publics in positive ways to help reduce inequality opposed to in a way that perpetuates or amplifies it.

The fact that The Wire has been so successful and has captured the public imagination also needs to be reflected upon. Atkinson and Beer allude to this within their paper but I want to be more explicit on the issue and possibly challenge the question of how this could work as a research output that engages publics. Part of its success lies within its complex and provisional nature. The highly visual nature of the medium and the complex social narratives played out in front of the lens, not only of the main story lines, but the ‘background noise’ that also goes on, allows the viewers to take charge of their understanding, guided by the issues that the lens foregrounds for them. This is in stark contrast to the documentary that often narrates a god like perspective on the meaning of what is presented. By handing over ownership of some of the responsibility for making sense of what is presented to them, the viewer feels more compelled to engage in the world they are viewing and feels more investment in what they are seeing. Of course, this idea may sit uneasily with some academics, after all, the analysis and theorising is their domain, they have spent many years learning and developing their craft and knowledge about the social world, haven’t they? I would argue, however that in the case of a video based form of delivery, the skill of the academic lies within presenting the world to the viewer in a way that allows them to follow the same logics and understandings that the academic themselves follows and this can be done without telling the viewer what to think, but by carefully guiding their focus. Being able to guide focus in such a medium is a skill, one that academics are unlikely to possess but that many media professional possess. Therefore collaboration is the way to make this happen. What needs to be entered into, however, is a proactive dialog across the two fields, academics need to understand the value that the media professionals can add to their work in terms of engaging the public imagination. Likewise, media professionals need to understand the value that accurate representation and academic understanding of social process can add to their outputs in terms of enabling viewers to better relate to their programs, and thus engage with them, something that The Wire provides an excellent model for

Reference

Atkinson, R. and Beer, D. (2010) ‘The ivorine tower in the city: Engaing urban studies after The wire’, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, action, 14(5) p.529-544