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?

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digital sociology, public sociology

Can peer reviewed journals and blogs co-exist as research outputs?

When academics suggest that peer reviewed journals are the only valid output for academic writing, my heart sinks. It is like saying “We’ve helped you develop a Sociological Imagination but now you have left the university, you must stop engaging, sorry!” Maybe i’m biased because soon I will lose my library access (until I start the PhD) and funnily enough, I want to continue engaging with sociological research. You see, without institutional affiliation, most of the world of academic research is off limits bar those teasers in abstracts unless perchance you are wealthy enough to subscribe to a range of journals. Being a member of professional associations (such as the BSA) does afford you access to some journals, but not all. This is not the only reason that I think blogs and digital open access platforms have a strong role to play in academic writing and I will try to shed some light on why both have equally important roles to play in modern scholarship.

Whilst I understand and appreciate the need for peer review in order to ensure research is being as thorough as it should be. The problem with the process is four-fold,: it is a time-consuming process and thus incurs expense for the publisher, is focused primarily on one way dissemination and, as is often missed, it to some extent controls and limits the possibilities of research.

Time is of the essence, unless of course you want to publish and then your exciting findings may not be public for up to eighteen months! Surely in a world that is changing as rapidly as the one we live in this is problematic. This is especially pertinent as was highlighted during the BSA Digital Sociology day today when working with digital platforms and tools that are transient and may be obsolete before a peer review article reaches publication.

My second argument, that of expense is a simple one, publishers need to cover their expenses some how and someone has to pay. At the moment that is either the user (through subscriptions, either personal or institutional) or the writer – as in the case of some of the new open access journals. If this is to continue, research bodies need to reconsider how research is funded so that the outputs, funded by public money are accessible to them (although in an age of austerity, this is probably as likely as the proverbial freezing of hades).

Thirdly, and most importantly in my mind, the peer review journal is a specific beast. It allows findings and opinions to be broadcast with little comeback or response from the audience and little understanding of how it was received past citation analytics. This is where blogs, twitter and digital publishing come into their own. These media allow readers to interact, to ‘favourite’ articles, to ‘like’ posts and to enter into a dialogue in which academics can refine and discuss their ideas, possibly clarifying misunderstandings. In this way, the research becomes engaging and thus reaches out to a wider interested audience. If you see people you follow on twitter discussing some research, you feel drawn to read about it yourself to draw your own opinions and enter into the dialogue yourself.

Finally, I want to touch upon a problem raised by Les Back @academic diary today when discussing the project he has been working on with Shamser Sinha about migrant communities. Details of the research can be found in the paper here but what I want to highlight are the two issues he raised in the peer review process of the research. Firstly, the reviewers struggled with the Ethics of the participant being named as an author and not anonymised and secondly that when it came to publication, they couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a university she was affiliated to. Both of these issues are remnants of a bygone day of research where is was something done to people, rather than with them. Often reviewers and journal editors find these issues hard to wrestle with whereas the process of blogging obviously doesn’t have those constraints. Similar problems also occur with non-traditional outputs, such as multimedia and to some extent visual elements beyond line diagrams and photographs that were intended to be reproduced in monochrome as generally journals are published in black and white which in some cases may remove important elements from the visual.

I am not, however, saying that blogging and unmonitored posting is unproblematic and I do acknowledge that review of work by colleagues is important in ensuring credibility of academic writing, but I would argue there is space for both and they should work in tandem to make research reachable to the widest possible audiences and to allow publication of work that is innovative and multi-sensory. I would also argue that blogging does have it’s own form of ‘peer review’ but that it takes place after publication through the comments and interactions of the reader.

public sociology

Why Live Sociology needs to consider the way publics live.

Following last weeks Blog post on the need to re-imagine reality TV, I have began to work through the excellent Live Methods Sociological Review Monograph. Some of the issues and questions it is raising about the need for a live sociology also seem to resonate with my own thoughts I began to explore last week on how Sociology needs to work to engage publics in a more meaningful and accessible way. Les Back’s excellent chapter on Live Sociology has provided much of the stimulus for me to examine my initial arguments further. In Back and Puwar’s previous chapter, ‘A manifesto for live methods: provocations and capacities’, they highlight Sociology’s responsibility to ‘vulnerable and precarious lives’ (2012, p.14) and its ethical responsibility to society. I argue that this is a strong justification for the subsumption of  the reality TV model to enable publics to have access to a more realistic and open representation of those communities they turn the lens on opposed to the current dramatised and pathologised view that is forced upon them.

Back argues within the chapter for making more accessible sociological texts and for re imagining research outputs through multimedia platforms and other forms of presentation  that may cross the boundaries with Art. He argues that online formats have the potential of global reach and have the ability to combine sound, image and text. Whilst I agree and this is certainly a distinct move forward from the limitations of printed text within the journal or monograph, if we are to address the aims of making sociology more accessible to publics, especially those who may be vulnerable and marginal, we need to examine how to reach them more carefully.

Whilst a broader the range of outputs has the ability to engage different publics with Sociology’s project, I think care needs to be taken to attend to the inequalities intrinsic within the consumption of these forms of output. By focusing upon the digital and the gallery, we exclude many of those to whom the research is most relevant. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t explore these avenues of research output, but that we need to consider more carefully which research outputs have the power to reach those whom we have the duty to help understand the truths about the social world within which they live.

As Back states, ‘journalistic exposé and reality TV […] occlude and hide what is at stake in the detail’ (2012, p.25) so is it not Sociology’s duty to expose and foreground that exact detail and to make it accessible to those publics who are currently only exposed to the partial representations of current offerings?

The more I consider this issue, the more I feel that the current state of academic sociology is missing out on part of its duty and now is the time the public’s Sociological Imagination needs to be ignited through refocusing their voyeuristic desire away from the dramatic, surface level representations they are currently exposed to a deeper sociological understanding of the world around them. One in which they can begin to see the fascination with the social world that Sociologists are already keenly aware of. The ideas of an accessible Sociology are nothing new, In fact Back draws upon Albion Small’s Essay from 1895 entitled The Era of Sociology to make the point that even as early as this essay in the first edition of the American Journal of Sociology, academics such as small were already reflecting on the need for translation of ‘Sociology into the language of ordinary life’ (cf. Back, 2012 p.21). Yet, as Back highlights much of the published materials since fall far short of this goal. Furthermore, I would go on to argue that the goal of translating sociology into ‘language of ordinary life’ by Small in 1895, should not only be considered in its most literal sense of using accessible language, but should be further considered in terms of the modes in which Sociology is disseminated.

As Mills wrote in the Sociological Imagination:

It is not only information that they need- in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it. It is not only the skills of reason that they need- although their struggles to acquire these often exhaust their limited moral energy. What they need, and what they feel they need is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves (1959 [1970], p.11)

I argue, therefore that it is Sociology’s duty to use the vehicles of more public media outlets in a way in which it not only informs, in a way that not only explains, but in a way that helps publics to develop their own ways to explore those issues that occur within their own lives by giving them access to their own Sociological Imagination. I will end on an invitation  to take up, or to challenge the ideas I put forward because what is needed now is the dialogue to continue. Only by continuing the conversation of what Sociology needs to do to engage publics can we ever have a chance of breaking down the barriers created by traditional output methods.

References

Back, L., (2012), ‘ Live sociology: social research and its futures’ in Back L. and Puwar, N. (eds.) Live Methods, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell/ The Sociological Review

Back, L. and Puwar, N., (2012), ‘A manifesto for live methods: provocations and capacities’ in Back L. and Puwar, N. (eds.) Live Methods, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell/ The Sociological Review

Mills, C. W., (1959 [1970]), The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press