public sociology

All in the delivery? To access new publics is it what we say, or how we say it that matters?

Every way of doing things is perfect – for something

(Becker, 2007 p.72)

Having spent this week reading Howard Becker’s superb Telling About Society, I have continued to muse on this issue of how to engage publics and what needs to be done about it. For those of you that haven’t encountered Becker’s book, it is the culmination of a project that brings together ideas from his research, teaching and broad range of interests outside of Social Science. It is also influenced by a number of interdisciplinary classes he taught, including “Telling About Society” (the books namesake) where he examined different media to provoke discussion regarding the best way to report of society. What this approach allows him to do, is to examine the flaws of traditional research outputs and the potentials other disciplines offer. I do not plan to precís the book here, but to draw of a few of the ideas that resonated with my current thinking.

Understanding the status quo

The fist key point he raises early on is that all representations are constrained within the norms of the organisations they are created in. The research paper, the television documentary, and the novel, all have expected elements and ways of being created, so they can be read by the audience they are designed for. It is therefore important to understand that the status quo is maintained usually due to the shared understandings of the creators and users. In order to access a new base of users (or readers or viewers), we need to be able to understand the tools they possess for decoding the information presented.

What I mean by this, is if we take the film, a fade from one scene to another means a change of time or place or in a research paper, academic know that a small sample size means that the conclusions drawn are likely to have low levels of generalisability. These are things that the user learns through experience, or education. It is therefore important that makers using an unfamiliar medium understand these conventions.

Do I mean what I say or what you hear?

Maybe this is one of the reasons that social science sticks to known outputs (or variations on them). Through using written argument, to an audience of similar experiences and understanding, it is more likely than not that what an author explains will be understood in the same way it was intended – even if perhaps, the user disagrees with it. The problem arises when the user is expected to make their own interpretations and draw their own conclusions, something that is often done within Art or Film – using the term in the broadest sense. In this case, more skill is needed to ensure that the evidence presented is framed in a way that helps the user gain the same meaning as the maker. As Becker states, ‘Any representation of social reality […] is necessarily partial’ (p.22) and thus the maker needs to understand how the audience interprets the form of representation that they plan to use.

The case for breaking the silo walls

My argument here, therefore, is that in order to reach these publics, we need to collaborate with those makers who understand them best. By this, I don’t just mean collaborate at the point of production. In the resent LSE Impact event, Fiona Devine talked about the ‘challenges’ of working with the media on the Great British Class calculator when one party has differing expectations to the other. What I am suggesting, is that academia reconsiders what needs to be an essential element of education within the Social Sciences: developing interdisciplinary courses that allow development of the skills and understanding of several groups at once in the way that Becker did within his class at Northwestern. I propose that by changing the way students start out thinking about Social Science as working not in a silo, but in integrated and interdisciplinary ways with those who are training to become skilled in the technicalities of presentation of media, we can begin to overcome the barriers to reaching out to a wider range of publics.


Becker, H.S. (2007) Telling About Society, Chicago, Chicago University Press