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

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.