Breaking down disciplinary boundaries by not building them

Education, higher education, public sociology

This may seem a strange idea, especially given how well established many of the disciplines within Social Science are, but here me out.

I am currently working through John Brewers The public value of Social Sciences. Early on, he talks about how disciplinary silos or bunkers are bad places to lead changes in post-disciplinary collaboration from. This idea got me to thinking about how to break down those silos and thinking to the current GCSE > A-level > degree pathway.

I think it would be safe to say that for most students, they don’t encounter the Social Sciences (outside of Geography) before they undertake A-levels. There are in fact GCSE’s in some, but with relatively low uptakes. What then happens is students study 3 or 4 discreet disciplinary social sciences, picking from Sociology, Psychology, Politics and Economics in most cases. Box doing it in this way immediately tells the next generation of social scientists ‘look, psychology does this while Sociology does that’. In the real world, it is far messier and as Brewer rightly suggests, much of the public use of the Social Sciences comes from their collaborative voice, not from competing lone voices.

If this need for encouraging interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary work, then maybe it needs to take a grass roots approach. Instead of making students decide at 16 if Sociology is for them, create A-Levels in Crime or Environment, in Culture or Urban Studies. By showing the multi-faceted ways parts of Society can be envisioned from different angles by different disciplines then not only would it help students to develop a more holistic view of Society and how it is studied but it may actually provide them find resonance with areas of the social sciences that otherwise remain hidden from them by traditional disciplinary boundaries.


Brewer, J.D (2013) The public value of the social sciences, London, Bloomsbury

What can Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists teach us about blogging?

book review, digital sociology

Recently a few other bloggers including David Beer had mentioned Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. Having been a fan of his style of writing since I first discovered Art Worlds a few years ago, I was keen to see what sagely advice he had to offer. Interestingly, much of what he suggested are things I already do. Interestingly, the way he suggests writing for getting words down, regardless of quality and worrying about that later is something i’ve always done. I can see how this, to some people would be an huge leap from their current way of working. I never got on with planning in the traditional sense, preferring to get stuff down and them look at how to shape it and it was a relief to see i’m not the only one.

Interestingly, this relief at seeing commonalities between what others do and how beginning academics work is something Becker stresses in the book and I would whole heartedly support this.


It was no surprise that seeing it sitting on my car seat next to a map was a light bulb moment as it felt like the guidebook that had been missing from my writing. I had figured most of it out already like any explorer of a new place often does, but it was good to see that I hadn’t missed anything important. I think this is the key reason to read this book, if you aren’t sure how to make your writing better then it will help but if you think you know but have niggling worries that you aren’t on the right track, it can help reinforce those ideas.

This second edition examines some of the changes in technology in the twenty years since it was first published, especially in terms of ways in which computers have enhanced the ability for drafting and rearranging ideas and the reduced permanence of the text that is churned out, allowing for writers to take more risks with what they put into being. This, combined with some of his lines of argument about the value of sharing and discussing writing lead me to thinking how the rise of blogs have changed the game even further since 2007.

Becker uses a lovely phrase in chapter three. He says ‘A thought written down is stubbon, doesn’t change it’s shape and can be compared to thoughts that come after it’ (p.56). For me, this forms the crux of why I am finding blogging so valuable for my writing, it allows me to commit those ideas to writing and to share them with other people, not only my close academic network, but more widely. It allows me to ask questions, to float partially formed thoughts and to help develop the thinking by continuing to write about them. This is what many academics have down for years in letters and through discussions so why, in some cases is there a resistance to blogging still by some people?

Becker poses a possible reason why, he says ‘There’s something that I think many of us believe: talking about work is less of a risk than writing about it. In part it’s because no one remembers the ideas you speak.’ (p.118). I wonder if it is an extension of this argument that keeps the discussions in private opposed to in the open on a blog. Maybe if you do not make public your partially formed ideas, people won’t remember all the wrong turns you took., after all, your audiences only want to hear the perfectly formed ideas, not those provisional ones, right?

Wrong! I think if Becker’s book teaches one thing, it is that being open about the writing (and by extension, thinking) process can help combat the intrinsic worry, especially in students and early career academics that they are doing it all wrong. By unveiling the mysticism of the process of idea formation, it opens up an understanding of the true messiness of it. I think when Becker comments about writing his quote could equally be about blogging:

In some ways writing gets easier the more you do it, because the more you do it, the more you learn that it’s not really as risky as you fear. You have a history on which to draw for self confidence […] You took the risk, produced something and voila! (p.119)

Of course, this is just my interpretation of how his work be translated to the risks and fears of blogging and how blogs can offer ways to address some of the concerns of writing he raises in the book. Maybe he would speak differently?


Becker, H.S. (2007) Writing for Social Scientists (2nd Ed.), Chicago, University of Chicago Press

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

book review, public sociology

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.


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

Is ‘The Wire’ the solution?

public sociology


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


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


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

public sociology

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

How to curate a public sociology that is truly public

public sociology

Continuing on through Live Methods, Nirmal Puwar and Sanjay Sharma’s ‘Curating Sociology’ chapter has deepened some of my thoughts on how to engage wider publics in Sociology’s project that were discussed here and here.

I have highlighted previously the need to reconsider how reality TV can be used to engage publics and I think that Puwar and Sharma highlight an important link that is needed to ensure effective collaboration between academia and the media, that of a curator. They define a curator as a ‘catalyst who prompts dialogue by bringing artists, places and publics together’ (2012 p.40) and follows this by stating that there needs to be a commitment to collaboration as a research process instead of considering the research and dissemination process as separate entities. Later in the paper, Puwar and Sharma highlight the need to pay attention to ‘the value of other ways of telling’ (p.44) but in many cases for this to truly be realised, we need to reconsider how Sociology is presented to the next generation of students and scholars. If we are to excite the Sociological Imaginations of a new generation, we need to get them to understand and explore these other ways of telling. Encouragement to engage with interdisciplinary study, not within a more traditional sense of subjects allied within a neighbouring disciplines, but more extended combinations, bringing together students across the creative and social disciplines and encouraging them to collaborate on projects that enable them to better understand each other.

This is particularly important when we consider that Sociologists need to better understand what will interest publics and how best to engage them in it. By fostering more links with those who understand the tools of the media, we may be able to better access those publics. As Puwar and Sharma make clear within their chapter, it is not about Sociologists trying to become versed in the technical tools of the media, but for them to be more open to inter-disciplinary and, trans-disciplinary working. The idea of trans-disciplinary working, I will take up and elaborate more in another post as this is something that for me is essential in being ale to engage publics better.

Puwar, N. and Sharma, S. (2012) ‘Curating Sociology’. In Back L. and Puwar, N. (eds.) Live Methods, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell/ The Sociological Review