did research grants kill public sociology?
At the ASA awards ceremony for Malcolm Gladwell, Orlando Patterson raised a question that deserves more attention: Did the grant system kill public sociology after the 1970s? In his comments, Patterson noted that until the 1970s or so, you had quite a few sociologists who captured the public’s imagination such as David Riesman and C. Wright Mills. After that time, prominent sociologists decreased in the public imagination. Of course, we shouldn’t rush to judgment, but it’s a hypothesis that deserves some careful thought. Here’s some reasons you might believe the Patterson hypothesis:
- Time budgets: It takes a lot of effort simply to write an NSF grant. It takes as much time as writing a full blown article. No time left for the news media.
- Crowding out: Between a nice steady stream of NSF grants and sporadic money from journalism, it’s smarter to stick with grants.
- Social closure: Grant writing means that you spend a lot of time writing proposals and grant reports for your peers in your academic network. It just reinforces the academic tendency to address other academics, and not the public.
- Socialization away from public sociology: Grant seeking encourages people to believe that doing funded research is a form of public sociology, and there is less need to address the public.
- Quantitative research: Our discipline is dominated by large N surveys, which requires lots of money, and you need grants, which triggers #1 – #4.
- Historical evidence: While sociology has always had a public service tilt, the pre-1970s generations had to really scramble for funds from public, corporate, and non-profit sources. It would be useful to have a strong “public sociology” profile. In the post-1970s, we have routinized funding practices, which are adjudicated by other professors, or former profs. No need for the public image.
Here are some reasons you might not believe the Patterson hypothesis:
- The grant thing is a coincidence. Sociologists have become less prominent for other reasons. Choose the one you like: left leaning bias, obsession with academic minutia, the increasing conservative tilt of the electorate, rise of conservative media like Fox, increasing tenure requirements in the post-baby boom era, freakonomics is fun, poor wardrobe choices, reading too much Jeremy Freese.
- Who said we don’t have real public intellectuals? We have just as many public sociologists as before, like Dalton Conley, Duncan Watts, Pepper Schwartz, or Eric Klingenberg. Don’t they count? Maybe the Patterson hypothesis is a case of the “grass is greener on the other side.”
- The people who write grants weren’t going to be public intellectuals anyway. Is the guy who obsesses over empirical bayes estimators really the guy who is going to be fightin’ the power in Z Magazine? Didn’t think so.
My spin: The Patterson hypothesis is tapping into something real about sociology’s public profile, which isn’t so great, but I think the link to grants might be spurious, or small in comparison to other factors. If I believed the Patterson hypothesis, then I would expect few public sociologists in grant-intensive areas like education, demography/health, and criminology, but tons in grant free zones, like ethnography and historical-comparative research. Any evidence that this is the case?