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:

  1. 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.
  2. Crowding out: Between a nice steady stream of NSF grants and sporadic money from journalism, it’s smarter to stick with grants.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Quantitative research: Our discipline is dominated by large N surveys, which requires lots of money, and you need grants, which triggers #1 – #4.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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?

Written by fabiorojas

August 27, 2007 at 1:09 am

8 Responses

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  1. Fabio – at the Social Psych section meeting, Jim House was awarded the Cooley-Mead award and he addressed some of why he thought that there had been a decline in social psych specifically and sociology generally.

    The Cliff’s Notes version is that economics and political science were better suited to a more conservative framework of funding and that the decline in large funding for large-scale public opinion research on social subjects dried up. More time was spent trying to acquire less total money. I guess it isn’t all that different from Orlando Patterson, but there is more of a contextualizing of why there was less research money and more time had to be spent trying to obtain it.

    I am sure that I am over-summarizing and missing major points, but some version of it will probably be published in Social Psych Quarterly at some point.



    August 27, 2007 at 5:14 am

  2. I was in the audience as well. I’m not sure where to begin in explaining how wrong I believe Patterson to have been. I think it is largely captured in contra point 3 above, but I would go much further. The milieu in which a Riesman operated simply doesn’t exist today, at least not in the form that it did back in the day. This is apparent from the fact that none of the activities or profiles that Fabio suggests characterize “public sociologist” today would have characterized the “public intellectual” of Riesman’s time: Writing for Z Magazine (?!?) would have been the job of the party hack or the comrade at some third-rate state university. Writing for a glossy would have been laughable. Writing the occasional “controversial” op-ed for the New York Times would have been done by people with access to intellectual circles that consisted of more than 25 year-old graduate students and a set of cloistered disciplinary colleagues. Finally, being a lapsed mathematician of some sort would have qualified you to be the “social science” scribe for Popular Mechanics. Grant-getting, methinks, didn’t have anything to do with it the untimely death of “public sociology.”



    August 27, 2007 at 1:12 pm

  3. Mike3550: I can see House’s point, and it applies to psych well, but can funding be a real factor in the rise of economics? Usually, the high points of contemporary economics are really grant free activities, except behavioral and nuero science stuff. Did Paul Samuelson or Ken Arrow really need grants to do what he did?



    August 27, 2007 at 5:51 pm

  4. I think it’s due to, as noted in #3 above, “the increasing conservative tilt of the electorate.” In this climate, people are far less persuaded by structural arguments, which don’t jibe with the American ideology of individualism (and, sometimes smack of socialism).


    Dave P.

    August 28, 2007 at 12:21 am

  5. Quick and somewhat stupid additions:
    1. Duncan Watts wasn’t trained as a sociologist and has now given up the ghost, moving over to a job at Google. Just sayin’. The case of Dalton is debatable; see “Honky.” Eric’s name is Klinenberg.
    2. How about facets of book publishing, magazines, and news that impact our ability to engage in ‘public sociology?’ Er, maybe as a media sociologist I should write something more on the topic. Ok, more later.
    3. Why ‘public sociology?’ If I understand what that means, and then I narrow it down to ‘publications in popular media’, I still see a variety of purposes to which it can be put and for which it is intended. Jumping the gun on this question, and assuming we agree, is partly responsible for all the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair over the state of the thing.



    August 28, 2007 at 1:33 pm

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