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revising sociology’s public image

In the grand scheme of things, sociology is not in a bad position. Most colleges have sociology programs and our PhD grads find work. But I do not think that sociology lives up to its potential. We live in an economy where tech giants are building massive social networks, but our undergrad enrollments decline. We live in a world that asks for more rigorous social analysis, but sociology has limited impact in the policy world. My belief is that this is partially due to sociology’s poor public image. Here, I suggest ways to work on our public image.

The basic issue is that our image is driven by undergraduate enrollment processes and lack of interest in presenting ourselves as an easy to understand scientific toolkit for people in policy, business, and the non-profit world. To understand the first issue, ask yourself the following questions – what is the most common encounter that the average college educated person has with the discipline of sociology? Answer: the intro course or the social problems course. What message do they take away? If you read intro textbooks or syllabi (including my own!), the message is a combination of social problems with some theory sprinkled in, or a topic survey.

What you don’t get is a set of widely applicable theoretical tools. This might be taught in the course called “social theory,” but this course is usually taught as a kind of history of social thought. To compound the issue, most programs fill out the list of electives with courses that don’t present core theoretical ideas. This is done for a number of reasons such as retaining students with an interest in criminology, health, or business. The bottom line is that nowhere in the curriculum, as it now stands, do we actually present to the average college student with systematic thinking about social processes. Students, understandably, think that sociology is the study of oppression or marginality. Some of our instructors actively cultivate the view that sociology is museum of oppression. It is not surprising that the average college undergrad walks away from our courses not realizing that are a general social science.

A second issue is how we think of ourselves as professionals. If one asked the typical sociologist if they agree that they are doing some sort of scientific activity, they would likely say yes and they would be justified in saying so. However, that is not what is conveyed to the public. For example, sociologists are often called upon to translate poverty and criminality for the wider reading public. Perhaps the exception is the area of family research, where the media seems genuinely interested in what sociologists have to say as experts on a topic. Another dimension of sociology’s unusual reputation is that we are often associated with theories that were not created by sociologists and have much (if any) sway in sociology. Even other academics lump sociology in with deconstruction and post-modernism.

How do we change this? A few suggestions. First, create a “social analysis” course that acts as a foundation for all other courses and that teachers truly general social concepts. In terms of substance, you would teach traditional topics, like race, but instead relate them to general theoretical ideas (i.e., social construction, biological theories of behavior, rational choice, etc). The way it should work is: theory –> topics not “a bunch of topics.”  In terms of methods, make sure that every one understands core concepts such as variables, social process, identification, qualitative vs. quantitative, basic hypothesis tests, case studies, inference, etc – AND make other courses use these concepts. In other words, don’t let the curriculum be a bunch of electives on neat social science topics. Instead, build it around sequences of courses that first present general ideas and tools and then move into specifics.

Second, to alter our reputation in the intellectual field, I think it would be great to engage in more outreach. I recently gave a presentation on economic sociology, where I boiled down a lot of simple concepts and showed how they related to economics. The response was strong – people had never seen a sociologist speak to them directly and make the ideas clear. This outreach can happen in many ways – co-authoring with people, public speaking, and so forth. On a more ambitious scale, sociologists should set up institutes that facilitate strong interactions with other fields.

To summarize: reformat the curriculum so it builds on core theories on research methods and gets away from the bundle of interesting electives; emphasize the scientific content of our discipline in ways other people can understand; co-author work people outside the discipline in fields with large intellectual or policy relevance.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

12 Responses

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  1. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard some variant of the argument about our public perception limitations being linked to our approach to intro. However, this really has never held much explanatory power for me. Consider that psychology and biology (likely among others, but those are the first two that come to mind) do basically the same thing, just at different scales. But few would make the claim that they have the same limitations on authority claims. In saying this, I should note that the times I’ve taught intro (e.g., https://goo.gl/Uudg52) the courses have been much closer to the social analysis approach you describe here. But setting (even part of) the “blame” at the foot of a topics orientation to intro (to me) reads only as a viable explanation if you make only one or 2 external comparisons (econ seems to be the most common).

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    jimi adams

    September 15, 2015 at 2:34 am

  2. I’ve never claimed that intro was the only factor, just A factor. But let’s get to biology, for example. Biology teaches basic theoretical ideas in the intro – namely evolution/natural selection. Psychology seems to have no central theory, but they have a concrete method that drives almost empirical research – the experiment and it is taught from Day 1.

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    fabiorojas

    September 15, 2015 at 2:56 am

  3. I perceive sociology as a non-science, with the research not replicable, and often sounding like propaganda for the progressive left.
    This belief I have prevents me from becoming a sociologist. First, there is the idea that I would be required to entertain a bunch of nonsense as being fact. Second, that I would inevitably end up discriminated against- even if I could become a sociologist, I would find myself unable to get funding.
    Most of what works, and could conceivably be called sociology, can be found in marketing and communications.
    So, what likely happens is that people who are interested in the subject matter go into communications and marketing.
    The obvious answer is you need a strong alternate view. One can, if one tries hard enough, get a degree in economics, taught from an Austrian perspective. I guess the mainstream is mostly Chicago school, but an awful lot of folks sound like Keynesians- or perhaps that’s just what happens when they get hired by the government to do what economic law clearly says they shouldn’t.

    It shouldn’t be too hard to start from praxeology and work out a similar perspective for sociology.

    Now, I doubt academia will change on its own, and I am afraid, if there is any change, it will be fascist. The people seem to love Trump, and I am even seeing people identify as fascist. They aren’t going to have any problem making forcible changes to academia. This will be unfortunate for us all.

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    August

    September 15, 2015 at 2:27 pm

  4. I think sociology has quietly become more influential than we often give it credit for. Ideas about the social construction of identities, particularly gender and sexual identities, have become commonly understood and even incorporated into institutional practices (look at Facebook’s many built-in gender identity choices). Today’s impressive Atlantic cover story on mass incarceration and the family is littered with references to sociologists and their work, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are paying more attention to the consequences of incarceration. Sociology has been added to the MCAT, and health care delivery is increasingly paying attention to social determinants and sociological concepts. The Obama administration recently released new data and requirements relating to addressing residential segregation, etc.

    The glass actually seems more full than it did not long ago, and I think that’s because of the discipline’s theoretical and empirical focus on inequality and marginality.

    Liked by 3 people

    Elyas

    September 15, 2015 at 5:48 pm

  5. Which reinforces my point, since I take it as rather obvious the progressive identities are what the children are propagandized with, rather than there being any towering oppression from society.

    What is your gender when you are alone in a forest and society isn’t around to construct it?

    Hint, your biology gets left alone because there’s no one around to profit from surgeries and a lifetime of unnecessary medication.

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    August

    September 15, 2015 at 9:41 pm

  6. I’d like to hear more about what a course in systematic thinking about social processes would look like. That sounds like it would be very useful, especially for folks trying to design arrangements for collective action that work better, thereby converting existing states into preferred ones.

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    Fred Thompson

    September 15, 2015 at 11:45 pm

  7. Elyas said much of what I thought when I read this post. The most downloaded article ever from The Atlantic was Ta Nahisi Coates’ The Case For Reparations. That was based on the work of sociologists and historians. Neighborhood effects generally has been an area where sociologists are widely cited as the leading experts (Raj Chetty notwithstanding). Ditto with racial segregation. (I cite these examples because this is where my work tends to fall).

    This is not to say that we couldn’t create a better brand, but that I think that we are working from an even stronger position than you suggest in your post.

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    mike3550

    September 16, 2015 at 2:34 am

  8. It’s an intriguing thought that sociology could offer a set of widely applicable theoretical tools that would inform public debates and policies. But I don’t think there is actually such a consistent set that sociologists agree upon. There are some brilliant analyzes out there that use theories to illuminate specific problems. But these don’t add up to anything like “systematic thinking about social processes”. The discipline is quite fragmented, with different intellectual communities studying different things in different ways, and having limited coherence in assumptions and theory. Presenting sociology to students as a systematic body of work would take a lot of creative work (and I’d love to see how Fabio did it in his economic sociology presentation). Mainstream economics offers a clear rational choice paradigm for social analysis; anthropology derives its coherence from an agreement on a shared methodology; sociology offers an eclectic toolkit that can be flexibly deployed by a skilled craftsperson to understand various things in the social world.

    This has to do in part with the reward structure in the field. One gets recognized for theoretical innovation, not for confirming existing theories. You get published when you show the limitations of existing tools and come up with your new and improved tool. Better yet, you should name your new tool and differentiate it from what has been done in the past. Of course, intellectual pluralism and emphasis on innovation do have their upside. But they take away from sociology’s coherence.

    By the way – sadly enough, the Amazon list of top 20 sociology bestsellers has only one author I recognized as a sociologist: Eric Klinenberg, as a second author to the actor Aziz Ansari. Check it out – http://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/books/11288/.

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    tal yifat

    September 16, 2015 at 11:31 am

  9. @tal: agreed on your overall point. But many would argue that theoretical “tools” are not really tools since nobody ever uses them and proves their worth. (Your point, I believe.) A colleague takes issue with me, saying that the essence of progress in sociology is using one theoretical tool to bury another. This makes for a social science that is ontologically and epistemologically subjective.

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    Randy

    September 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm

  10. August

    September 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm

  11. I share Fabio’s view that sociology has a public image problem but also agree with others who have noted the areas where sociology has been more influential. This makes me wonder why sociologists have had more of an impact in those particular areas.

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    Aaron Platt

    September 16, 2015 at 7:27 pm

  12. Well said, Fabio. I taught Intro every semester and revised my course over time to be more in line with what you described. Too many teach Intro as a list of inequalities and/or the first step in learning things you need to know to be a graduate student in sociology.

    Regarding our public image:
    I left a tenured position in a sociology department so my wife and I could live in a city we love. I now work as a research analyst for a pediatric hospital. It’s been nearly three years since we decided to move, and I’ve spent much of that time investigating work outside of academia. I recognize that I am an N of 1, but I’ve talked with many people in a variety of fields and consistently find that our discipline is irrelevant to fields that should know about and value what we do: marketing and advertising research, urban policy and city government, health care research, community and neighborhood research. Generally, people in these fields still have little understanding of what we do, and when they do discuss sociology, it often relates to a story about some whackjob professor they had for Intro who ranted about various -isms.

    When I’ve related to few friends or former colleagues, the responses have generally been apathy, defensiveness (“look how often sociologist are in the NYT!”), or disregard (“it’s not my fault they’re stupid”). I thought about writing an essay for Contexts or the ASA newsletter about it, but it strikes me as an exercise in futility and I have better things to do with my time they try to convince fellow sociologists that the discipline is poorly represented and increasingly in danger of being considered irrelevant outside of strong work in a few substantive areas.

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    Dave Purcell (@davepurcell)

    September 19, 2015 at 2:51 pm


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