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.