sociology’s image problem, part 348

exploratorium clip

Guess which discipline is missing …

I recently visited the Exploratorium, the children’s “hands on” museum in San Francisco. I had a really wonderful experience. One of the most exciting things about the museum is that it actually has a whole section just on social and behavioral science. Kids can play prisoner dilemma games, a clever experiment about frames and disgust, and there is a fun exhibit on social networks. A+ experience.

The one disappointing aspect of the social science section is that it gives credit to all manner of social scientists… except sociology, even when the material is sociological in nature. The picture above mentions the funder and describes the science. If you are wondering what the sociological content is, it is at least these two exhibits: (a) a large display of global social networks and (b) a clever framing experiment.

Basically, this is another piece of evidence that the public simply doesn’t understand that sociology is the scientific study of groups. They think it is something else, probably inequality studies. We have to keep pushing to make our image fit our discipline.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 31, 2015 at 6:10 am

Posted in uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. […] Source : sociology’s image problem, part 348 […]


  2. Here’s another perspective on the Exploratorium: they don’t employ many social scientists of any kind, nevermind sociologists. Among the “staff scientists,” the only one with social science training is a social psychologist who became a more general science writer ( Among the senior management, credentials include PhDs in education administration, physics, and genetics and master’s degrees in business and nonprofit management ( Credentials aren’t listed for the board of directors (, but given their job titles, surely some have advanced training in economics.

    Come to think of it, while tons of sociologists have cool non-academic jobs, very few are in positions where they are likely to interact substantively with the public. It would also be interesting to consider the representation of different disciplines on governance boards–I suspect economists are overrepresented and sociologists underrepresented in that capacity, partially because the economists have more money. That would be an interesting research project.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 31, 2015 at 2:38 pm

  3. I met with the designers of this exhibit a couple times before it debuted (though too late to have any meaningful influence). I found them to be really open-minded, thoughtful, curious people. Everything you’d want designers of such an exhibit to be.

    So why isn’t there any sociology in it? I think a museum like this looks for exhibit ideas that 1) they’ve heard of, 2) explain something interesting, useful, or socially important with the level of clarity seen in the natural sciences, and 3) lend themselves to a participatory demonstration.

    Some sociology isn’t crisp, clear, tight enough for #2 (something I think is fixable). Much of sociology is pretty macro, making #3 really hard (note: you won’t see a lot of macroeconomics at the Exploratorium either).

    A longer conversation could be had about the many reasons for #1. And of course when the discipline doesn’t get talked about because people haven’t heard the discipline’s ideas, this creates a vicious cycle.

    I imagine that a publicly funded museum like this also feels they can’t be seen as too political. That’s likely also a barrier. In some ways that’s fair (a good amount of sociology has progressive values baked in), but some of that perception is unfair, IMO (e.g., I don’t think presenting information on levels of social mobility or poverty in the U.S. is inherently political).

    Like I said, I didn’t have any influence over the exhibit, but for what it’s worth, they did reach out to a sociologist at some point in the process.

    Liked by 1 person

    Robb Willer

    January 1, 2016 at 7:47 pm

  4. epopp

    January 4, 2016 at 1:57 am

  5. Robb: Thanks for writing in. I assumed no ill will from the Exploratorium staff and I do appreciate that soc arguments can be tricky. But looking over my vacation photos, I saw a number of other exhibits that did very well in simplifying sociological ideas for the public (e.g., “Making Meaning together” and a different exhibit with a card game about how gender affects our views of jobs). If economics, which is the most highly mathematical social science, can translate itself and get on the public radar, we certainly can.



    January 4, 2016 at 4:01 am

  6. […] to those of us still stinging from the recent posts by Fabio and others about how the public is just not into sociologists. In it, I make my own, personal case for why sociology matters. (Of […]


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