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i don’t retract blog posts, but i do engage in friendly and scholarly debate about sociology’s public impact

Yesterday, I suggested that sociology is not as oriented toward policy as it might be, especially in comparison to related fields like economics. The blog post offered some evidence: sociology did not, until recently (see SocArXiv), have institutions that are designed to collect and distribute research like the NBER; sociology does not build standard policy evaluation tools into its curriculum (like cost/benefit for undergrads, or social welfare analysis for grads); sociologists do not make identification a central focus of methods training, although things are changing in some departments.

What really ticked people off was my correct observation that sociologists have backed off of blogging as a form of public communications, while economists have maintained a presence. I think this is very important because each form of communication has its strengths. Twitter, for example , is great for “quick takes” and fast distribution for links. Journals are great for in-depth arguments. Blogs are in the middle. They are timely and allow for more depth as Twitter, but not as much as journals. I noted that blogs have declined in sociology, while they remain highly active in economics. And that’s important as there is a range of discussion that is well served by the format.

So let me address various Twitter responses. First, my good friend Tina Fetner asked for a retraction:

Sorry, this isn’t Hypatia – we don’t do retractions! On a more serious note, I never said that sociologists do *zero* policy relevant work. Rather, if you read the post, I make specific arguments about (a) sociology curricula, (b) methods training, (c) professional institutions, and (d) public communication and blogs in particular. If one particular sociologist, like Dr. Ewing , is writing on policy, I celebrate it. But that doesn’t undermine the basic point that, as a profession, we are relatively slow.

Another friend of mine, Dana Fisher, wrote the following:

I never said that there weren’t “many”  blogs. Rather, my post specifically argued that there was a retreat from blogging by sociology and that this may indicate a less sustained focus or attention paid to public impact. I also noted that while you could come up with a list of sociology blogs, you’d be hard pressed to match the massive list of well read and impactful blogs written by leading and less known economists. And yes, Dana’s blog, American Resistance, is very good and I was remiss in not listing it .

Victor Ray tweeted the following:

This actually supports the main point of the original post. Conditionally Accepted used to be a blog, but moved to a new format. I think that’s fabulous, but it is evidence that actually supports one of the original blog post’s arguments – blogs are in decline in sociology. To my knowledge, there is no longer a widely read blog that covers Conditionally Accepted’s topics.

I am ultimately a pluralist. I don’t think there is a single way to do sociology or to cultivate sociology’s impact. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t be better at what we do, or learn from related fields.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 10, 2019 at 5:20 pm

Posted in uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. Fabio, thanks for this. I’ll take you up on your “friendly and scholarly debate” invitation. Your original post and this response completely side-step the main problem that I have myself and read other people expressing across Twitter. If you write a post on sociology’s public impact, but then define that impact around these few issues, you are rendering invisible the most important, creative, and powerful ways that sociologists are making a public impact today, and the heavy lifting of that work is being done disproportionately by black women, LGBTQ scholars, and other POC scholars, who may not be working within the framework that economists built, but are rather building their own framework and redefining what is possible for public impact.

    So, when Eve Ewing authors a major superhero comic book story line, for example, she is breaking into new territory in which sociological insights can be delivered to larger publics than policy institutes can even dream about. When Tressie McMillan Cottom writes for Slate, or The Atlantic, or testifies before a US Senate hearing committee as she did this morning, this isn’t tallied up in your categories of what “counts” as public sociology, but it is really important. Your focus on experiments, causality, and blogs was not just a neutral choice of some examples; it reproduced the elitism, racism and sexism that infiltrates our discipline, as well as the social sciences in general (one more reason why econ is considered to have higher status than sociology). It perpetuates an idea that what counts for sociology is narrowly defined in graduate seminars, when people are working hard outside the box of academia to turn platforms like Twitter into discursive spaces where important exchanges of ideas actually do take place and real intellectual communities are built.

    Because we are friends, I know that your intentions are good. You want to be provocative and have a lively discussion. But I am calling you out because, in my view, the impact of your posts are harmful. Your thoughts on sociologists not working hard, or not caring to engage public audiences, has the unintentional consequence of centering the public sociology conversation on elite sociologists and economists, and in so doing render invisible the hard work of our colleagues who are finding new ways to engage publics. That is my beef.

    Liked by 4 people

    tina

    April 10, 2019 at 7:02 pm

  2. Hi, Tina: Thanks for checking in. You raise multiple issues that merit response:

    – The post actually has a fairly broad to public impact definition. It mentions: cost benefit analysis, social welfare analysis, causal identification, professional groups (like NBER), public paper archives (NBER, Soc ArXiv), and public communication, including blogs.

    This is an extremely broad type of impact. I honestly don’t see this as narrow or particularly attached to the economics profession (with the obvious exception of social welfare analysis). All of these things are directly relevant to policy and impact in a broad sense.

    The reason I raised blogs is (a) I like them! and (b) they are simple and low cost way to communicate with the public. They weren’t invented or developed by economists and they were picked up in many areas. And they remain so vital that they are still read and they were archived by Congress. Yet, sociology backed off.

    – You raised the issue of popular culture and fiction writing. My argument is not that “sociologist has no impact.” I made a different argument. I wrote that relative to other fields, sociology pushes less hard with respect to the forms of impact one normally thinks of.

    You raised Eve Ewing. I think it is great that a sociologist is reshaping popular culture. At the same time, is this a strategy that can be institutionalized? Can all of us write comic books published by the #1 comic publisher around?* I think the answer is no. Rather, if we care about sociology’s public impact, we can’t use examples like Dr. Ewing as a guide. Why? Most of us don’t have the skills to write a comic of that caliber and it would be a stretch. Instead, we should build institutions that extend what we are good at. God bless Eve Ewing, but expecting the typical sociologist to write high quality graphic novels, or prose fiction, is a real stretch.

    – You also raised the issue of marginal groups. Educate me! Tell me about them! If there is consortium of LGBT scholars who have conducted publicly relevant work, I will happily blog, retweet and more. I’d be thrilled to champion them. Have them send something to Contexts! In other words, if the timber is there, build the house! … Maybe they could start a blog outlining their research and policy analysis.

    * Marvel>DC, clearly.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    April 10, 2019 at 7:22 pm

  3. I for one miss blogs and hate Twitter and Facebook as alternatives, although I use them because the blog world seems dead. Not dead in the sense of people writing them (because people are still writing), but dead in the sense that people don’t comment on blogs. Instead they link to an essay and then comment off-site where the author can’t engage the comments. The decline of the blog forum is a totally different issue from public engagement. That is a two-sided problem, both whether people are putting stuff out there and whether “the public” (or which public) is picking it up. As Tina said, by omitting the obvious examples of scholars of color who are still writing blogs, you perpetuated the hierarchy of conflating “mainstream” notice with whether something is happening. And you conflated the problem of whether there is a public working papers site that reporters can access with whether people are doing public work.

    Liked by 4 people

    olderwoman

    April 10, 2019 at 7:30 pm

  4. I think what people are pointing out is that you claim sociologists are not oriented toward policy like economists, and then make this claim on the basis of “cost benefit analysis, social welfare analysis, causal identification, professional groups (like NBER), public paper archives (NBER, Soc ArXiv), and public communication, including blogs”.

    What people are pointing out is that this is a convenience sample. You’re not taking into account the other avenues that people engage in policy (and don’t frame your original post as asking for ways that sociologists engage with the public). In addition to those mentioned in previous comments here or on Twitter, off the top of my head, sociologists have published in the Monkey Cage at the Washington Post, History blog at the Washington Post, different sections have policy-related outreach (Development has policy briefs with a new editor who has a lot of ties to the public; when I was a coeditor of Trajectories, I maintained an “Op-Ed Corner” designed to have scholars explain the public and they also have a Policies Trajectory blog, Consumers & Consumption has a membership directory, in part, for media engagement; OOW and Econ Soc have a Works in Progress blog etc), written op-eds (including Inside Higher Ed and not just limited to Conditionally Accepted), there’s a sociology podcast (SocAnnex, which you’ve been on) are members of the Strategy Scholars Network and SheSource, among other networks aimed at public engagement, SWS has awards explicitly for public engagement (activism) etc etc.

    Liked by 5 people

    Victoria Reyes

    April 10, 2019 at 7:49 pm

  5. Hi Victoria:

    A brief response: The reason that I focused on institutions in the economics profession is that it works. If we mean “policy impact” as in “people implement policies promoted by X,” then we should look at examples where that has actually happened. I don’t see this as a convenience sample. It’s simply observing one clear example that works (e.g., ideas about monetary policy routinely have impact at Fed).

    My argument is not that the forums you mention are without value or have zero impact. I have actually participated in some of them! Rather, they don’t seem to lead to the creation of bridges between sociological academia and various actors in the state, the non-profit world, or the for profit sector. We have valuable stuff to sell, but I think we need to more carefully think about the transmission of the ideas.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    April 10, 2019 at 7:56 pm

  6. Doubling down. Classy

    Like

    Dylan Kerrigan

    April 11, 2019 at 2:38 am

  7. Hi. I think other extremely thoughtful points have been made rebutting your original point, so I’ll leave that aside. But since my name has been invoked a few times, just chiming in to say that in addition to writing comic books, I wrote Ghosts in the Schoolyard, published by the University of Chicago Press. This is an academic book which I have presented to teachers, scholars, and community members across the country, and which I appeared on The Daily Show to discuss. I have a book of poetry coming out in June that is meant to be an accessible discussion of the 1919 race riot in Chicago and the Red Summer more broadly. I host a podcast in which I engage with archival interviews on issues of race and identity. I have written on issues of race, politics, and culture in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the FADER, and GQ. I speak publicly a lot to a wide variety of academic and non-academic audiences. I frequently use social media to demystify and explain both concepts in the social sciences and the hidden curriculum of academia. I am active in my community as a mentor, educator, and organizer. I also teach a full course load, mentor students, am affiliated with multiple centers and professional organizations, and am actively engaged in new research projects. I am very proud of my work writing comics, but if the conversation is about what constitutes engagement with a public, I’d like to advocate for the full recognition of my work in that area. As for whether this is a sustainable strategy for others in the field to take on– I’d argue that it’s less about the specific work I do and more about the disposition I try to bring to that work, which I do think is replicable and accessible.

    This is probably the first blog I’ve commented on since 2003. At this rate, see you in 2035 when blogs will have made an unexpected triumphant return, or the internet will have mercifully ceased to exist.

    Liked by 2 people

    Eve L. Ewing

    April 11, 2019 at 4:06 am

  8. …it’s 11 PM my time and I’m perturbed that it says I posted at 4 AM. Just goes to show that you should never comment on a blog.

    Like

    Eve L. Ewing

    April 11, 2019 at 4:08 am


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