guest post by michael bishop on sociology and public impact

This guest post is written by long time reader Mike Bishop, a researcher whose current projects include contributing to the largest ever study of research rigor and replication in the social sciences.

I think it is a mistake to try to evaluate whether sociologists care more or less than economists about having a public impact, but I think it is a good idea to discuss *how* social scientists might have a public impact, and to describe the approaches that are being taken by sociologists, economists and others. Fabio offered a couple hypotheses that I’d love to see studied.

Fabio claims there is a dearth of sociology blogs (relative to economics). Some people seemed to disagree, but we still haven’t specified a falsifiable claim. One approach would be to measure the percent of sociology/economics faculty that published more than, e.g. 1,000 words on a blog in the last year. Or the percent whose blog posts had more than 1,000 page views. I’d love for someone to go collect some data!

Another idea is to study the content of publications in top sociology and economics journals… how many words in each article are devoted to discussing implications for policy makers (or activists, or any audience other than fellow academics.) Note, while I generally think discussing policy implications is a good thing, the intellectual standards for such discussion should be high including explicit discussion of possible tradeoffs or empirical uncertainties. Reviewers and editors should not tolerate authors making big leaps with weak arguments (e.g. “This study demonstrated that workers with higher incomes are happier, therefore if the minimum wage were raised to $20/hr everyone would be happier.”)

Of course, blogging, or research with strong policy implications, are just two approaches to having a public impact as Fabio and some of his interlocuters on Twitter mention in follow up conversation. Sociologists (and economists) may also: engage in issue advocacy directed at politicians or philanthropists, document social problems, electoral politics, influencing public opinion through books, news media, etc. contributing to political/social movements, (like “Open Borders.”) If we must return to the sociology vs. economics angle, much will depend on how you weigh the effectiveness of these approaches.


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Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2019 at 4:57 am

Posted in uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Should departments place less weight on publishing high in the sociology journal hierarchy in hiring/promotion decisions? This is necessary if one is to create greater career incentives for sociologists to do other kinds of work.

    Fabio, I would think you would reply in the affirmative so you could give more weight to, e.g. policy engagement, and blogging. I would think others would agree so they could reward/incentivize advocacy, activism, and cultural contributions.

    Would anyone like to stand up for the status quo sociology career incentives are roughly right, or even that publishing high in the sociology journal hierarchy is under-rewarded?


  2. Let me defend the status quo (almost): The value of most academia is research output. That is what gives us the authority and visibility. It should always be at the fore front. Another issue is that research output is way easier to judge (== volume + journal prestige) than activism. Why should some activism be promoted? What metric should be used? Unclear to me.

    At the same time, I can imagine *some* margins where we’d want to reward people. For example, Contexts is public oriented and translational in character. The top programs wouldn’t reward it, but a lot of others might, especially if they want to encourage faculty visibility. I can also imagine that if you place an op ed, or testify in front of Congress, that may count as “service” in a promotion or tenure dossier.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 11, 2019 at 4:46 pm

  3. If we want sociologists (or academics generally) to have more public impact, then I think we need to come up with specific ideas for changing the professional incentives. And giving more weight to public impact necessarily means giving less weight to something else.

    As for the specific case of recognizing and rewarding political activism, there are certainly tradeoffs… I prefer the image of an academic field that cuts across ideologies, demonstrating facts and offering perspectives that all people, regardless of their leanings, find necessary and useful.

    However, the facts may be partisan. I understand why some academics would see a non-partisan, or non-ideologically informed field to be a pipe dream and an impediment to the public impact that is so needed. Many members of the public already suspect academics, and sociologists in particular, of being politically biased, so why strain ourselves to attempting to speak only with Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View.


  4. Well, let me suggest a simple policy: Departments of Sociology could actively recruit people who have both traditional journal publication and non-academic experience, like the US Census. This is analogous to how econ programs routinely hire people who worked at the Fed. This is simple and straightforward compared to most proposal to incorporate public impact.



    April 11, 2019 at 8:58 pm

  5. For public/policy impact, sociologists might consider summarising their findings/advice for The Conversation.
    As noted on the site, it has a monthly audience of 10 million odd readers.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 11, 2019 at 9:33 pm

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