Parking was the ostensible focus of a fascinating, revealing exchange on our Community Page Cyborgology last week. In it, Tim McCormick—a research consultant (at Stanford Media X) who works in scholarly communication, new media, and publishing—took one of our most regular and prolific TSP bloggers, Nate Jurgenson, to task for his critique of “smart parking.”

In his original post, Jurgenson suggests that, in stark contrast to its laudable intentions, smarter parking could actually create more parking problems by encouraging people to drive around even more, since the annoyance of parking won’t be quite the disincentive it is currently. Jurgenson bases his critique on what he calls the “Robert Moses Mistake”—the unintended consequences of creating more and better freeways. McCormick, in turn, argues that Jurgenson doesn’t really know much about the impetus and ideas behind smart parking, its realities as a social policy innovation, or the actual research on parking and driving among urban planners and policy makers.

We love Jurgenson’s sociologically-inspired, counter-intuitive critique of smart parking, as well as McCormick’s careful point-by-point, empirical rejoinder. Without taking sides or giving away the details, let’s just say it was a great exchange, typical of the best of sociological research and thought.

But what really caught our attention was how McCormick took the opportunity to launch into an extended consideration and commentary about the whole idea of public sociology and public intellectuals. Basically, he characterizes Jurgenson’s post as an example of everything that goes wrong when poorly informed, isolated, ivory tower intellectuals venture into social domains about which they have little empirical information and understanding. And his springboard for this commentary was a “deconstruction” of our own TSP mission statement. To quote the relevant passage:

For example, to apply a bit of the old deconstructionist close-reading, I note The Society Pages’ mission statement:  “The Society Pages’ mission is to bring measured social science to broader public visibility and influence.”

Seems straightforward enough. Yet note that it expresses a dissemination from discipline to public, rather than an engagement between them. Presumably, “measured social science” is not what public lag-abouts and workers in the coal-mines like me are up to our spare time, but what professional social scientists do. The truth, the work, the core, evidently happens inside the discipline, non-publicly, to then be brought to “visibility” outside, for “influence” over the public.

Much to his credit (in our humble view), McCormick develops his critique by drawing upon sociologist Michael Burawoy’s landmark definition and call for public sociology in the first part of this century. He takes Burawoy to be arguing for a closer engagement with and dialogue between professional or scholarly sociology and the sociological knowledge and understanding in the real world—what we might call organic knowledge.

We here at TSP have obviously been tremendously inspired and informed by Burawoy’s vision for public sociology and his insistence on the need for dialogue between scholars and practitioners. Indeed, it could be fair to say that there wouldn’t be a TSP without Burawoy’s call to arms. We’ve even tried to capture that in the next sentence of our mission statement, the one about “talking about society with society.”

At the same time, we remain convinced that there is such a thing as social science and expert knowledge, and that there is a real need for and public service in providing a clear-headed, publicly accessible reading of this body of work. Such knowledge and expertise, we think, can help avoid the traps of partisanship or extreme relativism (dueling experts) while also taking down some of the fallacies and misconceptions that too often appear in the mass media, public discourse, and everyday folk wisdom. Take my colleague and co-conspirator Chris Uggen’s recent piece on mass shootings as example: Uggen reviews real data and information on guns, crime, and violence and puts them into broader sociological context and perspective. Not surprisingly, his post found a wide audience, even beyond The Society Pages. This point about the need for and value of concrete, social scientific knowledge and information is one that Herbert Gans (also cited by McCormick) made in his own call for public sociology a decade or so before Buroway’s—albeit one that we and our colleagues sometimes forget when we get a bit too abstract, ambitious, idealistic, or simply disconnected from the social worlds in which we live.

None of this is to suggest that McCormick is wrong about the challenges of public intellectuals, civil reflection, or the value of real-world, organic knowledge. Nor is it to suggest that we disagree with his defense of smart parking. (Indeed, without really knowing much about parking of any variety, McCormick’s concrete, empirical knowledge about traffic, infrastructure, and parking seemed to carry the day against Jurgenson’s essentially theoretical/conceptual critique—an example of the importance of empirical information and real-world knowledge and experience over abstract sociological critique). In fact, the point is that there is real, empirical knowledge and insight in the world and that it can come from many different places. The trick is to find it and help it to circulate.

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