This week on The Society Pages, we tackled drug addiction and harm reduction, body image and stigma, Twitter as a public forum for shaming, marriage equality and health, and the thin line between The Bachelor‘s Juan Pablo and Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson. Plus much more (as always)!
Cyborgology. In @YesYoureRacist: We Can do Better, Jenny Davis covers the Coca-Cola commercial that stirred up a ton of racist remarks, Twitter’s take on public shaming in 140 characters or less, and a pretty hefty shortcoming–sociologically speaking.
Girl w/ Pen!. After making substantial (albeit cautious) homophobic remarks, it may have been social privilege that rescued the star of The Bachelor from public backlash.
This week, on The Editors’ Desk*, Doug Hartmann enumerated and tried to define** six elements of the sociological worldview. Elsewhere on The Society Pages, our many contributors worked to demonstrate that worldview—enjoy!
*That’s right: we all share one desk. It’s adorable. Possibly even adorkable.
**See what I did there? The man never met a conjunction he didn’t like.
The Editors’ Desk:
“Representing the Field: What—and Where—is ‘Sociology’?” by Doug Hartmann. A call to arms and lenses, a reorientation and focusing of the sociological imagination, and a sort of manifesto from our co-editor. Also: an adorable photo and a kerfuffle over the spelling of (w)holistic.
There’s Research on That!
“Marketing Men at the Superbowl,” by Stephen Suh. Watching ads to spot changes in the construction of masculinity over time. From manly men to happy losers to men in crisis… what will this Sunday bring?
“Can Bill Gates Close the Condom Gap?” by Molly Goin and Jacqui Frost. The public health effort that’s spawned a million jokes, Bill Gates’ race for the next-best-condom is both serious business and surprisingly sociological.
Citings & Sightings:
“An Unlikely Rap Sheet,” by Kat Albrecht. NPR explores the use of rap lyrics in courtrooms. Poetry and self-expression or incriminating confession?
“Learning to See the Spectrum,” by Evan Stewart. New research from Gil Eyal on the social and cultural changes that have helped shift autism from a specific, and rare, diagnosis to a spectrum of symptoms that now comprise a largely family-diagnosed American epidemic. Just the latest example of the social construction of health and illness.
This week we played around with #socgreetings, got excited to see movers and shakers talking about the We Are All Criminals project, and mourned rabble-rousing change-maker Nelson Mandela while hoping those he inspired would continue bending the arc of history… and society. Here’s what else we got up to.
For the next couple of Roundups, I’d like to welcome TSP’s graduate editor Hollie Nyseth Brehm. She’ll be covering for me as I head off on a 3-hour cruise. Actually, there’s no cruise. But I do expect to find myself washed up on a beach for a stretch, so I won’t be rounding up the site until… October 11th? Craziness. For now, one last hurrah before heading for the airport (yet again).
“Environmental Inequalities,” by Hollie Nyseth Brehm and David Pellow. We think of environmental damage as infesting specific sites (Erin Brokovich, anyone?) or being a fully global problem (ozone layer: we need one). Brehm and Pellow urge us to consider the ways in which environmental hazards work to more directly impact the most vulnerable global citizens.
“Sketch #2: Ears to the Ground,” by Doug Hartmann. Talking to the media is daunting; it’s hard to speak in soundbites when scholars are used to 40 pages of nuanced analysis to make a point. What do social scientists get out of the exchange? Turns out: more data.
Citings & Sightings:
“Strong and Stable: Personal and Civic Lives,” by John Ziegler. New work reported in the Atlantic measures voting patterns and finds that personal tragedies along with other life disruptions can keep people away from the polls. Is a stable life the first step to civic participation?
“A Fitting Tribute,” by Erin Hoekstra. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, extends her work on inequality into wider realms in a reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
New Books in Sociology. “Superdads,” with author Gayle Kaufmann.
Sociological Images. The beat stays catchy, the words stay sketchy. SocImages keeps unblurring those lines with the help of Project Unbreakable. And while we’re pissed off, guess what you can’t have in movies? No, it’s not explicit violence or abuse, it’s wrinkles. Dirty damn lady wrinkles.
When scholars think about doing interviews with the media, we often imagine ourselves to be doing some kind of great public service–wherein we deign to come down from the ivory tower and share our wisdom and knowledge with naive, uninformed journalists and their massive, mostly ignorant, and fundamentally distracted masses. There is some truth to this conceit. Writers and producers often approach a story or a topic with a limited, fairly narrow frame of reference, and sometimes don’t even know the most basic facts or more general trends that are involved. I average maybe an interview a week, and find myself spending much of my time in these exchanges trying to get the writer or producer on the other end of the line to expand their scope, attend to some of the broader social forces or issues, or reframe their pieces in one way or the other. Sometimes this effort to frame and/or reorient stories works, sometimes it doesn’t (and rarely do we get credit either way).
But none of that is really the point of this post. The point of this post is that journalists often know a lot more than we give them credit for, and that we scholars–especially us sociologists–have got a lot more to gain from working with them than we usually realize.
For one thing, the best journalists are not ignorant or uniformed. To the contrary, they know a ton–more than this, they know what they know, know what they need to confirm and support, and what they don’t know yet and still need to figure out. That’s the whole point of them calling us. And even reporters who aren’t so curious, well-informed, and self-aware usually know a lot more about what is going on in neighborhoods, communities, and cities in regular people’s lives at this very moment than we do. This shouldn’t be surprising. We talk a lot in the academy, especially in the social sciences, about being empirical, staying grounded, and understanding the lifeworlds and world views of others. But these are folks who actually have their ears to the ground on a daily basis. It’s their job, and most of them–like most of us–work hard at it and do it fairly well.
And this knowledge and perspective is–or at least should be–a real resource for a sociologist like myself. Thus it is that I have come to think of my conversations and exchanges with journalists, reporters, writers, and producers not so much as an obligation or responsibility (though I do believe that to be the case) but as one of the most important and unrecognized benefits of “public engagement” as a scholar. It brings me into contact with people in the real world who know a lot about things I am otherwise not party to or disconnected from. It helps me to learn about what is going on in that big, bustling, ever-changing, always-evolving social world all around me.
This past week provided me with another little reminder of this basic truth–which was fortuitous because with the start of a new academic year (where I get paid to stand up and tell young people what I know and their job is to be prepared to be tested on that) I’m sure I was otherwise soon to fall into that old “I’m-the-expert” conceit myself once again.
It started in the middle of the afternoon last Tuesday when I got a voice mail from a local sportswriter, one who I know fairly well, asking me if I might be available to comment on a high school sports story he “thought I might be intrigued by.” Obviously, knowing my schedule and that it was the start of class, this guy was trying to be coy and get me to call him back on a deadline by appealing to my curiosity and, truth be told, vanity. And the current of underlying urgency in his message was confirmed by a series of additional voice mails and text messages. Still, it was a typically busy day for me too (class, followed by a department workshop and a three hour board meeting with a local community group) and I sent him a quick text asking what his deadline was and apologizing that I might not be able to squeeze it in.We scholars talk a ton about being empiricists, about identifying new social trends, about gathering facts and learning about the lives of those who are different from us. Yet far too often we remain isolated and disconnected from those people and trends. So here’s part of the answer how we stay grounded and fresh: talk as much as we can to others trying to do the same—journalists. Perhaps it is verboten to suggest, but I think we may actually get more than we give in this relationship.
Anyway, despite the temptation to not be bothered and just do my own thing, I decided to do the right thing and called to talk the following morning on my drive in to campus.The story my reporter friend was working on turned out to be about a local, Friday night high school football game that was going to be televised live, nation-wide on ESPN 2 that week. This was a big story, a national story, driven mainly by the fact that one of the teams had a player, a defensive lineman, who was rated at the very top of national college recruiting lists over the summer. So I had heard about it but I didn’t know a lot about the actual details. Nevertheless and as is my won’t, I had a few (mostly critical) ideas about the general trends, pitfalls, and problems of turning high school athletics into big-time, national media events to offer. Indeed, I spent about twenty minutes explaining what I thought most scholars and researchers in the field would be concerned about, and trying to convince him to use the story to talk about some of the larger, longer term developments and implications.
This sportswriters listened patiently to what I had to say and dutifully asked a few questions, but from the point of view of my usual smarter-than-thou, scholarly expert self, the exchange was far from a complete success. The story that ran two days later in the paper (on the front page, mind you) didn’t have any of the larger scope or more critical nuance I had worked so hard to cultivate. This, to such an extent that the quotes I gave him that he was able to work into the story (as is common practice and professional courtesy) were cut by his editors. (My guy emailed before the story even ran to apologize in advance and explain that his editors insisted on that my contribution be cut from “an already too long story.”) Adding insult to injury, this version of the story was scooped by a rival outlet in the Twin Cities; when this reporter insisted that “ours was better,” I couldn’t help but get the message that my primary contribution was simply to make the piece late.
But as frustrating as all of this was for the reporter I was working with, it actually turned out to be a pretty good exchange for me. After all, looking back, I realize that learned a ton of facts about the dynamics of high school sports I previously could only have guessed at. I learned about how ESPN producers sitting in Connecticut make their decisions about what national games to televise, and that they themselves are fully aware of (and indeed somewhat circumspect about) the broader impacts and implications that we scholarly critics only pontificate about. I learned that the games are actually produced by subcontractors working out of various regional offices (this one in Chicago), which have become a whole industry in themselves–talent, camera operators, techies,and road crew to be sure, but also lighting operators, advertising specialists, crowd control etc. Talk about production! And just for a high school football game. I learned also just how much money each school was going to make, and that the locals really had very little sense of whether they were getting a good deal in this (or not, as the case may have been), nor of any of the larger, systemic pitfalls and problems that this coverage may be creating. In short, I learned a ton of facts and inside information about this whole system that is emerging that I otherwise would have known nothing about. The reason, obviously, is because my reporter friend is out there, with his ear to the ground in the real world, learning about all of the developments and dynamics around high school football that are threatening to reshape the sporting landscape right in front of us.
We scholars, at least we sociologists, talk a ton about being empiricists, about identifying new social trends, about gathering facts and learning about the lives of those who are different from us. Yet far too often (if, for reasons we can’t entirely control–the world is big, our resources are limited, and we’ve got on own, fairly extensive teaching responsibilities ), we remain isolated and disconnected from all those people and trends we are supposed to know about (and regularly asked to comment upon). So here’s part of the answer how we stay–or at least can stay–grounded and fresh: talk as much as we can to those other folks who also do this for a living. Perhaps it is verboten to suggest, but I think we may actually get more than we give in this relationship.
“The Home Stretch (Or: Introducing Our Third Book),” by Doug Hartmann. In which Doug details some of the coming content for Color Lines and Racial Angles, TSP’s third reader from W.W. Norton (the first two volumes are due out by the end of the year).
This past weekend I came across a piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Gareth Cook in the Boston Globe about new research showing that spending time helping others can actually make it seem like we’ve got more time for ourselves. It sounded like a great, eminently sociological project in so many ways: its emphasis on the social meaning and variable experience of time, the importance of selflessness and interacting with others, the use of interviews and experiments, and, of course, the classic, counter-intuitive conclusion that the best solution for not feeling like you have enough time is to make time for others.
My first thought was to throw it over to our Citings & Sightings team as another cool case of how sociological research finds its way to public attention in and through the mass media. But a closer look made me pause. It turns out the research was produced by a team headed up by a professor in a business school (Harvard, no less). Scholars who teach future MBAs to make millions taking on questions of selflessness and the social experience of time? Suddenly I found myself getting cynical about the researcher’s claim that such activities give us confidence we can get things done and allows us to feel more in control of our own lives.
Lately, whether it is management professors, researchers in public health, or cultural studies critics, scholars all over the academy seem to be taking on topics and using methods and theories pioneered by sociologists. It is easy to be a bit skeptical or defensive, but rather than getting caught up in turf wars, I think it better to celebrate such insights and accomplishments as part of the structure and functioning of social life, claiming them as part of the big, broad sociological tent. It’s not important who is researching sociological questions, but that scholars of all stripes are calling attention to the importance and complexity of social life and interactions—a broad context that’s so often missing from the individualist, economistic, and biological visions of human beings and social life that are otherwise dominant in our academic culture.
In response to the sport and politics white paper Kyle Green and I recently wrote for this site, ThickCulture writer and loyal friend of TSP Andrew Linder emailed to suggest that although Barack Obama is obviously not the first “sports president,” he may be the first “ESPN President” or “SportsCenter President.” Andrew’s point (now up on ThickCulture as a more fleshed out post—jinx!) was that, although ESPN had become a cultural fixture under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama represented the core network demographic in its first two decades of its existence and it seems to have been formative for him. To the extent that ESPN has transformed sporting culture, then, Obama is the first President to be fully fashioned in and through that new culture.
This seemed plausible enough—and was definitely borne out in a recent interview the President gave to the star sportswriter/reporter Bill Simmons. At least two things about the interview should be pointed out. The first is why Obama chose this particular venue and reporter: “Simmons,” as one report put it, “is revered by the under-30 crowd” and “has more than 1 million—1,642, 522 to be exact—Twitter followers.” Indeed, his “B.S. Report” podcast, on which the Obama interview originally appeared, is said to be one of the most downloaded podcasts on the web. The second point is how this interview and exchange reveals what a great fan of sports and sports talk our President actually is.
Not only is his obsession with ESPN’s SportsCenter evident, Obama shows himself to be an extremely knowledgeable sports fan, gifted in the arts of sports talk and debate. Talking with Simmons, the President riffs on Linsanity (claiming to have been on the bandwagon early) and the joys and challenges of coaching his daughters, argues about the best NBA teams and players of all time (MJ and the Bulls figure prominently), revisits his vision for a college football playoff, and waxes poetic about his philosophies on sportsmanship and scoring in golf. Obama even brags a bit about the “solid” crossover move he threw on NBA All-Star point guard Chris Paul in a summer scrimmage. All this is to say, Obama doesn’t just talk about sports, he’s really talking sports.
Entertaining (and impressive) as I found all of this, I was even more intrigued by a follow-up Washington Post post that explained why the President would take time out of his unbelievably busy schedule to do this interview (as well as other sports related activities such as his sit-down with Matt Lauer during the Superbowl pre-game show in February or his annual NCAA/march madness picks). “Sports,” according to the WSJ, “is a universal language that can bridge ideological, cultural, and socio-economic gaps …you are much more inclined to like people who share that fandom regardless of whether you have anything else in common with them. You feel some sort of connection to them. They speak your (sports) language.”
The piece goes on to speculate that sport may be particularly a particularly important medium (and media outlet) for Obama “whose background—biracial parents, childhood in Hawaii, Harvard Law School, etc.—is somewhat unfamiliar to many of the voters he needs to convince to back him if he wants to win a second term in November.” While talking with sportswriters “isn’t going to convince on-the-fence voters that Obama is one of them,” the writer says, we shouldn’t “forget the connective power that sports holds in the world of politics.” The article concludes: “Obama’s ability to speak the language of sports is a major political plus for him.”
Perhaps. I definitely agree with the points about sport having tremendous connective potential and potential political value. Indeed many of them accord with the piece Kyle and I wrote. However, there is one subtler nuance or contingency that continues to pester me. It goes back to our American cultural conviction of the separation of sports and politics—that these are two domains that, for different reasons depending upon who you are talking to or the context within which they are posed, are believed to be separate (and separate for good reason).
In my research and reading, the political power of sport works best—perhaps even only works at all—when this cultural line or prohibition isn’t violated or disturbed. When it is somehow compromised, the political power and import of sport can not only go out the window, it can backfire terribly, being seen to bring politics in where it doesn’t belong. Thus, the trick and challenge for Obama—or really any politician hoping to capitalize on connections to sport—is to be seen as both an authentic and informed sports fan, but not deliberately, strategically, or intentionally political in his engagement with sporting culture.
To be clear: I think Obama’s interest in sport is genuine, and he generally does a great job of keeping his sports talk separate from his political agenda. (Look back through the transcript of that Simmons if you’re not convinced). But it’s a fine line to walk, there are plenty of folks not inclined to be sympathetic, and the more clearly the political uses and implications of his sports obsessions are made, the less effective and more dangerous I think they become. Thus, the irony of a sporting president (not to mention of any scholarly analysis of the political power of sport).
The Society Pages’ wondrous Monte Bute (that’s him, above, flashing the peace sign to the police) was picked by one MPR reporter as his favorite story/interview of the year, and so the reporter has published a quick update from the land-of-Bute: http://oncampus.mpr.org/2011/12/checking-in-with-monte-bute/
If you want to get a little more backstory on this “Backstage Sociologist,” you can check out his TSP blog, his exchange in our last U of M issue of Contexts, or get really modern and just Google him!
A couple of weeks back, I posted on some of my various dealings with the media as a specialist in sport sociology. I’ve had a few more such experiences over the last few weeks, including two that appeared in Star Tribune stories over the weekend. The first was a fairly somber story in the Sunday Variety section on how sports can provide cover for sexual predators and abusers. That one was a fairly in-depth follow-up on the Penn State interviews I talked about a few weeks back. “Sport in America has always been celebrated for touting high ideals and making great contributions [to society]. Those ideals make it difficult for people in authority to acknowledge and deal with problems that show cracks in their integrity and honor–and that provides a cover for people who are corrupt to take advantage.” I don’t know that I actually said all that in exactly that fashion, but I was gratified to see that the writer had taken our conversation seriously enough not only to quote me but to use my contribution to help situate and frame the entire story.
The other media moment was a much lighter take in the Saturday paper on the challenges of being a fan of a losing team like the Vikings. I’ve had a lot of these kind of interviews in Minnesota over the past few months, so it wasn’t really hard for me to comment on. But one aspect of the story did remind me of the challenges and risks of being quoted in the public record.
During the interview I told the reporter about a documentary in which I served as a talking head last year. It was called “Skol: The Documentary.” (“Skol, Vikings!” is one of the favorite cheers of fans of the local squad.) I told him how one quote from the documentary ended up being used out of contexts in the publicity materials: “…[Y]ou can change your wife or your religion more easily than you can change your football team.” (To watch the trailer, click the link above)… and, as you might be guessing, here’s how the reporter quoted me in this weekend’s paper: “There have been studies that show it’s easier to change a religion than a football team.”
That line got a lot of laughs from my colleagues and students, and I worried that they were laughing at me more than with me. Indeed, I quickly tried to explain that I thought the quote had been taken out of context–that even in the movie I had really been talking about European football (soccer) and quoting from research and writing out of Europe, and in the paper I was just relating an anecdote about the film.
And about the film, I needn’t have worried. When I finally saw the documentary, the full context of my quote was indeed used. Not only that, my interview was featured prominently throughout the documentary, spliced in to help audiences make sense of the various Vikings fans and fanatics that were the focus of the film. It was actually a fun and rewarding experience. I received great accolades from those in attendance at the “Skol!” premiere (and others since who have seen the film), and I actually feel that the editing of my various quotes and comments gave my thinking more structure, coherence, and focus that I probably exhibited in the interview itself. It just goes to show, you have to put yourself–and your knowledge out there. Occasionally, it won’t work to your advantage, but sometimes it’ll be really gratifying and you’ll feel very much like you’ve done your job.
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