I just got back from the Midwest Sociological Society meetings in St. Louis this past weekend. The theme of the meetings this year was “Making Sociology More Public.” Obviously, this is relevant to what we’re doing at Contexts, so I attended several of the sessions on the subject, including an excellent talk by Mario Luis Small and a session with reporters from the Belleville News-Democrat newspaper, a manager from KDHX 88.1 FM and the news director from News20 television.

This last session was particularly interesting as much of the discussion centered around how, on the one hand, sociology is a broad field where people study almost anything, but, on the other hand, any given sociologist is likely only comfortable speaking authoritatively on a very narrow topic. Additionally, the usual suspects came up in discussions of presenting scholarly research to the public: the media wants short sound bites with strong, unambiguous statements of fact. Yet we have qualifications, caveats, probabilities, etc.

I tried to pull together a couple of clear lessons from the weekend’s activities for sociologists who want to have more of a public voice:

  • A lot of sociologists wonder why the media doesn’t contact sociologists more often. Aside from the general haziness about what sociology is, sociologists simply aren’t good at talking in places where the media can find them. If you want to have a public voice, instead of thinking of the process as “media contacts you, you speak,” you should think: “You speak, media contacts you, you speak some more.” And I don’t mean “you speak at an academic conference”—a lot of people were apparently surprised the local media wasn’t interested in covering our conference! Building a space where sociologists can speak in a way that the media, and the public generally, actually has a chance of hearing them is our job here at Contexts (and Contexts Blogs in particular), so understanding this is particularly important for us!
  • Sociologists need to stop complaining about the media not wanting nuance or complexity. This is true, but psychology and economics are complex too—they’re just better at translating. Stop flattering yourself about how complex your wonderful ideas are and learn how to speak clearly & concisely about them. Does this come with costs and trade-offs? Yes. Deal with it. Convince people you have something worth saying first, then they’ll buy your book or take your class and get all the nuance they need.
  • Stop going for the media home run! The journalists who spoke to us emphasized that sociologists (and academics generally) can play a valuable role in adding to a story, either by adding some social & historical context or by even by influencing the overall direction of the story—even if they go uncited in the actual article. Too often, we think getting entire stories devoted to our work is the only goal worthy of our time. Of course, that’s gratifying, but forming long-term relationships that can actually shape the direction of news over time has benefits, too. Of course, as a discipline, we don’t really reward people for doing this kind of consulting work, so that’s a big part of the problem, too.
  • We need to be more comfortable discussing the state of knowledge in our discipline outside of our own narrow little specialties. If journalists ask us questions outside our specific area of expertise, it makes sense to be nervous. If it’s easy to refer them to someone down the hall, then by all means, do it. But otherwise, realize that you probably know more (or at least can offer a slightly different perspective) than whoever else they’re going to talk to if you pass up the opportunity. This is another thing about Contexts I realized: our effect on the media may be less direct (i.e. journalists avidly reading our magazine) and more indirect: sociologists reading our magazine should have a broader sense of the discipline and be more comfortable relaying, I don’t know, a fact or two about immigration and crime, even if that’s not their specific area.
  • Sociology’s got some internal problems to work through if we really hope to be “more public.” We’re really bad at talking to one another, let alone the public. From the time we enter graduate school, we’re channeled into specialist niches and socialized to write & speak for those specialized “literatures.” Addressing the discipline as a whole usually amounts to a token reference to Marx, Weber or Durkheim. This makes sense—we’re a broad discipline. But we need to do better. (There is, in my opinion, a subfield that should fill the role of drawing connections b/w subfields and even between sociology & other disciplines—social theory—but, alas, it’s mostly just another niche with its own jargon, networks & literatures.) If we just get better at communicating with one another, broad field that we are, that should help a lot with communicating outside of sociology as well.