Photo courtesy Letta Page
Photo courtesy Letta Page

New years bring new goals and often bigger ambitions. One of our TSP goals, over the next year or two, is to better represent the field of sociology as a whole. Don’t get us wrong: we think we’ve got a great site with tremendous (and tremendously provocative) content. But there are some areas of specialization we don’t cover as well as others, and our suite of blogs probably leans more toward the op-ed, commentary-and-critique side than the more basic, empirical data and explanation of concrete social processes that dominates much of our journal research and scholarly publishing.

We are working with our graduate student board on some new features and initiatives to make our site even bigger and broader, and we’re hoping to begin rolling some of those out in the weeks to come. But in thinking through and working on all of this, Chris and I have also begun to believe that we’ve got some ideas about sociology itself—what it is, how it can be better understood and practiced, and what its role in society should and can be—that aren’t nearly as well represented or articulated as they should be. So what we are going to do is start laying out some of those observations and ideas as part of the Editors’ Desk. We’re not sure exactly how much we’ve got to say or how it will cohere, but for the next few weeks, under the heading of “Sketches,” that’s what we’re going to try to do. Here goes…

Sketch 1: Just Don’t Call It That

When we first started working on Contexts, Chris and I allowed ourselves and our publication to be guinea pigs for an entrepreneurial marketing class here at the U’s business school. Some 50 or 60 students worked in small teams on research projects intended to help us better understand how to publicize and market sociology.

We learned a great deal from these projects and presentations, and some of the ideas and suggestions shaped or even found their way into some of the innovations we made with that publication. But thinking back to those presentations now, especially with the print publication in our rearview mirror, there is one that was especially memorable. It came from a group of students who did a series of focus groups and reading experiments with the feature articles we had produced in the first year or two of editorship. The research was initially intended to assess which kinds of topics and writing did well among our audience and whether or how interest was driven by graphics, layout and design, or other related factors. But their main finding was simple. In a nutshell, any article that had “sociology” or some variation of it in the title immediately lost the interest of the students. They quit reading at the title. The researchers recommended that, no matter what we decided to do with our content—topics, length, layout, etc.—the one thing we needed to avoid was the word “sociology.”

Talk about a catch-22! Here we were (and are) trying to disseminate and publicize work from a discipline whose name we weren’t even supposed to mention. While we still haven’t solved this problem, we did realize that we had a marketing—or, in sociological lingo, “framing”—issue.  I feel like there is a lot to learn from this little insight and the conundrum it presents for sociology and any sociologist interested in making an impact in the “real”–that is, non-academic–world. I think I”ll try to come back to that soon. But for the moment let me just say that ultimately, we also realized we don’t really care what people call our work… we care about the ideas and information produced from this particular tradition. And we’re more convinced than ever that the best of this work merits greater public attention.