Hey, hey, Everybody. Happy summer!

We’re writing to you from Los Angeles, California, the site of the annual American Sociological Association meetings—the first in-person gathering of the post-Covid era. We’re not sure how many of you will be able to join us, but whether we see you face-to-face or not, we want all of you—our friends and colleagues, contributors, readers, and alumni alike—to know that this is a kind of big year for The Society Pages. 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of our site! Not bad for a shoe-string, limited liability operation headed up by two sociologists whose business plan included no revenue plans and relied almost exclusively on the energy, enthusiasm, and good will of a volunteer graduate student board. Anyway, happy birthday to us! 

We‘ve spent the past few months reconnecting with our alums and reflecting on  our work (and play) together the past decade. Over the coming fall months we will share highlights, memories, and reflections of these exchanges and our journey together. On the occasion of the ASA meetings, we thought we’d tease just a few of those highlights here.

TSP/Norton edited volumes

One of our first big projects (and a key source of social and financial support) was a series of edited volumes drawn from site content and contributors with WWW Norton. This collaboration resulted in a half dozen books on topics ranging from culture, crime, and race to politics and gender. We’re delighted  that several of these collections are in use, including the methods volume Kyle Green and Sarah Lageson produced out of their fabulous TSP podcast “Give Methods a Chance.” 

Partner & Community Pages

One of the chief functions of our site is to provide a platform for various sociology and social science sites, blogs, and projects to do their thing. The lineup has changed over the years and some of the most avid readers of these sites may not even realize the backstage role TSP plays in hosting them. But we have been proud to help launch and host sites including Contexts.org and the Scholars Strategy Network, to the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF), Sociological Images, Backstage Sociology, and Dispatches from a Dean. Indeed, if you have greatest-hit favorites from these sites that you think we might repost this fall, please let us know!

Graduate board

Our graduate-student run board remains the beating heart of TSP. Most of the original content published on our home page is conceived of, written, and edited by University of Minnesota graduate students. It offers us a chance to connect directly with the future of public sociology. It also serves as an important community for graduate students, a place to connect and share wisdom during the sometimes-lonely PhD journey. We’ll be sharing a few of our favorite pieces from our graduate board over the past decade, but especially want to give a shout-out to the backbone features that constitute the backbone of these efforts: “Discoveries” which tracks new and exciting research in the field, and “There’s Research on That” (TROTs, for short) which provides references for and brief snippets of sociological research and writing. Both share research with an eye toward public conversation and media coverage of current events and contemporary social problems.   

TSP Alumni Features

Our graduate board spent the last semester reaching out and conducting brief interviews with some of our noted alumni. These conversations offered current students the chance to connect with  board alums who have taken the TSP perspective out into the field as professors, community-based researchers, and alt-ac professionals. We’ll be sharing insights and memories from our alumni as well as highlighting the important public work they continue to do. 

So look for all that—and more—in the months ahead! Join us in celebrating our milestone. And thanks to all of the colleagues, contributors, alumni and staff—including web editor Jon Smajda and the indomitable Letta Page, the former TSP-editor and current Contexts managing editor—for all you have done to publicize, support, and use our site over these past 10 years. We are grateful beyond words.

With all the best that sociology has to offer,

Doug and Chris

Image: The cover of Sparked. It features a gray scale image of the Twin Cities skyline, with Sparked colorfully written in the foreground.

Next week marks the anniversary of the tragic, now-world infamous police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It has been a year of mourning, of anger, angst, and anxiety, of trauma, of uncertainty and fear. To mark this inauspicous milestone, the Minnesota Historical Society Press has produced a new book entitled Sparked: George Floyd, Racism, and the Progressive Illusion. Sparked is a collection of powerful, first-person essays from scholars and other civic leaders documenting how the lived experiences of people of color in the Twin Cities, especially Black residents, stand in contrast to Minnesota’s progressive civic reputation and ideals. It is a book that we believe can be the basis for further, meaningful reflection, even reckoning, with Minnesota’s complicated history with race, racial disparity, white supremacy, and racism itself.

We are proud to say that we here at the Society Pages played a role in helping bring this book into being. It started within days of Floyd’s killing last June. Our former colleague and long-time TSP contributor Walt Jacobs approached us with the idea of doing a small series of essays from scholars, mostly scholars of color, who had worked or studied at the University of Minnesota and since left. He wanted them to write about their experiences of race and racism in Minneapolis and Minnesota more broadly. Jacobs’ core idea was to capture the complexity of race in Minnesota–not only the tragedies and traumas but also the deep paradoxes and even possibilities one encountered in the Twin Cities. This tension was reflected in the series title: “Wretched / Wonderful.”

Amid the trauma and chaos of the summer of 2020, supporting and editing this series felt like something constructive we could do–something rather small and symbolic but constructive nonetheless. Little did we know what it would turn into.

Working with Walt in the weeks that followed, we received dozens of inquiries and requests about the series, from folks eager wanting to know whether if and how they could to contribute to it. With the help of our amazing TSP editor and board member Amy August (now a professor at San Jose State University and one of the co-editors of the MNHSP book with Walt and Wendy Thompson Taiwo), we edited and published over 20 essays over the course of the summer.

These essays would become the backbone of the Sparked volume. In celebration and support of the book, we will–over the course of coming weeks–be re-running the essays that first appeared on TSP last summer in their original form. We do this to recapture the intimacy and immediacy of the essays–and again with great pride in the role our team and these authors played in helping to bring Sparked into being. We will also share some short supplementary discussion materials and questions, developed by Edgar Campos and the editorial teams at Sparked and TSP.

The Historical Society is sponsoring a special launch event tonight featuring four of the book’s contributors–including Walt himself!–talking about the paradoxes and challenges of race and racism in Minnesota and what meaningful steps toward racial justice might look like. We hope it will be the first of many such conversations to come. Details can be found at this link.  

In Five Years, David Bowie sings of social connection and sensory overload in the face of impending apocalypse. The crisis seems to recalibrate the narrator’s appreciation of social life while sharpening his powers to observe it. Five years somehow seems just long enough for wistful reflection but just short enough to force the issue with some urgency.

Whether one views this Inauguration Day as the beginning of the end or an altogether new beginning is, of course, a matter of perspective. At TSP, today marks our five-year anniversary, which we view as an opportunity to eat cake for breakfast. And, one might say, the end of our beginning. So we did a little recalibrating in our first graduate board meeting of 2017, talking through our appreciation of social research and ways to sharpen our vision and perspective in sharing it on TSP.

In some ways, we’re lucky to be alive. About 50 percent of small businesses survive five years and we certainly wouldn’t have made it this far without the tremendous support of our staff, students, contributors, and partners. But we want to do more and do it better — for the next five years and the five years after that. Thanks for reading and for supporting us. If we knew you were comin’ we’d have baked a bigger cake.

Our readers and our writers (as well as our friends and partners) have been asking what the election of Donald Trump and Republican legislative majorities might mean for social science and social scientists. The sky is (probably) not falling and new opportunities will (almost surely) arise, but there are some significant challenges ahead for many of us who think of ourselves as social researchers – regardless of our own party affiliation. I am thinking here about the institutions that affect our research, teaching, and learning, rather than our individual or collective views or concerns as citizens or political actors. Most pointedly, the new regime has signaled that they will offer less material and symbolic support for sociology, for science, for criticism, and for higher education. Nobody can predict what will happen at this point and it may be too early, dumb, or offensive to raise practical professional questions from a position of unusual privilege, but I will follow Doug Hartmann in offering some personal reflections and semi-educated guesses based on the recent past.

Your work. There is no sugarcoating it: the conditions of work for most social scientists are unlikely to get any easier in the next few years. But our field has proven remarkably resilient. How many scholars believe their research, teaching, outreach, and engagement work suddenly became less important with this November’s election? Like obstetricians or immigration lawyers, our life’s work may simultaneously become more challenging and more meaningful in coming years. Consider the topics listed atop our main page at TSP: gender, race, inequality, crime, culture, health, and politics. Ya think the election won’t bring new urgency to work in any of these areas, or new research questions to investigate? To paraphrase Etta James, the blues is our business and business is good. That said, federal research funding streams may slow to a trickle. I anticipate a pivot toward foundations, community partners, and universities that are already stretched thin. I spoke with a foundation representative today who seemed keenly aware of this potential vacuum — and sincerely interested in learning where their investments might do the most good. Of course, most social scientists will continue to do good work without major grants or fellowships and there will likely be new grant solicitations in narrowly-defined target areas. But at this point I would rather scale back my projects (and those of my students) than delay them in anticipation of a large infusion of federal social science research dollars.

Your institution. I know it isn’t the first issue on your mind, but life could also get more complicated for the people who sign your paychecks. Boo freaking hoo, right? Well, imagine being a public university president in a state transitioning from an education-friendly governor (and/or legislature) to a new regime less committed to higher education (or, perhaps, one that is explicitly anti-intellectual). Top administrators and their staff in government relations must now reframe their appeals – simply to hold onto the 20 percent (or whatever – your mileage may vary) they (we) currently receive. If experience is any guide, they will offer both a vigorous defense of liberal arts education and renewed claims about “ROI” (return on investment) and your university’s role in workforce development. Such talk strains relations with faculty and students but does not (necessarily) mean that your leaders have sold out or turned their back on “core mission.” It may be one among many strategies to bring the resources needed to sustain that mission. Yes, they can and must “fight the good fight” and they might be better served leading a march on the state capitol, but their messaging, their invitation lists, and even their hires will respond in some way to the new power dynamics. Hold your leaders and institutions accountable, but remember that they are probably not your principal enemy and do what you can to help them advocate for the social sciences.

Your peers. Though our positions and power vary greatly, many of us share at least a loosely-connected professional identity. This election has been especially divisive within sociology, pitting sister against sister in heated debates, whether over Bernie versus Hillary or the best path forward under Trump. But sociologist-on-sociologist violence will get us nowhere. As one election post-mortem noted, it simply isn’t tactical for groups to insist on moral purity or 100 percent consensus. And our professional life already exaggerates differences imperceptible to civilians, whether we’re arguing the nuances of Foucauldian theory or the relative merits of Poisson vs. negative binomial regression. The Society Pages believes that sociology needs a “big tent” to prosper – one embracing both our pure science wing and our social activist wing. Because we don’t have a lot of weight to throw around, we’d likely be further diminished if we “cleave it in twain.” So I’m going to continue to love all y’all – even when y’all disagree. Of course, smart people of good will disagree on what to do next. Some advocate resistance, protests, and letter-writing campaigns. Others “stay in their lanes,” only taking policy positions when they have direct and empirically verifiable expert knowledge on a subject. And, yes, others will work directly with the new regime – often on the same sorts of policy questions they are pursuing with the current regime. I was more frequently summoned to Washington under the Obama and Clinton administrations than during the Bush administration(s), but the latter also took up issues that mattered to me (such as prisoner reentry). I saw how social scientists can make a tangible difference under blue, red, and purplish regimes. Maybe this time it’s different and more nefarious, but on balance I would almost always prefer to have good social scientists in the room when decisions affecting society are made.

Yourself. Social scientists extrapolate. That’s what we do. And when we lack good information, we tend to extrapolate based on worst-case scenarios. So, many of us will end 2016 with great apprehension not just about 2017 but about the longer-term trajectories of our careers, our students’ careers, and our disciplines. That said, even the most pessimistic observer should recognize that the social sciences are too strong to ignore and too tough to die. Put differently, it is a good time for many of us to reflect on our privilege and to direct our efforts toward aiding people and groups who are far more vulnerable or marginalized. And if you’d like to support the social sciences in ways that go beyond your own research and teaching, commit yourself to deploying your expertise in ways that directly confront the howling fantods you might be feeling. For me, that means doing all I can to protect the integrity and transparency of basic social indicators and U.S. government statistics – and to redouble our efforts at The Society Pages to bring social science research to broader visibility and influence.

jacobs3After wrapping up a public talk Thursday night, I was delighted to see political scientist Larry Jacobs smiling down from the screen above. On-deck as the next speaker in the series, Professor Jacobs has taught me a great deal about public scholarship. He’s in the news these days for Fed Power: How Finance Wins (with Desmond King), but he’s written powerfully and well on numerous hot-button topics as health care reform (with Theda Skocpol), public deliberation, democratic responsiveness, and US foreign policy.

There are infinite ways to be a public scholar, but Larry Jacobs’ example is instructive. How did he become such a welcome and trusted voice? Well…

(1) He is active and effective in engaging local as well as national and international audiences.

(2) Although he clearly has political views, Larry takes pains to offer a fair-minded perspective.

(3) Similarly, as a center director and leader of our local Scholars Strategy Network chapter, he invites speakers who don’t always agree with him (or with our faculty, or University administration, or each other).

(4) He is a prolific and respected national academic expert in particular specialties, but he has also developed the command and authority to speak to a broad set of public concerns.

(5) After cataloging these attributes, it almost seems redundant to note his boundless energy and willingness to make himself available on short notice.

With regard to the latter point, his advice for me was something of a paradox. When I asked how I could improve in on-camera interviews, he just said, “slow down, don’t rush, and have a nice conversation.”

Flickr Photo by Frank Kovalchek
Flickr Photo by Frank Kovalchek

When universities invite me to visit, I often do a second talk for graduate students on “safe and risky research agendas.” Many students around the country seem stuck between the jobs crisis of the recent past and an uncertain future of disruptive technology, tenure battles, and mounting student debt. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that many of our best and brightest seem to oscillate between a full-on “strategic” concern for maximizing their employability and a full-on utopian disregard for their market prospects. When they ask for advice, I first advise them that not all advice is good advice. But I do suggest they invest a bit more in teaching and that they consciously pursue both a safe and a risky research agenda. Such advice, I hope, will be good for them as individuals and good for the collective sociological enterprise.

By safe agenda, I’m referring to a line of research in which the student builds up specific authority and expertise in an established topic or area. This can arise from long-term interest in a subject or intensive interest stemming from dissertation or research assistant work. Once one has written a paper or two in an area, the start-up costs of publishing an additional piece diminish – it isn’t as though they have to master a completely new field with every article. They are also likely to find an established and active research literature surrounding their safe agenda, with obvious next steps to pursue. This means that it is pretty easy to identify which journals will be interested in a study, the editors can readily identify knowledgeable experts to review it, and the reviews will be relatively consistent and predictable. Pursuing a safe agenda in a series of book or article publications is likely the single best way to establish a reputation as an expert and authority in a field or subfield – and that can lead to jobs and promotions. In short, “safe” in this context represents the foundational work of good social science, rather than, say, boring or easy research.

Risky agendas, in contrast, tend to be messier. The field might be new to the researcher and her advisors, so the start-up costs are higher. There may be few good studies to draw upon, or perhaps a lot of the action on the topic is taking place in other fields or disciplines. This means she will likely need to frame her research in ways that convince people in the field they should be interested in the topic. This isn’t an easy process. When a reviewer told Jason Houle that his research on debt was not sociology, for example, he suggested creating a new journal: The American Journal of Not Sociology. Even when successful in framing the article for sociology, such work tends to elicit polarized reviews and evaluations. Moreover, there is little agreement on the “next logical steps” to be taken and there is no consensus that even the very best work on the topic merits publication or funding. Still, if and when such research is published, the author tends to develop a reputation as a “mover and a shaker” with fresh ideas and energy.

Research time is scarce for social scientists, but I try to reserve at least 10 percent of my research energies for my risky agenda. This includes new ideas with a high probability of immediate failure and/or quixotic ideas that will not pay off for years or even decades. This is because I most admire the sociologists (and artists, for that matter) who somehow manage to sustain a safe and a risky agenda throughout their careers. Over time, they’ve developed well-earned reputations and careers as both productive “finishers” and creative wild-cards. Perhaps fields and disciplines also prosper when they simultaneously create space for safe and risky agendas. As Wayne Coyne once said, “It’s probably a good thing to be considered stable, but with a capacity for madness.” I’d wager that the same holds true for individual sociologists and for sociology as a collective enterprise.

rwandabootsIf there’s one idea that seems to unite professors, it’s that our critics get us wrong. Turn on the radio, pick up a paper, or check your social media feed to hear all manner of wild generalizations and harsh political, economic, and cultural critiques of higher education. Many suggest that if we only ran universities like businesses, we could simultaneously cut costs, rein in tuition and student debt, make better use of our infrastructure, and squeeze more productivity out of pampered professors. Most of us toiling in the brain mill recoil at such suggestions, envisioning dystopian campuses where research and teaching excellence no longer offer any resistance against the crude imperative to put “butts in seats” (perhaps in a cost-efficient pole barn, rather than a gorgeous Romanesque classroom building that now seems too spendy to maintain). Yes! Much would be lost if we really ran universities like businesses. After all, only about half of the Fortune 500 companies of 2000 seems to have survived to 2016.

Our aversion to these critics stems in part from self-interest and in part from our desire to protect the sacred — the unfettered pursuit of truth and the real enduring bond between the best teachers and their students. It sounds hokey, I know, but didn’t your favorite teachers and professors approach their work in this way? Still, while many of us are struggling mightily to nurture and defend something important, I am increasingly convinced that we’re not mounting our defense from very firm ground. As a professor and administrator, I’d like to see a stronger collective commitment among the faculty on a few no-brainers.

We take teaching seriously and work to improve it. Most college professors invest greatly in teaching and their students, spending our nights, weekends, and holidays reading their work and writing on their behalf. That said, there’s a small minority who really don’t seem to care – and, too often, the rest of us look the other way. During a faculty senate discussion of student teaching evaluations, for example, I witnessed a tenured professor step to the mic to say that he simply tossed the big envelope of evaluations he gets each semester in the garbage – and hadn’t looked at them in 20 years. There was a little nervous laughter, but no response from the faculty or administrators in attendance. My silence in that moment felt like complicity. Though nobody wanted a long argument about the merits and known biases of such ratings, shouldn’t we all care about whether students find us well-prepared, clear, and responsive? Or that we deliver a course experience that is both challenging and rewarding? We’d be on firmer ground if we spoke up for teaching and learning in such moments.

We actually produce research and creative activity. With so much public and university attention on teaching and tuition reduction, carving out time and resources for research will likely get more challenging. Some of us can sustain our research through external grants and fellowships, but I suspect that most research is “funded” by requiring faculty to teach 1 or 2 courses per semester rather than, say, 3 or 4 or 6 courses per semester. This is particularly the case in the arts and humanities, where grants are especially scarce, but holds more generally across the university. For those of us fortunate enough to be paid a portion of our salaries for our research efforts, we are only on firm ground if we actually produce research. Ideally, this research is meaningful to both our peers and some broader community, but here I am referring to the simple obligation to produce some kind of scholarly work, such as books, articles, performances, and exhibitions. Many of us believe our intellectual work transcends the crude production of scholarly products or deliverables. But our claim to resources for research rests on the responsible use of these resources. If our appointment is designed to be 50 percent research and 50 percent teaching, we simply cannot check out of the research game – or look the other way when colleagues who are paid to do research seem to “pre-tire” from the activity.

We participate knowledgeably and responsibly in faculty governance.  Much has been written about the adjunctification of higher education, but I see an equal threat in vicepresidentialization – the proliferation of administrators governing our work. As much as we complain about them, my sense is that faculty today are increasingly abdicating to these administrators – we leave it to them to tell our colleagues, “no, a heli-pad on the social science tower is just a dumb idea” or, “15 years without a publication or presentation does seem like a long time.” If we don’t want patronizing or dismissive responses from administrators, we need to engage them with concrete, thoughtful, and realistic proposals. And, frankly, we would be on much firmer ground, in discussions of post-tenure review and other matters if we did a bit more self-policing. Each time tenure and academic freedom are invoked as a sort of “diplomatic immunity” by professors gone wild — the dangerous bullies, the serial harassers, and the radically disengaged and irresponsible — the power of these commitments is correspondingly diminished. If our colleagues are behaving badly (or simply withdrawing) due to mental health or addiction issues, it is far better to humanely address these as mental health or addiction issues rather than simply giving such faculty a wide berth and avoiding the underlying problem.

Finally, we must be good stewards of the resources we have, as our expenditures are increasingly scrutinized. In this area, some universities are already running like a business: Scrooge and Marley, to be precise (at least when it comes to expensing our faculty recruitment dinners). Still, a colleague on the coast was recently astonished that I shopped for a $219 fare on a li’l commuter airline on my visit to his campus, saying, “that’s a very ‘public school’ consideration.”

I suspect that professors might be more unified in opposing our critics than in advancing a particular vision of change or resistance. If these aren’t no-brainers to you, that’s fine. My point here is only to suggest that we can put up a stronger and more unified fight for the things we care about if we do so from firmer ground.

(creative commons image by WFSE/AFSCME C28)
(creative commons image by WFSE/AFSCME C28)

We’ve always wanted to build up our TSP offerings on health and society. So we’re delighted to announce a new health tab, curated by the high-powered team of Caty Taborda and Sarah Catherine Billups. Like our topics pages on crime, politics, gender, race, inequality, and culture, our health tab will pull together in-house content as well as work from our community pages and partners like the Scholars Strategy Network and Council on Contemporary Families.

Since we’re just getting rolling, it is a perfect time to pitch us with ideas for feature articles, roundtables, or podcast interviews on health and medicine. Given the vibrancy of scholarship in the area, look for more health and society content on both our main page and an upcoming TSP volume.

Last week, our former university president Mark Yudof quipped that “Americans spend more on potato chips than research – maybe they like the flavor better.” We haven’t checked Mr. Yudof’s math, but his points are well-taken. First, research budgets have been lean, particularly in the social sciences. Second, our research sometimes unearths truths that our leaders and citizens may find distasteful, particularly in the social sciences.

The Society Pages is built on the belief that social scientific information, analysis, and perspective is vital and necessary for policy makers, the general public, and the continued health and betterment of society. Yet producing this knowledge and insight requires some degree of resources and support. Today, one of the key U.S. sources of financial support for that work —the National Science Foundation—is currently under scrutiny and attack.

On April 15, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith introduced the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806), the authorization bill for the National Science Foundation (NSF). This bill, a variation of which was floated last year as well, would impose a devastating 45% cut on the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate–effectively eliminating grant funding for sociology and the other social sciences. NSF review panels have generally done a terrific job identifying important research ideas to fund. Unfortunately, they must often reject a great number of equally important research ideas for lack of funds. A 45 percent cut would indeed be devastating.

Apart from our capacity to fund needed research, the Law & Society Association explains how the proposed bill could diminish the role of scientific experts and increase the role of political actors in setting scientific priorities. If you are a member of the American Sociological Association or another social science association, you probably already received a message encouraging you to contact your local Congressperson (and university officials) to reiterate the harm that this bill would do to core social scientific research and analysis. And if you just want to know more about the details of these proposed cuts, the Consortium of Social Science Association’s analysis is a good place to start.

If you like what we do on The Society Pages, please consider acting on behalf of social science research more generally. Having a potato-chip budget has been tough enough. We shouldn’t leave social science researchers with the crumbs in the bottom of the bag.


My father in law once asked, “How’re things going down at the brain mill?” Well, today I’d respond that these are challenging but exciting times in education. We’ve all read the headlines — powerfully disruptive technologies, troubling race and class disparities, privatization and disinvestment in public schools, historically high tuition and debt loads, school-to-prison disciplinary pipelines, and rapidly changing demographics. While social scientists are doing important research to make sense of these changes, there are few accessible resources for “interested non-experts” who want to keep up with the field. That’s why we’re so happy to welcome our new Education & Society community page to TSP. We’ve been wanting to expand coverage of the “education beat” for years.

An interdisciplinary team of Minnesota-based education researchers writes and curates features like 3 Questions250 Words, and Education in the News. You’ll find interviews with education researchers as well as terrific summaries of new education  research appearing in journals like the Annals, American Journal of Education, Sociology of Education, and Social Psychology Quarterly. We’ll be featuring Education & Society on the TSP main and topical pages as well as in our social media feeds. But anyone curious about life at the brain mill should regularly stop by the community page and Twitter feed.