Seeing a piece called “The Offensive Movie Cliche that won’t Die” on Salon.com today made me think of the academic treatment given to the subject of the “magical black man” by sociologist Matthew W. Hughey. Hughey’s August 2009 Social Problems article on the subject was discovered in the Spring 2010 issue of Contexts. You can read and discuss the discovery here, or read Hughey’s fascinating original article here.
In our role as the editors of Contexts magazine, we come across a lot of great — some might say excellent — writing. So this year, with the blessing of Contexts’ founding editor, we established the Claude S. Fischer Awards for Excellence in Contexts to recognize some of the most accessible and engaging pieces from the magazine. The nominees were hand-picked by the Minnesota graduate student board, and the winners were selected by Contexts’ editorial board, comprised of esteemed sociologists from around the world.
At Contexts’ editorial board’s annual meeting this past Monday, we had the pleasure of announcing the inaugural winners of “The Claudes.” Please join us in heaping praise on these authors, who have done so much to help bring sociological insights to the wider world, and in recalling some of the great Contexts content from 2008 and 2009.
And the winners are…
Best “One Thing I Know”:
“Immigration’s Complexities, Assimilation’s Discontents,” by Rubén G. Rumbaut. Winter 2008.
Facebook users only have seven options to characterize their relationship status: single, in a relationship, in an open relationship, engaged, married, widowed, or it’s complicated. Nobody would view these categories as exhaustive or mutually exclusive (whose marriage isn’t complicated?), but they convey information about exclusivity and commitment, which tells readers something useful about the state of a relationship.
When people like us write for blogs or public outreach publications like Contexts, a big part of the job is characterizing a different sort of status — how much we really know about a particular issue or question. The best writers bring an authoritative voice and perspective to an issue, but they also try to offer a “fair read” of the field. We like to think The Community Pages at The Society Pages are both provocative and responsible — provocative in engaging social questions, but responsible in characterizing what we know and don’t know about the answers.
When academics think we’ve mischaracterized the state of knowledge, they can weigh in with counter-evidence and strong commentary. In forums like this, non-academics can also sniff out potential biases and join the debate; though they are generally at a disadvantage in judging a scholar’s reading of the social-scientific literature, other commenters may also have broad perspective, opinions, and ideas to share. So it is all the more important to support and recruit bloggers who write with a clear and informed vision of the social science research in their area.
In principle, we could imagine Facebook-style drop-down menus to help categorize the state of knowledge on particular questions. These might offer status indicators and updates, such as
- the question is settled after extensive study;
- a preponderance of evidence supports a particular answer;
- it’s complicated but we’ve got some good leads; or,
- we’ve got nothing yet that would help answer the question.
Unfortunately, when reporters ask social scientists a concrete question about the social world, our default knee-jerk answer is to say that “it’s complicated” and leave it at that. In fact, we might go on to say, the answer is so spine-crushingly complicated that any anwer we might provide would only confuse and bewilder a general audience.
But some social scientists, in these pages, the blogosphere, and the popular press, effectively employ their training and experience to offer compelling and useful insights. They know their areas, address provocative questions, and engage them with informed commentary. And they don’t rely on a lazy positivism or simple tally of studies to guide them in characterizing a field. The best among them offer a fifth status alternative — we need to think about this differently — that breaks out of the fixed-choice status box.
In reframing the world’s questions and events, the finest blogs and commentary offer synthesis and interpretation that conveys how we think as social scientists, as well as what we know. Such work is more subtle and demanding than checking a box, but it can yield a different and profoundly useful way to see a problem.
In January 2008, we became the editors of Contexts, the American Sociological Association’s public outreach magazine. As part of our editorship and with support from the College of Liberal Arts here at the University of Minnesota, we launched contexts.org as an online supplement to the print publication. In the past two years, largely on the popularity of our independent bloggers and hard working graduate students, contexts.org has become one of the most prominent and vibrant sociology sites on the Internet.
As we enter the final year of our editorship of the print publication (which itself will welcome a new publishing partner in January), we have been thinking seriously about how to maintain the burgeoning web content we’ve developed over the past couple of years as well as how to enhance the mass media visibility and influence of social science more generally. To this end, we are launching the new web platform you are reading right now: The Society Pages.
The Society Pages will be an online, multidisciplinary social science project headquartered in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Initially, The Society Pages will work much like the contexts.org site has in the past. It will be a mix of Minnesota-produced content along with community blogs from around the world that we host, support, and publicize. We will also continue to host contexts.org as long as we edit the print publication (and well beyond that, if the ASA and future editors want us to continue).
Eventually, we plan to extend the scope of The Society Pages beyond sociology to encompass the full range of the social sciences. Indeed, over the course of the next year, we’ll bring some new, interdisciplinary authors and contributing authors (from Minnesota and far beyond) into the mix and begin rolling out a steady stream of new content and features. Our goal is to make The Society Pages the go-to destination for social science online. And we will use this little spot—the Editors’ Desk—to play cheerleader, project leader, and sounding board along the way.
We’re excited to get started with The Society Pages. If you’re as excited as we are about the possibilities for social science online, or if you’d just like to get your name in the society pages, let us know! Any questions? Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, we hope you will make thesocietypages.org a regular stop on your Internet travels.
Chris Uggen & Doug Hartmann