Flickr photo by San Diego Shooter

Last week it was announced that, after many years of (our) waiting and hoping, former Minnesota Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven had been voted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. In yesterday’s local paper, Blyleven was asked about the speech he planned to make when he is officially inducted in Cooperstown, NY on July 24.

Here’s what he said:
“A Hall of Fame speech is not talking about yourself; it’s talking about the people who helped you get where you’re at right now. There are so many great people who helped me.”

We loved the response, and it is not just because Bert is a Minnesotan or because we are trying to get him to circle us on television broadcasts next season. (Blyleven does color commentary for Twins games and is known for circling fans in the crowd with his telestrator.) We loved the quote because it is so thoroughly sociological, recognizing that all of Blyleven’s accomplishments are not fully his own and in fact the result of lots of cooperation and assistance from others along the way.

NYU sociologist Dalton Conley talked about this recognition that we all stand on the shoulders of others when he did a special video chat with our intro undergrads here last spring—but he added a twist. Conley talked about how he always asks his own intro students how they had come to their academic success and being enrolled at his/their prestigious institution. His white students, Conley told us, typically talk about how hard they had worked in high school and throughout their lives; students of color, in contrast, usually tell him about all the people who had helped them along the way. Hall-of-famers in the making? Circle them, Bert!

Photo by Hawks and Doves (Flickr)

“I am a blogger no longer.” That’s what Marc Ambinder wrote last fall in announcing that he was leaving the Atlantic to become the White House correspondent for the National Journal.

The announcement made waves on the Internet because he is one of the first and most successful electronically-based political reporters the web has ever known.

Ambinder described blogging as an “ego-intensive” process where one has to put one’s self in the narrative even when doing straight reporting of the news. Ambinder set this in contrast to good print journalism which he described as “ego-free,” “let[ting] the story and the reporting process… unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening.”

Even more to the core of his frustration were concerns about writing and editing: “I loved the freedom to write about whatever I wanted but I missed the discipline of learning to write about what needed to be written. I loved the light editorial touch of blogging but I missed the heavy hand of an editor who tells you something sucks and tells you to go back and rewrite it.”

What editors wouldn’t love to hear that? But Ambinder’s post and his job change also got us thinking about was how, in the social sciences, we don’t just have editors, we have a whole community of scholars who contribute to our thinking, who review our work, and who confirm and help disseminate our ideas and information.

The community-driven, collaborative nature of the scientific process can be cumbersome and time-consuming—basically, it’s on the other end of the spectrum of blogging. That’s often frustrating, especially when we think we have something of real value to contribute to public discussion and debate right now (!).  It all takes a lot of time and rarely culminates in definitive conclusions or easy answers. But it’s what we do and what (we believe) our communities need. When it works, it sings; its value is obvious, immediate, palpable.

Sociologists love all things “social,” and we use the word all the time in Contexts. We’ve used it in titles—“the good, the bad, and the social” (Fall 2010), “all politics is social” (on our cover Fall 2008), and, of course, “understanding people in their social worlds” (Contexts’ tagline). Another place the term pops up regularly these days is in media, news, and communication technologies—all of which we now call, almost without thought, “social media.”

Map of the Internet ca. 2006, via

A recent interview with Financial Times (, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg illustrates. FT reports that, “In sweeping terms and with no sense of irony,” Zuckerberg will tell anyone who’ll listen:

Our goal is to make everything social.

The Internet wunderkind goes on: “If you look five years out, every industry is going to be rethought in a social way. You can remake whole industries. That’s the big thing.”

The reporter summarized their interview, writing, “Zuckerberg uses the word ‘social’ a lot, and it’s not always obvious what he means. He is not simply talking about telling your friends what you had for breakfast with a status update. To Zuckerberg, a more social world is one where nearly everything—from the web to the TV to the restaurants you choose to eat at—is informed by your stated preferences and your friends’ preferences, and equipped with technology that lets you communicate and share content with people you know. What Zuckerberg is talking about is a new way of organising and navigating information.”

From an academic standpoint, it’s easy to be critical—”social” seems to be reduced to individual choices or friendship circles, and ideas about networking and communication are so easily put into service for big business. And then there are all the complexities of what it means to socialize on an individual basis through technological means that can, themselves, be isolating.

That said, for sociologists who often complain about the lack of an informed, sociological perspective in mainstream media and public discourse, this pervasive attention to the social should be seen as an opportunity. Not just in terms of how we use social media (though obviously we are trying to do that here at TSP), but in terms of expanding conceptions of “the social” and perhaps even bringing a more socially-oriented—dare we say, sociologically-oriented?—perspective into mainstream media and public discourse. Probably won’t hurt in the classroom, either.

What makes a social science blogger or blog post unique? Too often, not enough. Social scientists who only offer up their personal opinions about the daily news end up being just another voice in the crowded echo chamber. What we need are social science bloggers who can insert real knowledge and the unique perspective of their disciplines, data, and insight into the mix.

Chris Kelty makes this point (and others) in his recent post about blogging in anthropology. Kelty also offers some great tips on how social scientific bloggers can make more meaningful, substantive contributions. We especially like Kelty’s suggestion to blog about a journal article you’ve read recently:

“Think,” he writes, “how pleased you would be if someone blogged about your research… This exercise hones two valuable skills: a) the ability to communicate what an article says and why it is important better than the article does itself and b) the ability to do so in a language and tone that flatters the author, provokes your audience to [consider social science] thought, and doesn’t take you longer than a couple of hours.”

Does this sound a little like our citings posts? Hopefully so.

Click over to the Graphic Sociology blog for a comic that vividly illustrates the life cycle of a research finding, as translated to your nightly news. Correlation/causation, the loss of nuance, and why social scientists have a hard time talking to reporters, all covered in one handy comic. A great find.

Garrison Keillor likes to talk about how early exposure to The New Yorker shaped his life and career. The magazine’s sophistication and sensibility seemed worlds away from his everyday life, but its sparkling writing and urbane sensibility shone like a beacon to the small-town kid from Anoka, Minnesota.

Our adolescent experience was more downmarket. Chris, for example, would soak up every pulpy page of Creem magazine, from its cheap glossy cover to the snarky back-page captions accompanying snapshots of Iggy Pop and Blondie. The writing was a revelation, with everything from a perfectly-crafted Cameron Crowe feature to the wondrous wordbombs of Lester Bangs. For his part, Doug found himself immersed in Sports Illustrated, where more than a few great writers discovered that sportswriting is among the most flexible and creative outlets in American journalism.

Neither Contexts nor The Society Pages will ever out-gonzo Creem, out-hyperbolize SI, or out-refine Keillor’s Updike-era New Yorker, but we certainly aspire as editors to the inspirational and declarative power of such magazines. Whether in print or online, a well-constructed magazine conveys a sensibility and cultivates a vibe. More than that, it gives us concrete examples and directives for action.

Around here, we get especially excited about pieces that convincingly show us how social science matters for the world. For example, Contexts’ Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women? brings high-quality evidence to questions about the sexual lives of young people that confirms some of our suspicions (women have better sex in relationships than in hookups), while busting some oft-repeated myths (the costs of bad hookups are usually much lower than the costs of bad relationships) and communicating it all effectively, using telling descriptors like “limited liability hedonism.”

We’d like to think such features inspire other social scientists to tackle issues front-and-center on the public radar, to bring high-quality evidence to bear, and to tell clear and convincing stories. Our editorial mission is to help showcase and propagate such work, in hopes of energizing and inspiring more social scientists to reach out to a public audience. And if they happen to write like John Updike or Lester Bangs, all the better.

Seeing a piece called “The Offensive Movie Cliche that won’t Die” on 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.

While we’ve been scrambling to get the semester off to a good start, our colleague and recent Contexts contributor Donald Tomaskovic-Devey’s gone and written a great piece–a sort of One Thing I Know about Banks on the Huffington Post. Check it out, and we’ll be back soon!

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 Feature:
Rethinking Crime and Immigration,” by Robert J. Sampson. Winter 2008.

Best Photo Essay: It’s a tie!
“Smoke Damage,” by Michael Schwalbe. Spring 2008.
Looking for a Way Home,” by Jennifer Whitney. Summer 2008.

Best Culture Review:
Peeing in Public,” by Harvey Molotch. Spring 2008.

Best Book Review:
The Most Dangerous Crime Rankings,” by Richard Rosenfeld and Janet L. Lauritsen. Winter 2008.

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

  1. the question is settled after extensive study;
  2. a preponderance of evidence supports a particular answer;
  3. it’s complicated but we’ve got some good leads; or,
  4. 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.