I turned 50 this summer so maybe I’m feeling a little sentimental. Nevertheless, in this season of tumult, Trump, and 140 character tweets that pass for news, I have found myself sustained by the some of the most old-fashioned modes of media—weekly and monthly news magazines, and, more specifically, long-form journalism. Here are some of my favorites from the past few weeks, categorized in the ways that I think my sociology friends and colleagues would find meaningful:

Social movements: Nathan Heller’s analysis of the efficacy of collective protests “Out of Action: Do Protests Work? The New Yorker, August 2017.

Popular culture: “How American Lost its Mind,” a piece on culture and populism by Kurt Andersen in The Atlantic, September 2017. (Other solid treatments roughly in this category/vein: “The New Paranoia by Colin Dickey in July’s The New Republic; and “European Disunion: What the Rise of Populist Movements Means for Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, also in TNR, August/September).

Sociology of knowledge: David Session in The New Republic, “The Rise of the Thought Leader: How the Superrich have Funded a New Class of Intellectual,” June 2017.

Media studies: a trip down memory lane by my favorite television critic of how Donald Trump built his popularity (and personality) in and through the small screen, Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, July 2017.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Traditional journalism doesn’t (and can’t) solve all the problems of our fractious world, and indeed I sometimes worry that all of this great writing and reading can be its own kind of distraction or delusion. But the clear-thinking, the ability to put things in broader context, and the commitment to synthesizing social facts and cultural complexities—all qualities that us sociologists aspire to—displayed in these pieces is admirable and much needed. And I can only shake my head in awe for the way these writers, reporters, and critics are able to produce such great, insightful content in such timely and engaging fashion.


Julian Povey//Flickr CC.
Julian Povey//Flickr CC.

This fall I’ve been working on the address I’m supposed to give as President of the Midwest Sociological Society in Chicago this coming March (23-26). Playing off of our program theme of a year ago, it is tentatively titled: “Sociology and its Publics: The Next Generation.” Among the themes I’ve been reading about and trying to think through are the social conditions and institutional infrastructures of public engagement—and very high on that list are all the new social media forms that began to appear just as the thing we call “public sociology” was beginning to be named and championed by Michael Buroway.

If you are interested in such topics, Kieran Healy has a great piece on social media and public sociology that you should take a look at. It is based on a talk he gave recently at UC–Berkeley.

Almost as if by ESP, Joel Best of the University of Delaware sent me this little reflection he wrote about the evolution of media coverage of his research on fear and Halloween over the years. It seems both timely and appropriate to share (with his permission).

“Experiencing the Death of Print.”

In 1985, I published my research on fears of Halloween sadism, first in a sociology journal and then in Psychology Today magazine. My principal finding—that I could not find any reports of children being killed or seriously injured by contaminated treats received while trick-or-treating—struck the press as newsworthy, and I wound up giving a couple dozen interviews that year.

That was the beginning of a seasonal job. For 31 years, I have fielded late-October calls from reporters at all sorts of media—a few hundred in all, I suppose. The great majority came from newspapers. Typically, a reporter would be assigned to write a story about Halloween safety and, not really knowing how to proceed, she’d often check LEXIS-NEXIS to see what other reporters wrote on the topic the previous year, find me quoted, and then give me a call.

This year had a normal amount of traffic—eight requests for interviews, which covered the usual topics. But there was one difference: I spoke to only one newspaper reporter. All the other interviews were for podcasts, websites, or other Internet-based media.

We hear a lot about the death of print: newspapers and magazines have declining circulations. Young people, in particular, prefer to get their news through electronic means. As a result, newspapers are publishing fewer pages of news and employing fewer reporters to write stories. The inevitable result is fewer feature stories about Halloween safety, and therefore fewer print journalists contacting me. Print journalism may not be dead, but it doesn’t seem that healthy. Once again, Mills has been proven right: the sociological imagination can link my personal experiences to larger public issues.


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This week on The Society Pages, we tackled drug addiction and harm reduction, body image and stigma, Twitter as a public forum for shaming, marriage equality and health, and the thin line between The Bachelor‘s Juan Pablo and Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson. Plus much more (as always)!


RU013114This week, on The Editors’ Desk*, Doug Hartmann enumerated and tried to define** six elements of the sociological worldview. Elsewhere on The Society Pages, our many contributors worked to demonstrate that worldview—enjoy!

*That’s right: we all share one desk. It’s adorable. Possibly even adorkable.

**See what I did there? The man never met a conjunction he didn’t like. more...

RU120613This week we played around with #socgreetings, got excited to see movers and shakers talking about the We Are All Criminals project, and mourned rabble-rousing change-maker Nelson Mandela while hoping those he inspired would continue bending the arc of history… and society. Here’s what else we got up to. more...

RU092013For the next couple of Roundups, I’d like to welcome TSP’s graduate editor Hollie Nyseth Brehm. She’ll be covering for me as I head off on a 3-hour cruise. Actually, there’s no cruise. But I do expect to find myself washed up on a beach for a stretch, so I won’t be rounding up the site until… October 11th? Craziness. For now, one last hurrah before heading for the airport (yet again). more...

This photo does not depict either Doug Hartmann or Chris Uggen, but it comes courtesy Tommy Japan via
This photo does not depict either Doug Hartmann or Chris Uggen (nor any of the reporters they work with), but does come courtesy of Tommy Japan via

When scholars think about doing interviews with the media, we often imagine ourselves to be doing some kind of great public service–wherein we deign to come down from the ivory tower and share our wisdom and knowledge with naive, uninformed journalists and their massive, mostly ignorant, and fundamentally distracted masses. There is some truth to this conceit. Writers and producers often approach a story or a topic with a limited, fairly narrow frame of reference, and sometimes don’t even know the most basic facts or more general trends that are involved.  I average maybe an interview a week, and find myself spending much of my time in these exchanges trying to get the writer or producer on the other end of the line to expand their scope, attend to some of the broader social forces or issues, or reframe their pieces in one way or the other. Sometimes this effort to frame and/or reorient stories works, sometimes it doesn’t (and rarely do we get credit either way).

But none of that is really the point of this post. The point of this post is that journalists often know a lot more than we give them credit for, and that we scholars–especially us sociologists–have got a lot more to gain from working with them than we usually realize. more...

RU071213Double Your Fun

Time to play catch-up!

In Case You Missed It:

Thinking About Trayvon: Privileged Response and Media Discourse,” by Stephen Suh. A roundtable discussion from just months after Trayvon Martin’s death, this piece looks at media framing and public responses.

The Editors’ Desk:

The Home Stretch (Or: Introducing Our Third Book),” by Doug Hartmann. In which Doug details some of the coming content for Color Lines and Racial Angles, TSP’s third reader from W.W. Norton (the first two volumes are due out by the end of the year). 

Citings & Sightings:

Economics, Sentimentality, and the Safe Baby,” by Letta Page. An economist walks into a baby expo… and calls on some classic social science.

The People’s Art,” by Letta Page. If a society is enriched by its art, is it impoverished by keeping that art in museums?

A Gender Gap and the German Model,” by John Ziegler. An emerging education gap shows women outstripping men in the race for diplomas in the U.S. Does Germany offer a solution?

‘Spiritual’ Scofflaws,” by Evan Stewart. What happens when there’s neither an angel nor a devil on your shoulder.

A New South Africa?” by Erin Hoekstra. In post-Apartheid South Africa, Somali refugees are everyone’s target.

A Few from the Community Pages:

Scholars Strategy Network:

Why Immigration Reform with a Path to Citizenship Faces an Uphill Climb in Congress,” by Tom K. Wong.

What Happens if [Now that] the Supreme Court Weakens [Has Weakened] Voting Rights?” by Gary May.

How Conservative Women’s Organizations Challenge Feminists in U.S. Politics,” by Renee Schreiber.

Circus Tent by Thomas Totz via
Circus Tent by Thomas Totz via

This past weekend I came across a piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Gareth Cook in the Boston Globe about new research showing that spending time helping others can actually make it seem like we’ve got more time for ourselves. It sounded like a great, eminently sociological project in so many ways: its emphasis on the social meaning and variable experience of time, the importance of selflessness and interacting with others, the use of interviews and experiments, and, of course, the classic, counter-intuitive conclusion that the best solution for not feeling like you have enough time is to make time for others.

My first thought was to throw it over to our Citings & Sightings team as another cool case of how sociological research finds its way to public attention in and through the mass media. But a closer look made me pause. It turns out the research was produced by a team headed up by a professor in a business school (Harvard, no less).  Scholars who teach future MBAs to make millions taking on questions of selflessness and the social experience of time? Suddenly I found myself getting cynical about the researcher’s claim that such activities give us confidence we can get things done and allows us to feel more in control of our own lives.

Lately, whether it is management professors, researchers in public health, or cultural studies critics, scholars all over the academy seem to be taking on topics and using methods and theories pioneered by sociologists. It is easy to be a bit skeptical or defensive, but rather than getting caught up in turf wars, I think it better to celebrate such insights and accomplishments as part of the structure and functioning of social life, claiming them as part of the big, broad sociological tent. It’s not important who is researching sociological questions, but that scholars of all stripes are calling attention to the importance and complexity of social life and interactions—a broad context that’s so often missing from the individualist, economistic, and biological visions of human beings and social life that are otherwise dominant in our academic culture.

Obama BBall team
Obama's high school basketball team. Photo via senorglory,

In response to the sport and politics white paper Kyle Green and I recently wrote for this site, ThickCulture writer and loyal friend of TSP Andrew Linder emailed to suggest that although Barack Obama is obviously not the first “sports president,” he may be the first “ESPN President” or “SportsCenter President.” Andrew’s point (now up on ThickCulture as a more fleshed out post—jinx!) was that, although ESPN had become a cultural fixture under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama represented the core network demographic in its first two decades of its existence and it seems to have been formative for him. To the extent that ESPN has transformed sporting culture, then, Obama is the first President to be fully fashioned in and through that new culture.

This seemed plausible enough—and was definitely borne out in a recent interview the President gave to the star sportswriter/reporter Bill Simmons. At least two things about the interview should be pointed out. The first is why Obama chose this particular venue and reporter: “Simmons,” as one report put it, “is revered by the under-30 crowd” and “has more than 1 million—1,642, 522 to be exact—Twitter followers.” Indeed, his “B.S. Report” podcast, on which the Obama interview originally appeared, is said to be one of the most downloaded podcasts on the web.  The second point is how this interview and exchange reveals what a great fan of sports and sports talk our President actually is.

Not only is his obsession with ESPN’s SportsCenter evident, Obama shows himself to be an extremely knowledgeable sports fan, gifted in the arts of sports talk and debate. Talking with Simmons, the President riffs on Linsanity (claiming to have been on the bandwagon early) and the joys and challenges of coaching his daughters, argues about the best NBA teams and players of all time (MJ and the Bulls figure prominently), revisits his vision for a college football playoff, and waxes poetic about his philosophies on sportsmanship and scoring in golf. Obama even brags a bit about the “solid” crossover move he threw on NBA All-Star point guard Chris Paul in a summer scrimmage. All this is to say, Obama doesn’t just talk about sports, he’s really talking sports.

Entertaining (and impressive) as I found all of this, I was even more intrigued by a follow-up Washington Post post that explained why the President would take time out of his unbelievably busy schedule to do this interview (as well as other sports related activities such as his sit-down with Matt Lauer during the Superbowl pre-game show in February or his annual NCAA/march madness picks). “Sports,” according to the WSJ, “is a universal language that can bridge ideological, cultural, and socio-economic gaps …you are much more inclined to like people who share that fandom regardless of whether you have anything else in common with them. You feel some sort of connection to them. They speak your (sports) language.”

The piece goes on to speculate that sport may be particularly a particularly important medium (and media outlet) for Obama “whose background—biracial parents, childhood in Hawaii, Harvard Law School, etc.—is somewhat unfamiliar to many of the voters he needs to convince to back him if he wants to win a second term in November.” While talking with sportswriters “isn’t going to convince on-the-fence voters that Obama is one of them,” the writer says, we shouldn’t “forget the connective power that sports holds in the world of politics.” The article concludes: “Obama’s ability to speak the language of sports is a major political plus for him.”

Perhaps. I definitely agree with the points about sport having tremendous connective potential and potential political value. Indeed many of them accord with the piece Kyle and I wrote. However, there is one subtler nuance or contingency that continues to pester me. It goes back to our American cultural conviction of the separation of sports and politics—that these are two domains that, for different reasons depending upon who you are talking to or the context within which they are posed, are believed to be separate (and separate for good reason).
In my research and reading, the political power of sport works best—perhaps even only works at all—when this cultural line or prohibition isn’t violated or disturbed. When it is somehow compromised, the political power and import of sport can not only go out the window, it can backfire terribly, being seen to bring politics in where it doesn’t belong. Thus, the trick and challenge for Obama—or really any politician hoping to capitalize on connections to sport—is to be seen as both an authentic and informed sports fan, but not deliberately, strategically, or intentionally political in his engagement with sporting culture.
To be clear: I think Obama’s interest in sport is genuine, and he generally does a great job of keeping his sports talk separate from his political agenda. (Look back through the transcript of that Simmons if you’re not convinced). But it’s a fine line to walk, there are plenty of folks not inclined to be sympathetic, and the more clearly the political uses and implications of his sports obsessions are made, the less effective and more dangerous I think they become. Thus, the irony of a sporting president (not to mention of any scholarly analysis of the political power of sport).