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.
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.Print journalism may not be dead, but it doesn’t seem that healthy.
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.
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)!
This 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...
This 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...
For 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...
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...
“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).
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.
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).
The Society Pages’ wondrous Monte Bute (that’s him, above, flashing the peace sign to the police) was picked by one MPR reporter as his favorite story/interview of the year, and so the reporter has published a quick update from the land-of-Bute: http://oncampus.mpr.org/2011/12/checking-in-with-monte-bute/
If you want to get a little more backstory on this “Backstage Sociologist,” you can check out his TSP blog, his exchange in our last U of M issue of Contexts, or get really modern and just Google him!
Happy new year!
Subscribe to the Weekly Roundup!
Click to subscribe to our Weekly Roundup. This lively weekly rundown of what's new on TSP will be delivered right to your inbox.