This is “Public Sociology”, section 15.3 from the book Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (84 MB) or just this chapter (11 MB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you.
DonorsChoose.org helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

15.3 Public Sociology

Learning Objective

  1. Identify and describe at least two examples of public sociology.

In Chapter 1 "Introduction", we discussed public sociology and its place on the continuum of applied-basic research. One of the most delightful consequences of the trend toward public sociology is that the discipline has become more visible and more accessible to much broader audiences than perhaps ever before. But even with the increased accessibility of sociological research, you’ll find that having a basic understanding of how sociologists conduct research, which you’ve gained from this text, is beneficial. In this section, we’ll take a look at a few recent examples of public sociology and examine how your background in sociological research methods can help you read, make sense of, discuss, and even share the findings you come across.

In recent months, I’ve been interviewed by a journalist writing for a website run by Dr. Mehmet Oz of The Dr. Oz Show (http://www.youbeauty.com) and another writing for a website dedicated to any and every thing having to do with “video games and geek culture” (http://www.unwinnable.com). Inspired by the fall 2011 television programming lineup in the United States—in particular two new shows, including one featuring Playboy Bunnies and the other focused on the experiences of early PanAm flight attendants—the youbeauty.com interview focused on how expressions of gender, workplace norms, and harassment have changed in the past few decades.You can read the final article at http://www.youbeauty.com/relationships/the-secret-to-success-good-grooming. Interestingly, while the single quote attributed to me is accurate, the context within which I made the remark is not provided. One important caution for sociologists who choose to participate in press interviews is that your perspective may not always be represented in a way that you’d choose. In the other interview, conducted for an article on how heroism has changed since September 11, 2001 (Bannen, 2011),Bannen, B. (2011, July 19). Superheroes in a post-9/11 society. Unwinnable. Retrieved from http://www.unwinnable.com/2011/07/29/superheroes-in-a-post-911-society/ I was asked questions about patterns of social change. In both cases I was “doing” public sociology, drawing from my own background and knowledge about the sociological perspective on human behavior to help make sense of recent and current trends in society.

Many other sociologists engage in public sociology as well. Professor Pepper Schwartz, whose name you might recall from Chapter 4 "Beginning a Research Project", is perhaps one of the most recognized public sociologists. In Chapter 4 "Beginning a Research Project", I mentioned Schwartz’s role as the relationship expert for the dating website PerfectMatch.com. Schwartz is also the sex and relationship expert for the American Association for Retired Persons, for whom she writes a regular column offering advice to those aged 50 and up. Her participation with these venues enables Schwartz to provide relevant sociological understanding, perspective, and knowledge to broad audiences.

Another example of public sociology can be seen in Professor Nikki Jones’s work. Jones, an urban ethnographer who studies adolescent girls’ violence, has found that the “mean girl” phenomenon represented in so much of our popular culture and so many news stories today is far more hype than reality (Chesney-Lind & Jones, 2010; Jones, 2009).Jones, N. (2009). Between good and ghetto: African American girls and inner-city violence. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers; Chesney-Lind, M., & Jones, N. (Eds.). (2010). Fighting for girls: New perspectives on gender and violence. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. In an effort to promote a better understanding of this and other matters of public interest upon which sociological and other scholarly evidence can and should be brought to bear, Jones collaborates with two other editors to maintain the website The Public Intellectual (http://thepublicintellectual.org). The site publishes work by academics and other researchers who write pieces intended to debunk “common knowledge” on matters of public concern, analyze social policies and problems, and examine cultural trends.

Figure 15.5

Professor Nikki Jones engages in public sociology to debunk myths about supposed “mean girls.”

Finally, Professors Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp provide another excellent example of public sociology on their website Sociological Images (http://thesocietypages.org/socimages). The site provides sociological observations and commentary on images of all kinds, from advertisements to charts and graphs, and from around the globe. Their aim is to “encourage all kinds of people to exercise and develop their sociological imagination by presenting brief sociological discussions of compelling and timely imagery that spans the breadth of sociological inquiry.” The images Wade and Sharp display on the site are chosen for their ability to illustrate sociological ideas in a way that is both compelling and accessible to sociological and nonsociological audiences alike. Peruse their site and as you’ll see from the comments noted underneath each of the discussion/image posts that the Sociological Images audience runs the gamut in background, ideology, and perspective. In other words, the site accomplishes the exact aim of public sociology: to engage the public.

Key Takeaways

  • One of the positive consequences of public sociology is that the discipline has become more visible and more accessible to much broader audiences than in the past.
  • Having a background in sociological research methods can help you read, make sense of, discuss, and share the research findings you encounter.

Exercises

  1. Check out at least one of the websites mentioned in the preceding section. What do you think of these examples of public sociology? Ask one of your nonsociologist friends to peruse the site. Discuss what you each found compelling. How does your knowledge of sociological research methods shape your understanding of what you’ve read?
  2. Discuss public sociology with a few of your sociology peers. In what areas do you think public sociology can and should play a role?