Earlier today I stumbled across this interesting post by David Mellor on the (now defunct) Sociology & the Cuts blog:
There is a great deal of talk about publics that very often fails to materialize into anything more substantial than well meaning sentiment. In my eyes this is simply due to a lack of solidarity and communal support within British sociology – a rather ironic situation really. This is not the fault of the BSA and nor should it be their job, I think, as a professional association. The BSA provides the spaces for us to be drawn together – what we do in and from these spaces is our own responsibility.
What I’m calling for doesn’t have a name yet, because as far as I know there isn’t a collective noun for a group of sociologists (jokes on a postcard to the usual address). I’d like to suggest ‘an insurrection’ of sociologists. What I’m calling for then, is an insurrection of sociologists for impact. This would entail us working collectively across institutions and beyond national borders to share our experiences, to encourage others, and to form new groupings for action. We don’t need to debate public sociology anymore; we need to get good at it. I’ve chosen the term insurrection because I think it captures the nature of what we can actually achieve. Even acting collectively with colleagues from sociology and other disciplines– and perhaps with other pressure groups and social movements – we are highly unlikely to have revolutionary impact. This doesn’t mean, however, that we will have none, or that we should just give up and lapse into disciplinary docility. On the contrary, we can use the context of impact-for-audit to create a platform for impact-for-justice, from where we can develop strategies for political and ethical struggle. Many individuals have worked hard in this area and their biographies illustrate the problems we continue to face as individual scholar-activists, particularly in the absence of a strong collective platform (see for example Max Farrar’s exemplary ‘Cracking the Ivory Tower’ in Burnett et al. (2010) New Social Connections). It’s time to make an opportunity out of a crisis and build a strong collective platform for impact-for-justice.
It’s hard to convey quite how emphatically I agree with his proposal that “we don’t need to debate public sociology anymore; we need to get good at it“. Hopefully this is what the new BSA Activism group will do. I’m by no means hostile to Public Sociology as a concept (in fact we host this great bibliography compiled by Albert Tzeng) but it’s hard not to be struck by the emergence of such a voluminous literature debating what must surely be a predominately practical endeavour. Perhaps problems arise because the process of building an infrastructure for ‘getting good at it’ isn’t glamorous and it isn’t an institutional priority.
I’m thinking of things like media training, digital literacy and online projects which serve to amplify the voices of individual sociologists who can only participate on an occasional basis. As a young sociologist who works hard at trying to communicate my research through the media I’ve increasingly become aware of the fact that I have never had a substantive discussion about working with the media with another sociologist. Nor have I encountered any support structures orientated specifically towards communicating sociological ideas (as opposed to generic media training my university has provided in the past). Obviously I realise that there’s more to Public Sociology than working with the media and engaging online. I cite these activities only because they’re the ones I’ve engaged in a lot over the last 5 years. Through doing so I’ve become aware of the glaring absence of any kind of apparatus to support those, particularly PhDs/ECRs, who want to engage in this kind of activity.
This didn’t put me off and I figured out what I was doing largely through trial and error. But surely if we’re committed to the principle of public sociology then the logical next step is ‘getting good at it’ and building support structures to this end? I’m very keen to do this with the BSA Digital Sociology group to the greatest extent I can and am in the process of planning a sociological blogging workshop for early next year. Perhaps it might be valuable to try and hold a workshop sharing experiences and exchanging insights into the specific challenges and opportunities posed by trying to communicate sociological knowledge in the media? These are the ideas that occur to me based on my own experiences of certain kinds of activities. But I’m sure there are others and I’d love to hear anyone’s suggestions. In short: if we accept that public sociology is worthwhile then how practically do we go about getting good at it?
Categories: Committing Sociology