Trailblazing Sociologist Receives Special Achievement Award: An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy

ACA awardsPatricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and novelist (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College). She has published sixteen books including Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice (Guilford Press, 2009, 2015) and research-informed novels American Circumstance (Sense Publishers, 2013) and Low-Fat Love (Sense Publishers, 2011). She is the editor for five book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. She has appeared on national television, radio, is regularly quoted by the news media, publishes op-eds and is a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post. The New England Sociological Association named her the 2010 New England Sociologist of the Year. She just received the prestigious 2014 Special Achievement Award given by the American Creativity Association for her work advancing arts-based research and for the ground-breaking Social Fictions book series.

Congrats on your ACA Award which recognizes your “special and extraordinary advancement of arts-based research and the ground-breaking Social Fictions book series.” 

Thank you!

The ACA recognizes creativity in any field and they have honored some of the world’s most famous astronauts, scientists, inventors, surgeons, and humanitarians. You’re the first sociologist to receive this honor. 

Well, that’s what I’ve heard. I think it goes back to the hard science versus soft science artificial divide that privileges some ways of knowing over others. The social sciences, and sociology in particular, have historically been undervalued. We continue to see this built into funding structures and the like. It’s absolutely the case. However, I am increasingly hopeful that the tide is turning. As the global work economy continues to stress the importance of innovation, creativity and critical thinking, the perspectives and tools of sociology will have their chance to shine. We can’t put it all on the structure of funding agencies and the like though. I think we need to take some responsibility too. There is a marketing issue. Sociologists need to find creative and effective ways to market what it is that we do, so that others know the tools we have in our arsenal.

The award honors your work advancing arts-based research. Can you explain that and how it is connected to public sociology and the sociological imagination? 

Arts-based research merges the creative arts and scholarly research across the disciplines. For example, one might write up their focus group research as a play. Arts-based research practices offer us new ways to ask and answer research questions, they may allow us to tap into issues that are otherwise out of reach, they can help us forge micro-macro connections and they allow us to engage broader public audiences with social research.

Expanding on those two last points, first arts-based research provides one set of tools for public sociology. I think most sociologists accept that traditional academic journal articles are totally inaccessible to the public because both they are jargon-laden and they circulate in out of reach journals. Arts-based research facilitates public sociology by making the products of our research accessible in every sense of the word. What’s more, the work has a chance at being engaging and memorable so that audiences are more likely to be affected and moved to reflection, re-evaluation of previously held ideas, or even social action.

With respect to micro-macro connections, the heart of the sociological imagination, arts-based research is enormously useful for crystalizing these connections through the process of showing instead of telling. For example, by taking interview research and writing it up as a short story or novel we can use tools such as interior dialogue to show how characters are internally impacted by their environment, such as a conversation or interaction or when they are consuming the services of an institution or consuming cultural objects like pop culture. The possibilities are unlimited for illustrating micro-macro connections in ways that include the reader in the process.

You’re specifically being recognized for the Social Fictions book series which is being called “ground-breaking,” “a watershed moment in the academy” and “a landmark achievement.” Please describe the series. 

We publish books that are written entirely in literary forms including novels, plays, short story and poetry collections, but the books are authored by scholars and informed by their teaching and research. In other words, the series publishes the products of arts-based research. The series represents a new way to communicate information. I began the series after wrote my first novel, Low-Fat Love. Low-Fat Love explores low self-esteem, the psychology negative relationships, attraction to those who withhold their support and female identity construction. That book was loosely based on nearly a decade of interview research with young women about their relationships, identity and self-esteem issues.

The real idea behind the series is to change the way we share research outside of the academy and to change the way we teach within the academy. The books are read by both lay people and are adopted by college professors as springboards for class reflection and discussion on the themes in the books. In an age dominated by standardized testing and the like I think it is vital we create more ways to foster engagement, critical thinking and active learning. That is the intent behind our series. For my own novels in the series part of my hope is to share a sociology of daily life and help readers to forge micro-macro connections, through their own analytical process. For instance, in Low-Fat Love characters are engaged in consuming pop culture and readers have access to descriptions of that pop culture as well as how the character is affected by it. Readers have that access through internal dialogue and third person narration.

As someone who has repeatedly taught introduction to sociology with your novel American Circumstance, I can see exactly what you are talking about. Students love reading the book because it’s not dry the way typical course texts are but they are also given the chance to interpret the text in multiple ways, and their assumptions are challenged along the way which then becomes grounds for discussion. 

That’s fantastic because it has been the hope. That book explores how social class impacts identity and relationships which is something that is often difficult to talk about. I was particularly committed to exploring the back-stage of the 1% given the events and social climate of the past few years. So much of sociology considers patterns of interaction, cultural norms and values, and I wanted a way to show some of that in action. American Circumstance is actually my favorite of my own books. One of my heroes, sociologist Laurel Richardson, said that the book offered a “sociology of everyday life” and challenged her cultural assumptions. I hope it does the same for students and others.

In the field of sociology we often recognize people for their theoretical contributions. I believe you consider yourself a methodologist. How important is it that we recognize methodological contributions?

Methodology is all about building effective research practices, designing plans for carrying out research and even considering new structures for building research and research reports. So there’s no question methods and methodologies are integral to our field and all fields. The privileging of theory over methods is sort of nonsensical because in fact in methodology theory and methods merge. In other words, they are inextricably bound to each other. It’s the chicken or the egg question of sociology, but honestly, instead of asking that question isn’t it best to support and honor both?

Finally, people credit you with being a leader in your field, particularly through the book series you have created. But knowing you personally, I’m not quite sure if you see it that way. Any comment?

In some ways I think of myself as very much following others who are doing amazing, ground-breaking work. I learned that sometimes if you want to hang out with the cool kids you need to invite them to a party.

Learn more about Dr. Patricia Leavy www.patricialeavy.com

In honor of the ACA recognition Sense Publishers is offering 25% off all titles in the Social Fictions series as well as free shipping at www.sensepublishers.com (use promo code 192837 at check-out). 

Lauren M. Sardi, Ph.D is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT.

Categories: Sociological Craft

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