By Dr. Julia McQuillan, Guest Blog Contributor
Several exchanges that I’ve had with physical scientists in a broad range of fields, plus working on identifying internship opportunities for our undergraduate sociology majors, have made me think hard about promoting and applying sociology. Orlando Patterson’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant and What They Can Do About It“, provided an impetus for more reflection.
Sometimes I think that sociologists have been so successful with certain policy concepts that they become “common knowledge” and are not recognized as sociology. Think of concepts such as “roles” or “attitudes” or “stereotypes.” Also, think of Malcolm Gladwell’s work. His work is interesting, entertaining, and is popular sociology. Yet he does not always make clear that he is popularizing sociology.
More transparent than Gladwell in their efforts, some powerful organizations are working to bring a sociological voice and perspective to various settings.
- The American Sociological Association (ASA) each year awards CARI grants or “Community Action Research Initiatives,” which support sociological research within high-need communities; the ASA Congressional Fellowship brings a sociologist to Capitol Hill every year to work directly for legislators; and, the ASA Media Relations office generates previously unprecedented levels of coverage of sociology in media sources across the globe. Perhaps most currently relevant and important, the ASA’s recent filing of Amicus Briefs covering the sociological research on same-sex marriage. These briefs are helping to completely transform the relationship between same sex couples and the states through decisions in the federal courts of appeals and the Supreme Court.
- Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) has hired a PR person over the last five or so years to write press releases for Gender & Society articles and many have made it into the news. As an organization, SWSalso teaches faculty how to write op-eds, write for magazines, and blog to help shape public debates. Plus over ten years ago the SWS Social Action Committee started an effort to create “Fact Sheets” on key topics of interest to. These “Fact Sheets” are free and available for anyone and can guide policies and social action efforts. SWS is holding its winter meeting in Washington, D.C. this year with a major focus on how to influence policies.
- The Council on Contemporary Families (CCF), founded by a consortium of social science scholars including ASA Vice-President-elect Barbara Risman, disseminates solid social science research on family issues. CCF produces press releases, position papers, op-ed articles (several in the New York Times), and lists of experts. It also hosts an annual conference.
- Finally, Douglas Hartmann, the current Midwest Sociological Society (MSS) president, has worked with other sociologists to form The Society Pages to disseminate sociological research. The Society Pages is a great website that includes interviews with sociologists discussing their research in a way that is accessible to the public as well as resources for teaching sociology.
I wonder if we artificially separate teaching and social action to our own detriment. For example, Laura Logan, an assistant professor at Hastings College in Nebraska, had her students do a project over winter term that involved summarizing research on a topic that the legislature was dealing with–truancy laws. The students sent their summaries to their legislators and had a legislative impact. The legislators were so appreciative that they helped fund more work for Laura and her students.
Overall I think Patterson has a point—we need to be more involved in conversations where sociologists can help. We need to be data guided and take risks. And yes, economists and psychologists have been more public, more the “go to” folks, and more champions of their disciplines. I see sociologists as being more “stealth.” Personally, I have been reflecting on how to effectively bring good sociological concepts, theories, and research to a wide variety of issues that can potentially benefit from our input. I also struggle with the question of whether it’s important that the contributions be labeled as sociology or just that the ideas become part of the conversation. I do not know. To me, these are researchable questions.
Obviously, as this extended comment suggests, this is a topic that has been occupying my mind. The truth is that those with sociology degrees tend to get decent paying jobs that they feel are meaningful. My department recently surveyed undergraduate alumni from the last ten years and many of them found their education valuable. In addition, we learned that many of our graduates wanted more data analysis skills. We are working on strengthening this part of the education that we provide to our undergraduates. A challenge is helping them to see when they are students that taking demanding classes—such as research analysis—is valuable to their future jobs and to the community at large.
Moreover, graduate students from my department have very high employment rates. The focus on data and information is perfect for an explosion in the need for and value of sociology.
On a personal note, I get many opportunities to talk to researchers in a variety of disciplines. As the only sociologist at the recent Water for Food Conference, hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), I was so pleased that all of the agriculture, water, and policy people, as well as the engineers, chemists, and physical scientists were thrilled that I was there. They told me how important it was to have sociology as part of the discussion.
What do I think? I’m glad that Patterson is raising the issue that more sociologists need to be engaged in applying what we know to a range of social issues. I’m disappointed that he did not recognize more of what is being done, did not help to spotlight the resources that are available. I’m thrilled that at UNL we have both rigorous scholarship that is published in highly prestigious outlets and that many of us do research that helps promote positive social change. Hardly irrelevant. And, I am sure my department is not the only one doing this.
Dr. Julia McQuillan is Department Chair and Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.