How to Do Sociology in the Trump Era

Barbara Risman, University of Illinois-Chicago

This election was hard for me, but it was even harder for my students. I was teaching a senior seminar on Sociology of the Family with a class that was majority Latino/a, a few African Americans, a few white immigrants from Eastern Europe, and a few native-born white students. My class was not representative of our student body, it just happened to be majority Latino/a. Although, our student body is majority minority and so there was not much celebration on this campus in this blue state for the results of the presidential election. There was shock and dismay. My students talked about the children in their families crying on election night, some worried about themselves or loved ones being deported, others were fearful. Nevertheless, we ate cake in class the day after the election because I promised that if two-thirds of them voted, I’d feed them cake. Nearly all 30 students voted. And all felt devastated with the outcome results, as if they didn’t really matter.

I see two questions that we need to address as sociologists. First, how do we move forward to inspire students to be civically engaged when they feel afraid and helpless? Second, how do we do public sociology in a “post-truth” age, and in a political climate where our government doesn’t seem to be interested in scientific evidence as a basis for social policy? Where does that leave us as sociologists trying to use our work for the public good?

Empower Students

First, for our students, let’s return to basics. What is the core of our sociological insights? It is the social construction of reality—that dialectical relationship between individuals and society. We are all a product of the historical moment in which we are raised, a product of the socialization we receive, and the norms we internalize. But people before us made the society that shaped us, and we are making the society our children will inherit. The understanding that society is what we make it is empowering, and we must leave our students, in every course, with the understanding that they are not only products of their society but producers of the future. Too many sociology courses leave students depressed at the level of inequality that they discover and the myriad ways in which power works. We must help students understand how a sociological imagination is empowering.

Address Culture Beyond the Echo Chamber

And, how to be a public sociologist today? For the next four years, I think we must give up any hope to change social policy. The leadership being chosen to head governmental agencies range from climate deniers to those who think government aid is counter-productive to poor inner-city residents. We shouldn’t try to change the social structure under an administration that doesn’t value science. But that doesn’t mean we should stop studying how social inequality is reproduced. We need to keep producing strong scholarship that can make a difference, eventually. What we should do is focus on the culture, how do we get our ideas, research, and evidence out there. Sociologists need to be in the news! Here is our challenge, how to get beyond the echo chamber of urban college-educated America, and talk to those citizens who feel left behind. How do we bring our work beyond the New York Times? We need to effectively use social media, but even there, we live inside an echo chamber. Our challenge is to help change culture and to do that we must find a way to break the glass barriers between college-educated elites (that’s us) and those who voted for Trump.

How do we bring our sociological insights and analysis to people beyond our echo chamber, beyond those glass barriers? This is a conversation to need to begin now.

4 Comments

  1. Good points WJS and CAC. Some of us live in cities and states where evidence based policy may still be possible and we should stay involved. But do remember 33 state Houses are held by Republicans now. Some of them may still care about science, but not all of them.

    And the point that we focus on teaching our students to distinguish evidence, and alternative “facts” is crucial. They will go on to all sorts of careers, and also they are the future voters…

  2. I think that the Trump campaign and Trump administration’s ability to shape people’s perceptions of social trends like the prevalence of crime or voter fraud contrary to objective , measurable reality is a very clear example of how those who control media can shape the culture. While we are encouraging students that they can change the culture, I think we have to teach them to question and resist the barrage of propaganda that they will be exposed to.

    Do we really need to give up all hope of positive influence on social policy? It is certainly true that federal agencies are not going to be listening to progressive sociologists. But we might want to remind ourselves and our students that political power in the US is not exercised exclusively at the federal level, and that it might be quite possible to have a positive impact on policy at the state and community level , depending on where they live and work. We can support NGO and Civil Society organizations that are working to influence policy decisions on a global level too.

  3. Definitely — I would also add emphasis to the training of undergraduate students who will go on to work in fields that are not clearly ‘sociological’. Equipping them with the vision to see inequality as it exists and unfolds in their future work organizations will help them to be institutional entrepreneurs — adding perspective that can help fix those issues. Sociology courses that bridge the divide between thinking about sociology academically and thinking about it pragmatically as it relates to diverse work fields may be a good start to making sure some of the valuable insight gained in an undergrad sociology degree sticks with students long after they leave the ‘echo-chamber’ of their sociology department or university.

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