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More of Us Should Become Public Sociologists

Public intellectuals (i.e., the scholars, critics, and others who speak to the general public on topical matters in which the public may or should be interested) play a crucial role in modern society. They are not only a bridge between intellectuals, academics, and the rest of society, but they also offer society at least a sampling of intellectual commentary on issues of the day.

Public intellectuals are usually recruited from among scholars who have already gained a reputation from well-received and widely read publications. They must, however, also be willing and able to communicate with the general (read educated) public, have ideas and opinions that they want to share, and do so in clear, jargon-free English. Although anyone can nominate oneself to be a public intellectual, they are appointed by editors, producers and similar decision-makers in the news and other mass media, at the major lecture bureaus and the like. Audiences are the ultimate gate keeper, however, for public intellectuals must be willing to speak to topics that interest them, and with frames and values that are comprehensible and acceptable to them.

Public intellectuals are appointed at several levels. Many public intellectuals probably serve mainly as quote suppliers, offering observations, pithy comments or soundbites to journalists who need an expert voice to add credibility to their own writing. At the next level are people who regularly publish op ed pieces in national newspapers. Some may then be invited to appear on public television or public radio, and to write articles for such “class” media as The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. A few are even appointed as cable news regulars or newspaper columnists and find their books appearing on the New York Times best seller list. No one ever receives tenure as a public intellectual, however, because very few are able to be relevant and credible on every new issue that emerges.

Sociologists have not often been appointed as public intellectuals. Lists of the leading public intellectuals are as suspect as those of the best films or racehorses, but a recent list of 550 public intellectuals, alive and dead, included about 30 sociologists. (The list, Public Intellectuals, was compiled by Richard Posner and published in 2001 by Harvard University Press.) Considering the small number of sociologists in the world, that proportion is reasonably respectable, and the list included such influential sociologists as Daniel Bell, Robert Bellah, William Julius Wilson, and, of course, Max Weber.

Another Posner list, of the 100 top public intellectuals (as measured by amount of news media exposure) was troubling, however, for it included only one sociologist, Alan Wolfe, and he came in at No. 97. In effect, the keepers of the “public intellectual gates” ignore or reject us, and we should do the needed research to find out why.

Hypotheses are easy. Most public intellectuals are literary folk or historians, who are trained to range far and wide across the disciplines. Public intellectuals probably have to address political and economic issues more than any other, and sociologists lose out on that score too. They also lose out (and this is more serious), either because their ideas are not sufficiently distinctive from those of journalists and literary generalists or because the ideas are too relativistic or constructionist. Unfortunately, such ideas still seem to scare too many journalists and audience members. Sociologists as a whole are also more liberal than other academics, but the news media tend unfairly to prefer center and conservative voices. In any case, we are not often asked to perform as public intellectuals, are thus not very visible, and are therefore not asked.

Public Sociologists and What They Can Do

I see nothing on the horizon to suggest that our invisibility will soon end, but I think there is also a better, if less prestigious role for us, which I call public sociologist. A public sociologist is a public intellectual who applies sociological ideas and findings to social (defined broadly) issues about which sociology (also defined broadly) has something to say. Public intellectuals comment on whatever issues show up on the public agenda; public sociologists do so only on issues to which they can apply their sociological insights and findings. They are specialist public intellectuals (to borrow a Posner phrase).

Actually, we are all public sociologists manqué when we teach undergraduates, for college prepares them to become members of the educated general public. The public sociology I have in mind comes in four varieties, of which the first and most important is speaking out and writing whenever an issue shows up on the public agenda to which we can contribute.

We know a lot about social problems, and about the sociology of personal issues people worry about, for example, sickness and aging. Sometimes, public sociologists add background or context to stories that appear in the news media, or try to explain phenomena that news stories can only describe. Public sociologists can be particularly useful in debunking the conventional wisdom and popular myths (e.g., that teenage pregnancy is a major cause of poverty). They can reframe social phenomena in helpful ways (e.g., to point out that the family is changing, not declining). Public sociologists can indicate that two or three school shootings are not a trend, and that the explanations for the shootings are better sought in school power structures and student hierarchies than in “violence” in “the media.”

Although public sociology of this kind already exists, it must still be institutionalized as a legitimate way of doing sociology. People who want to be public sociologists probably have to begin small (e.g., as quote suppliers, at first perhaps only for the local newspaper). However, even this humble task offers an opportunity to show that sociology has something to say. At times, being useful to journalists may even overcome their bias against the discipline—and sociology’s bias against journalists—particularly when they ask interesting questions we should be thinking about.

Supplying quotes is not enough, however; public sociologists must also write or have something to say every time events justify a sociological analysis or commentary. Public sociologists should not try to be journalists, but they can write or speak clearly, concisely, with examples, but without scholarly qualification. Scientists’ taboos against addressing the general public must be overcome, and a thick skin is needed when a half hour’s talking to a journalist is boiled down to a single sentence or a ten-second soundbite in the story. Being misquoted is even harder to take, but a politely firm letter to the offender sometimes results in an apology or explanation.

The next two forms of public sociology involve popularization. One is the popular (non-textbook) treatment of a topic or a set of events of widespread interest—like recent changes in American adolescent life. Unfortunately, sociologists do not often write popular sociological treatments of important topics or events. They leave such books mainly to freelance writers, who may not find sociology relevant.

The other form of popularization is a survey of the ideas and findings of a major field in the discipline, say criminology or social psychology. (Undergraduate teaching and textbook writing are examples of this second kind of popularization, but both are addressed to captive audiences.) Right now, there is no market for this kind of popularization because sociology lacks the characteristic appeal of the natural sciences and medicine, both of which can depend on a stable of expert popularizers.

The fourth kind of public sociology is a research report written for the lay public, either as an original study or as a popular rewrite of a scholarly monograph. Ethnographers have been writing the former at least since Helen and Robert Lynd’s Middletown (Harcourt Brace, 1929); Robert T. Michael et al., Sex in America (Little Brown, 1994), is a good example of the latter.

Why Public Sociology?

Public sociology of all kinds is badly needed. It can demonstrate that sociology adds distinctive insights and findings; increase the discipline’s relevance by forcing it to analyze current events and issues; and enhance sociology’s visibility. More important, public sociology is a way of telling the general public what we do and how we are spending public money. If we do it well, public sociology may help to attract more and better students, increase research funds, and earn us public support when sociology is under attack from hostile ideological and political organizations. Perhaps someday, public sociologists will even be properly represented among the 100 most visible public intellectuals.

Herbert J. Gans

Herbert Gans (hjg1@columbia.edu) is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and a past president of ASA. He received the ASA’s Award for Public Understanding of Sociology in 1999.