July/August 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 6

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Tukufu Talks History Detectives, Offers Advice on Communicating Sociology

By Daniel Fowler ASA Department of Public Affairs and Public Information

tukufu zuberi

Tukufu Zuberi

Tukufu Zuberi was a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who dabbled in television on the local Comcast station where he talked about social issues of the day and from America’s past. While Zuberi had also made other television appearances during his career, he had no aspirations of television grandeur. Then, one day in 2002, he received a phone call that would thrust him into the spotlight.

“I got a call from the History Detectives,” said Zuberi, who now chairs Penn’s sociology department. “They asked me if I wanted to be on a television show as a host. And, I said, ‘Of course not. I’m too busy doing very important academic work to have time for things like television shows. You need to go find somebody else for that job.’”

Despite Zuberi’s initial reluctance to join History Detectives, the show’s producers persisted. Eventually, Zuberi agreed to an interview and subsequently received a formal offer to appear on the show, which was still in development at the time. Today, History Detectives is a hit PBS series.

“The big thing that drew me to the History Detectives was this prospect that I would go on and talk about a sociological issue and millions of people would look at it and millions of people would hear me … talking about race in America,” said Zuberi who has been on the show since its debut. “Millions of people would spend an hour watching me discuss the sociological significance of various issues—the Civil War, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement.”

According to the History Detective’s website, each hour-long episode “features three investigations that delve into family legends, local folklore, and stories behind potentially extraordinary objects in everyday American homes, cities, and small towns.”

Zuberi said his favorite part of hosting the show, which kicks off its 10th season and celebrates its 100th episode in July, is the opportunity it affords him to go into the homes of American people.

“They open their doors to me,” he said. “They allow me into their space and they share their personal stories with me. … Often, this is at great risk to them because we could come back and prove that the thing they have is a fake, which we’ve done a number of times. But, they entrust you with it. They entrust you with their family’s history. And, so for me, that’s darn important. For me, that is the significance of what we are doing.”

Perhaps, not surprisingly, Zuberi said his sociology background has been particularly valuable to him in his role as a History Detectives host. “I use my sociological imagination to help people better understand their current social circumstances,” he said. “What do they want to do in life? What is happening to them in the world? And, how does that relate to the past?”

While appearing on History Detectives is a unique opportunity that enables Zuberi to bring sociology to the general public in a way that is impossible for most sociologists, he suggested that all sociologists have the ability to share sociology with the public and emphasized the importance of doing so.

“If we do not move to that level of engaging the public, we risk becoming more and more irrelevant. So, the way you become relevant is by showing how this imagination, if you will, of sociologists has something to contribute to the intellectual life of the people. And, so by doing the History Detectives, I’m taking the sociological imagination and I’m giving it to millions of people to empower them as they look at their own family’s history, as they look at their genealogy.”

When it comes to bringing sociology to the public, Zuberi believes social media is the key. “A revolution has happened and it is called social media. And, it is critically important that sociologists begin to engage social media. And, to engage social media, you have to begin to transform how you present sociological information. Now, one way that you can do this is by using video and using video creatively. And, it doesn’t have to be for the History Detectives.”

But, creating videos and posting them on social media sites is not the only way to communicate sociology to the public, according to Zuberi. “You might take a photo of something and then make a brief statement about the photo and post it on your webpage, post it on your Facebook page, Tweet about it.” He acknowledged those things are limited in the amount of communication that they facilitate, but it is an invitation for someone to engage you in a much longer conversation.”

For too long, Zuberi said, sociologists have not engaged the public directly. “I would invite my colleagues, my other sociologists out there … to take a step into the world of everyday life and to bring their sociology with them and to offer it to the people,” he said. “It is important that we offer it to each other, but that is not enough. We must offer it to the people.”  

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