November 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 7

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International Perspectives

Public Engagement:
Differences Between the U.S. and the UK

Ann Brooks, National University of Singapore

I attended the British Sociological Association’s (BSA) Conference “Engaging Sociology” in April, and I was drawn into the debate around how the sociological community in the UK can have more impact on social and political discourse. Given the traditional anti-intellectualism of the British media and its disdain for expert commentary, how then do sociologists have an impact on social and political debate in the UK? In addition, given the narrowness of the Research Excellence Framework’s (REF) definition of ‘impact,’ as needing to be linked to peer review, what incentives are there for sociologists and academics more generally to engage in broader public debate on issues where they could and should have a voice as public intellectuals?

My recent experience in the United States as a Visiting Research Scholar at the University of California-Berkeley (UCB) from June 2011-December 2012 may provide some insights. This was a transformative experience for me as an international academic who has worked in global universities. It has had a significant impact on my international scholarship and on my views on the role of public intellectuals.

The Department of Sociology at UCB has, of course, an illustrious tradition within the global sociological community. More than this, there is a tradition within UCB, as a public university, for academics to make a contribution to social and political discourse as public intellectuals. Robert Reich, Arlie Hochschild, George Lakoff, and Christina Romer, among many others, are all well-established public intellectuals, contributing to U.S. public discourse through the media and in public office.

Adding to the Public Discourse in the U.S.

The public intellectual is one whose contribution goes well beyond the narrow confines of academia, to lending their intellect, expertise, and scholarship to the public good—that is, to the development of public discourse and to the development of policies on issues of public concern. UCB draws on the best minds globally to lend their voices to issues of local, national, and political concern. There is an expectation that academics will make a contribution to both intellectual life and to the wider community. The (then) Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, frequently emailed the UCB academic community to engage everyone in issues of concern to the university and wider community.

It may be that there is greater interchange between academic and political life in the United States. This might be a motivating factor for academics who wish to flag an interest in political office.

Academics in the United States write and involve themselves with a significantly wider set of audiences. Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia, contributes regularly to and the Huffington Post and she is also on the Council for Foreign Relations.

The idea of being a public intellectual, involving oneself in issues of public concern, is an important element in defining oneself as a significant U.S. academic by offering more than routine scholarship. It seems very clear that the public intellectual barely exists in the UK academy, although the arrival of Craig Calhoun at the London School of Economics (LSE) may change that. This might be because a U.S. public university has an expectation of making a contribution to public discourse, but I think the answer lies beyond this. In the UK it appears that academics frequently do not cross the divide of writing for a wider audience than peer reviewers. This has an impact on the status of sociological debate within the wider community.

Beyond Peer Review in the UK

This point is an important one. The lack of public intellectuals may be a result of the fact that, in order to have impact, all research and publications must be peer reviewed, within research structures such as the REF. Thus there is little scope and time to write and publish in areas outside the strait-jacket of peer review. But how does this affect impact in the broader sense? I would argue that it seriously restricts an intervention by sociologists into areas relevant to public discourse, when the form of the intervention is a television interview, newspaper article, or online news contribution.

It could also be the fact that the involvement of academics more routinely as contributors in the media as experts is much more common in the United States compared to the UK. There is a problem in the British media that goes way beyond anti-intellectualism. BBC journalists, editors, and even presenters often see themselves as the experts and they draw on their own resources rather than on real experts in the field.

Thus academics are left out of any engagement as experts in a range of fields across a broad spectrum of subjects. This is a huge misjudgement on the part of the BBC and the failures are highlighted by Calhoun in his trouncing of the BBC in his article in the Times Higher Education in April. Calling out the media in this way is clearly a mark of a public intellectual and Calhoun brings that grand tradition with him from the United States. Additionally, there is little comparison between the quality of journalism and , news content of The New York Times and The Washington Post in the U.S. and The Guardian or The Times in the UK.

Broadcast News

Let’s consider the approach of some of the U.S. media by comparison. Cable television has a range of programs all vying for the best and fastest news: NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC all call on academics routinely for expert comment. MSNBC is a centre-left network and provides a high level of engagement with academic experts across a range of debates. One of the reasons for this is the intellectual profile of many of the presenters: the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC is an example. She has a BA in Public Policy from Stanford University and a DPhil from Oxford, where she was a recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. She was the first openly gay or lesbian American to win the award. Her book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, topped the New York Times best-seller list for five weeks. MSNBC moderators Chris Matthews and Chris Hayes have also authored books. MSNBC involves academics and others as contributors, political analysts, or policy analysts.

Then there is the academic media presenter, for example Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, who presents two weekend shows discussing issues of race, gender and politics. Harris-Perry is a Professor of Political Science at Tulane University and was Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton. She attracts a wide range of academic commentators to her roundtable debates on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Apart from MSNBC, CNN also has a number of programs that include international academics on a regular basis. Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s Global Public Square is a good example.

A version of this article first appeared in the British Sociological Association’s magazine, Network, July 2013. The original article is at

Ann Brooks is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Her most recent publications are Popular Culture, Global Intercultural Perspectives (2014) and the co-edited book, Emotions and Social Change: Historical and Sociological Perspectives (2014), with David Lemmings.


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