Making Sociology More Socially Useful
After I conducted my 1997 study of best selling sociology books, I concluded that sociologists shouldn’t attempt to publish best sellers but “intellectually and otherwise useful work…that adds to…the public understanding of society and if possible its improvement as well.”
The results of the Contexts Graduate Student Editorial Board study, which collected data on the sociological books people actually take home from bookstores, suggest some further conclusions.
The main finding of my study and the Contexts update is that sociology simply does not attract many general readers outside the classroom. This is not likely to change in the next decade, when I hope Contexts will undertake another study on this subject. Perhaps by then sociology will make itself socially more useful and will attract more general readers.
How might that be done? I think researchers should become more excited than they are now by topical issues, those that interest and concern general readers. Not momentary issues but persisting ones, of which there’s never a shortage. Subjects and issues that are or should be on the agendas of policy makers, politicians, and social movement leaders ought to be of higher priority in our research as well.
Insights, ideas, and findings from sociologically sound research—preferably original ones that journalists and others have not already come up with—are essential. Clear, non-technical language and well-paced prose free of academic repetition are also critical. If authors can transmit their excitement about their work, it should almost automatically lead to a “good read.”
Further, general readers may be attracted if sociology sticks to what I believe it does best. Sociologists have always distinguished themselves through empirical research about the patterns and problems of everyday life. We do especially well by talking and listening to ordinary, rank and file Americans at home, in their workplaces, and in the organizations in which they are active.
We have gone “backstage” to help demystify important (and self-important) institutions, and we could do more, right now especially among multinational corporations, hedge funds, major Washington lobbies and the like. We ought to put more effort into debunking insufficiently wise conventional wisdoms and correcting inaccurate stereotypes as Barry Glassner has done exceedingly well in Culture of Fear. And we should pursue the original ideas that result from looking at society from new angles—especially bottom-up ones.
The ethnographic studies and in-depth interviews in which sociology has specialized allow us to get close to the people that constitute society. These methods also produce rich data and new insights that give us a leg up on the other disciplines seeking to reach the general public.
If authors follow these kinds of leads, some will wind up with important books and perhaps even a few influential ones. Enough authors going in this direction will lead to a socially more useful discipline, raising sociology’s reputation and heightening its intellectual standing.
Sociologists should, however, be the first to realize that progress is rarely achieved by individuals alone. As I have suggested in recent articles on public sociology and public ethnography, our discipline must offer institutional support, too. Sociology should provide the same kind of training and career advancement for the research and writing I have advocated as for contributions to theorizing, methodological work and empirical studies that contribute to the disciplinary “literature.” Students and professors must be encouraged, funded, and otherwise rewarded for work on topics and issues that are relevant, useful, and accessible to people outside the disciplines. Then the editors, reviewers, and other gatekeepers who publish the general magazines and books serving the lay public may pay more attention to sociology than they do now.
And who knows. Sociologists may even sell more books!