Experts and Skeptics

Is racism a matter of individual psychopathology? Can disabled women be good parents? Does prohibiting drug use at electronic music dance parties save lives? Can sociologists learn from biologists? In this issue, we look at how experts set the terms of much of the knowledge we take for granted, and how skeptics contest these so-called truths.

James Thomas examines the growing number of experts who have come to define racism as a matter of individual psychopathology, and how the medical model is coming to displace social science expertise on the subject. Looking at the roots of extreme political violence, neither psychology nor sociology alone suffices, according to Barry Richards, who considers the story of Anders Breivik, who killed scores of Norwegian youth at a summer camp.

Tammy Anderson explores the ways experts are dealing with the proliferation of drugs at electronic dance parties, arguing that they seem to make matters worse, and Janice Irvine looks at what happens when experts become stigmatized for the very subject they study—sex. And despite those who say that disabled mothers make bad parents, Angela Frederick, who is herself blind, argues that such opinion is based on an ideology of perfection that few mothers can adequately live up to.

Continuing the theme of experts and skeptics, this issue’s Viewpoints considers the natural science turn, and how social scientists are taking on and reacting to the rise of biologically-based perspectives on social life. Pedagogies turns a critical lens on expert rhetoric on bullying in schools. On our back page, Ryanne Pilgeram and Russell Meeuf consider the rise of for-profit public intellectuals.

Finally, a parting note. As the great social theorist Carol Burnett once sang, “I’m so glad we had this time together.” This issue marks the last of our three-year editorship. “Seems we just got started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say ‘so long.’”

We’re grateful to the ASA for entrusting us with this editorship, and to our terrific editorial board members for their enthusiastic engagement. Thanks to the folks at Sage and ThinkDesign for helping to produce the high quality look and style of the magazine. Our countless reviewers deserve special mention for their detailed and constructive feedback.

And of course, our deepest appreciation goes to our fabulous editorial team—Tom Linneman, Karen Sternheimer, Gary Perry, and Matt Wray, and our managing editors Carly Chilmon, Jess Streeter, and Jen Hemler. A big welcome to the incoming editors, Philip Cohen and Syed Ali, and their new editorial team.

Contexts continues to be an experiment, of sorts, in how to reach non-specialist audiences. Many of us don’t really know how to write for “the public” or we think we can’t do so and still be card-carrying sociologists. We appreciate the authors who have braved the waters of a very different kind of writing, and who have worked with us to broaden the audience for sociological research.

Our experience these past three years has convinced us that social researchers have very interesting things to say about the world, but that we need to become better communicators. “Not knowing how to write clearly is a matter of training,” the sociologist John Shelton Reed once said. “Not caring to do so is a matter of reward structures.”

Let’s continue the important task of communicating with non-scholarly audiences: by writing well, taking visual images more seriously, embracing social media tools—and challenging others to do the same. The world needs to hear from us.