We’ve all had some variant of the “naked dream”—you’re waiting in line at Starbucks or checking the copy machine at work when it dawns on you: you’re completely undressed. Here at Contexts, our authors have that dream all the time.
Writing a 3,000 word feature for a public audience, our contributors must dispense with the everyday apparel of scholarly publication. The layers of conceptual abstraction, the high-end designer methods and statistics, and the foundational undergarments of literature reviews—all gone. With all that stripped away, there’s no way to conceal vulnerabilities and authors can feel pretty exposed. As in naked dreams, though, when we first begin writing for a public audience, we tend to exaggerate the risks while underplaying the liberation and exhilaration that comes from breaking new ground. But that doesn’t mean the risks aren’t real.
We saw a bit of this in the kerfuffle over the American Sociological Association’s award for “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues,” which went this year to New York Times columnist David Brooks. When sociologists protested, in part due to Brooks’s conservative politics, the knee-jerk opposition seemed to undermine calls for broad-based public relevance and engaged scholarship—or, at least, to recast those calls as more narrowly partisan projects. While we might disagree with how Mr. Brooks uses our work, we defend his right to read, interpret, and mobilize sociological research and appreciate his high-profile efforts to do so. (Indeed, you may remember that we learned a lot about the challenges of disseminating sociology from Brooks in an interview published in one of our first issues.) We’ve actually heard similar professional resistance to popularizers like Malcolm Gladwell who distill and market social science for audiences a thousand times larger than that of our flagship journals. Even when members of our own tribe cross over and achieve a modicum of popular success, critics seem to burst from the woodwork to call into question their seriousness.
We’ve always tried to come from the other side at Contexts, putting our editorial energies into celebrating and effectively conveying good social science with real public relevance. Our graduate and national boards, web and section editors, and managing editors Letta Page and Amy Johnson have made heroic efforts in support of this mission. Our final issue features some terrific examples, with pieces on innovation, adoption, recreation, and closure. Sociologists have something important to say about such irreducibly social phenomena, and it has been our joy and pleasure to help tell their stories.
We couldn’t do any of this, of course, without your indefatigable energy as readers and supporters. Rest assured that new editors Jodi O’Brien and Arlene Stein will bring a fresh perspective that takes Contexts in exciting new directions. We’re cooking up some new ideas as well, developing and expanding our web-based project at thesocietypages.org, which will continue to host contexts.org. While such transitions might leave us feeling a bit exposed, we’re even more exhilarated about finding new ways to bring social science to broader publics.