Science and Accessibility

Contexts is an accessible, science-based sociology magazine. But there’s a huge difference between accessible sociology and fluff. As editors, our task is to simultaneously deepen the social science content while leavening the tone and enlivening the presentation. Whether the topic is age discrimination, world hunger, or Mexican-American incorporation, we don’t run a piece until we are convinced that the science is solid and there’s a real basis for the author’s claims.

This isn’t just an issue for Contexts, of course, but a fundamental question about public outreach and engagement—when do social scientists know enough to speak up?

Unlike other magazines, our features are all anonymously peer-reviewed by real experts in the subject area. That means that before you read an article in Contexts, at least three people who know what they are talking about have agreed that the content accurately characterizes the state of knowledge in a field. Although these reviewers are unpaid and unsung, they care passionately about the quality of work we publish in their fields of study.

This tends to weed out the fluff.

Any authors misled by our accessible writing style quickly learn that a casual or offhand approach to scholarship won’t fly at Contexts. When it comes to matters of substance and evidence, our authors will be pushed and pushed hard. As we move from manuscript to publication, some claims are sharpened, others are softened, some are qualified, and others are dumped completely.

In a 10,000 word research article, sociologists generally build a foundation brick-by-brick—with a voluminous review of the literature, a painstakingly detailed discussion of design and methodology, and an exhaustive reference list. Contexts can’t do this. We run 3,000 word features, assiduously avoiding the sort of jargon and technical minutiae that bog down non-experts. But while the foundation in our articles must remain invisible, it is no less real.

So although the claims and conclusions in our features might seem to float in mid-air, there are multiple points of support for the author’s statements—not just one study by the author, but an accumulation of established or emerging sociological evidence. While the editorial team has a hand in shaping each article, the claims are vetted by experts who know a lot more about the topic than the editors.

Finally, at the end of each feature, we list a handful of “key works” or touchstones for further study and reflection. While academics are trained to write in ways that isolate their own unique contributions, we ask them to harmonize or synthesize their analysis with other work in the field. We believe that this straightforward approach—to both scholarship and reading suggestions that can broaden our readers’ perspectives—is a key way in which Contexts can be field-shaping.

This is hard, but ultimately fulfilling, work. Each feature reminds us that sociology is more than a cacophony of competing and contradictory voices—we have something real and true to say about the social worlds in which we live.