The Sociologist’s Non-Sociologists

A little over a year ago, our Minnesota graduate student editorial board began discussing a project to better understand and promote Contexts’ mission of bringing sociology to broader public audiences and influence. Among their formative readings was Herbert Gans’s generative 1990s study of books by sociologists that had sold well and been distributed widely—his so-called bestsellers study.

Our board was intrigued by this piece and, with Professor Gans’s blessing, began exploring options for updating and reassessing his findings. After several fits and starts, they found a well-suited data source and were off and running on the piece that appears in this issue. All of the students on last year’s board contributed to the project, but those listed as authors took the lead in seeing the paper through the external review-and-revision process to fruition on the printed page. It is, we believe, a fascinating (if only partial) glimpse into what the general reading public looks to when it looks to sociology and what kinds of sociological research and writing circulates best. (Hint: while subject matter may change, accessible writing never goes out of style.) We thank these students and Gans, who graciously agreed to write a commentary for our back page, “One Thing I Know” column.

While formulating this project, we were often reminded that making sociology public is not the exclusive purview of professional sociologists. In fact, we may not be the ones who do it best. Think of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Barbara Ehrenreich, or David Brooks. They regularly engage sociological topics and, perhaps more importantly, write from sociological orientations. Though they aren’t professional sociologists, one can’t help but see their sociological insight and analysis shining through—whether in calling attention to otherwise unseen trauma and inequity, exhibiting their ethnographic eye for detail and the power of experience, or situating people and problems in broader social context. We don’t need to feel badly about their successes or threatened by them. Rather, we professional sociologists should try to learn from their expertise and maybe even try to work with them more closely.

This insight became something of an organizing theme for much of this issue, anchored, in many respects, by a retrospective on Studs Terkel, one of the great non-academic public sociologists of all time. The piece is illustrated with art from a new book by one of the unsung iconoclasts in this camp—Harvey Pekar, he of American Splendor fame. And then there is our exchange with rock critic Chuck Klosterman. Though distilled from an extended conversation with our culture editor Dave Grazian (complete podcasts are available), it’s a wonderful example of the potential of dialog between sociologists and sociologically inclined writers.

Putting a sociological perspective on the world around us and the everyday, we heard the word “quotidian” more than a few times in assembling this set of features and reviews. Along with the everyday, though, sociology brings needed perspective to extraordinary issues and events, such as the murder of an abortion provider understood within a larger trend in abortion access. We hope that this issue of Contexts underscores once again the power and importance of well-presented sociological information and analysis no matter what or whom the source.

Comments 1


July 18, 2010

Some of my favorite journalists (Jane Kramer, Tom Wolfe) are sociologists "manques".

I'm a journalist myself applying to graduate programs in sociology. I think that sociologists and journalists share many of the same critical impulses when it comes to dismantling or at least assessing ( or in Wolfe's case, poking fun at) power structures.

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