Sociology's irrelevance in the news

Layers of irrelevance (photo by Dan Phiffer from Flickr Creative Commons)
Layers of irrelevance (photo by Dan Phiffer from Flickr Creative Commons)

In an article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Orlando Patterson, an eminent sociologist at Harvard, has declared that sociologists have made themselves irrelevant.

This is not a new charge—sociologists are all pretty familiar with this. And we can get pretty annoyed with the talking heads in print and TV who poach our research turf and butcher the analysis. How many of you have screamed at your monitors over this? It’s frustrating because by and large we do it better.

Patterson’s main point is that sociologists are cowards when it comes to talking about the link between culture and Black poverty. Because of this, they no longer get invited to policymakers’ tables to help discuss and design policy-making initiatives, like President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program.

The idea that sociologists are irrelevant in the public realm is a great topic to study. One way to look at is to see who buys our books. Herbert Gans looked at best selling books by sociologists in a 1997 article and found… not a whole lot. Only 53 books had sold over 50,000 copies, two books had sold over 500,000 copies, and one book sold over a million (The Lonely Crowd). An article in Contexts in 2010 updated Gans’s study and also found not many best sellers. (Barry Glassner’s Culture of Fear was the only book by a sociologist to sell over 50,000 copies in a five-year period.)

Why?  One key factor the Contexts article points to is scope. Too few sociologists swing for the fences like Thomas Piketty has with his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (Our upcoming Winter issue has a review of Pilketty by past ASA president Erik Olin Wright.) We also tend to hem and haw in our writing, and are too often afraid to make our points in clear, concise, and unqualified prose. (Make your argument and let someone else cut it down—don’t cut yourself down first!)

But even when sociologists and other academics do write the big picture book, it’s unlikely their sales will be huge or that they’ll get much media coverage. When they do, it’s often just luck and good timing—you never know what will tickle the book-buying public’s fancy at that moment. Who at Harvard University Press would have thought Pilketty’s book would be that huge? Or closer to our sociological home, who at Princeton University Press would have thought Amin Ghaziani’s (excellent) fresh-off-the-presses book, There Goes the Gayborhood?, would have gotten him over 70 interviews in six countries? (Look for his article in our Winter issue!)

Another part of the story is who is writing the books. Look at any top selling nonfiction list, and the authors at the top are almost all celebrities, journalists, or policy folk. Precious few are academics; none are sociologists. Lesson? The quality of the book matters (or it should, anyway), but who’s writing the book matters more. Politicians, celebrities, and journalists get their books reviewed more widely, and have easier access to media appearances than do academics. They have those kinds of contacts that we don’t. It’s not that sociology doesn’t sell. It does; it’s just not sociologists writing it. Some of the top selling sociological books in the past few decades have been written by journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, and Malcolm Gladwell.

Book sales are one measure of relevance. But back to Patterson and his measure—public policy centrality. His argument again is that we’re too chicken to talk about the link between culture and Black poverty. Perhaps. He also says we have shied away from public engagement. I doubt that. I’m sure many sociologists would love to be more engaged in policy discussions (like Contexts board member Sara Goldrick-Rab). But few are.

One important reason for this may be that we have a rap as a discipline for being too left. Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof chastised us: “Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.” In response, our own Philip Cohen reported that the Times had quoted 124 sociology professors in news articles, reviews, and op-eds in the previous year.

Still, economists and political scientists dominate a lot of topics that are right in our sweet spot. I doubt that’s because they do it better. My guess is because they’re largely more centrist and conservative they’re more palatable to politicians and media. So they get the invites. I wish Patterson had looked at this, in addition to blaming sociologists for their being sidelined.

So then, what’s a sociologist to do? Write for Contexts! (You too, Dr. Patterson.) We aim to be the public face of sociology, and Philip Cohen and I and the rest of Team Contexts are going to work hard to get your brilliant writing and analysis out to the broader world. We’re using those weak ties to make sociologists (more) relevant again. 

Comments 17

Chris Booker

December 1, 2014

You know, it is really difficult to find out how many copies of a non-fiction book have been sold. Apparently, publishers consider this information to be proprietary. For example, I could not find out how many copies of Venkatesh's Gang Leader For a Day have been sold. It came out in November, 2007, and had a publicity campaign.

John Bornmann

December 2, 2014

So, if Contexts aims to be "the public face of sociology", isn't that at odds with the message at the top of your page that the current issue is "free for a limited time"?

Also, Barbara Ehrenreich has a Ph.D. and has written a large number academic books, please don't lump her in with Gladwell.

Szonja (Szelényi) Ivester

December 2, 2014

Let me take culture seriously, as Patterson asks as to do, and say that the irrelevance of sociologists is NOT a cultural universal. In many European societies (England, France, and my personal favorite HUNGARY) they play a significant role in the public sphere. More generally, I think in America the problem is less with sociology than with anti-intellectualism. Public policy makers listen to experts in the so-called pragmatic fields (law and business especially; to some extent economics) and pay less attention to analytic/academic disciplines.

syed ali

December 6, 2014

John, agreed, the facts are at odds. as for Ehrenreich, right, she's a "writer". you could argue nickel and dimed is journalism; you could also argue it's quick and dirty ethnography. she calls it an experiment. whatever. writer fits better.

Chris, #s sold, yeah, hard to figure. the writers of the Contexts article i cited had to cobble it together, but it's not definitive. and they acknowledge that.

and Szonja's spot on -- we don't care much for intellectuals coming out of the academy. the ones who get the glory are more media pundits who use big words -- thomas friedman, george will. a handful of academics with the right ideologies get media coverage, but the vast majority of academics whose work should have broad appeal and write well, they slog on with little public/media recognition.

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