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How to be a public intellectual – an interview with Herbert Gans

Submitted by on May 31, 2011 – 3:19 pmOne Comment

Photo by Professor Bob via Flickr.

Public Intellectual social science editor Nikki Jones spoke with Herbert Gans about making academic research – sociology in particular – relevant. Gans is a leading voice for public sociology. He is the Robert S. Lynd professor emeritus of sociology at Columbia University and the author of the 1962 sociological classic The Urban Villagers, a study of Italian Americans in Boston’s West End. The discussion with Gans began with an interview and concluded with an email exchange.

What do you mean when you say public sociology?

Public sociology is sociological research that is useful and relevant to the general public, especially the educated public. It should satisfy two criteria: (1) it adds new insights or findings about their society or parts of it that people don’t get from journalism or other forms of narrative and (2) it must be presented in language they can understand.

Public sociology should also be high quality research as judged by the standards of the discipline, and the best public sociology ought also be the best professional or academic sociology whenever possible.

Public sociology is frequently about popular topics, but it is not popularization of an already existing sociological text and it is not pop sociology, which is a journalistic form of sociology.

The researcher has to decide what research he or she thinks is useful or relevant to the general public, but that public also has a voice. Thus someone may do and report research that sociologists consider great public sociology but in which the public isn’t interested.

Would you say that there is more talking about public sociology than the actual doing of public sociology?

I advocated doing public sociology during my 1988 ASA presidential address, but nothing happened until 2004, when Michael Burawoy made public sociology the theme of his 2004 ASA annual meeting. Subsequently public sociology became valued among sociologists, and then I think it also became fashionable; it absorbed some of the status associated with public intellectuals.

Since no one has yet set any standards for public sociology, I can’t judge whether there has been an increase in the amount produced since the 2004 meetings. I suspect the actual increase is not as great as the perceived increase, because public sociology is as hard to do as any other kind of high quality research. Probably even harder, because we do not have to be useful or relevant when we write for each other instead of a more general public.

Perhaps as a result, and with some notable exceptions, sociology has not yet been of great interest to that public. In 1997, I published an exploratory study of bestsellers in sociology, and found that between the end of World War II and 1996 only around 40 books by sociologists sold over 50,000 copies.

To be sure, sales are not a criterion of influence but they are one measure, and we still need to figure out how to measure our influence.

Do you think it’s more useful to educate the public about what sociology is, or is it a better strategy to do work that is grounded in good sociology and get it out there?

I think the latter by all means. The best way is by example, to give the public research that has something new to say about society – and to repeat myself, research that tells people something useful or relevant and is written in non technical English.

In addition, we have to hope that the book reviewers and the handful of journalists, bloggers and others who cover social science beats read what sociologists produce for the public and bring it to public attention. Too often, sociology only gets such attention now when it reports a counterintuitive finding about everyday life or when it is sensational. Nonetheless, we need to reach the general public with more serious research.

There are also good instrumental reasons for reaching that public because the more enthusiastic it is about sociology, the more public support accrues to the discipline. Among other things, the public plays an indirect role in how much money the government and private foundations give to sociological research.

We need the public more than we think we do, which also means that undergraduates, who may be the public we can reach most often and most easily, should be introduced to public sociology.
One day soon, undergraduate course reading lists should be filled with public sociology, including research that is useful or relevant to them.

I have never understood why undergraduates who do not plan to become sociologists should be asked to read materials written in the technical language scholars use to report their work to peers. And if students learn best from film and videos, we need to learn how to create high quality visual public sociology, even though that may be more difficult than writing books and articles.

I like your idea for training journalists and sociologists outlined in “Handbook of Public Sociology.” Journalists and sociologists don’t necessarily occupy the same world.

Thanks. Right now sociologists and journalists are in a love-hate relationship, which hurts both. We need journalists to help communicate what we do; they need us to supply expertise and quotes. My idea of their taking a course or two together is that journalists could give sociologists a better sense of the topical; what’s useful and relevant. They could also teach us to write in plain English. Sociologists can help journalists be better analysts and teach them a little about both quantitative and qualitative methodology.

In reading your writing it seems that understanding sociology is important to the discipline but also important to having a well functioning democracy.

I write a lot about democracy, and I wish that sociology could be important for a well functioning democracy but I doubt that it can do very much. American democracy is in bad shape at the moment; we’ve got a corporate democracy, not a representative democracy and sociologists cannot fix that. It requires getting political power away from those with economic power and getting more of it to ordinary citizens – and I mean power of the kind that is not produced by knowledge.

Our job is mostly to do research about democracy and teach what we know. We can perhaps help the cause of representative democracy a little by providing findings and analyses about voters, nonvoters and politics that politicians and other public officials cannot get any other way. (I also think sociology should do more to represent those who are unrepresented now; those who lack the economic and political power to make themselves heard, but that is a personal belief.) And we can be politically active as sociologically informed citizens.

However, I think also that sociologists have to be careful not to claim more than our discipline can do. The number of ideas we have and that other people don’t have is not that large. Everett Hughes, one of my teachers, always said that sociology is mainly common sense and people who are not sociologists have that too.

When I got into sociology after World War II, we thought we had more answers than the other social sciences; we were going to be the queen of the social sciences. I still don’t know why we chose to be a queen, but we were overly optimistic and naive. Still, sociology made public contributions in the l950s and l960s and was rising both in scholarly and public status.

However, since then, it seems to me to have lost that status and it may even be on a downwardly mobile path. I hope I am wrong, but we now also have competitors we did not have before. For example, behavioral economists are doing research on subjects that have normally been sociological and since they are economists, they get media and other public attention.

Political scientists have been producing political sociology for a long time of course, and if anthropologists ever do most of their fieldwork and other research in America, we will have another set of competitors. But perhaps our strongest competitors will be book writing and other journalists who majored in sociology in college or learned to do sociological research in other ways.

I was thinking of Governor Perry’s proposed plan to evaluate academics in the Texas state system and to put more of an emphasis on teaching, and the idea floating around that research that faculty members do isn’t valuable to the life of the university. Do you think public sociology is an antidote to that?

This one is complicated. I just did a blog for The Huffington Post in which I argued that we ought to separate teaching from research in graduate education because so many students really want to teach instead of doing research or writing. Consequently, we make their and our lives difficult by forcing them to write dissertations before we let them teach. We should instead be training them to be good sociology teachers. Some people want to teach AND do research, which is fine, but those who want only to do research OR teach should be trained mainly for what they want to do and are best at doing.

I do not think Governor Perry, or any politician can be a judge of research quality, though I wish we were producing public sociology that their staffs would read and would find useful or relevant. (Sorry for repeating that trio of words again.)

One of my reasons for separating research and teaching is that at present, too much research is done between meeting classes and in the summer, which is not a way to produce high quality research. This state of affairs prevails not only in sociology but across the humanities and social sciences – full time researchers are much too scarce in these disciplines.

I know you’ve talked before about changing departments to encourage public sociology. Can you talk a little about that?

I proposed that after the second year of graduate school, students choose between a public sociology track and a professional track – Burawoy’s adjective, and a synonym for basic or academic research. It will take a long time to happen even if it does, because for the moment there is still a lot of bias against public sociology.

Too many traditional sociologists and I suspect administrators think that public sociology is like journalism – and in the university, journalism is a profession, whereas sociology is a discipline. I understand some departments warn students not to do public sociology, and right now I tell students in such departments to wait to do it until they have tenure. Jump through all the required academic hoops to get tenure, then after that you are free – that is, if tenure is allowed to survive!

But to go back to the beginning of our talk, first we have to produce good public sociology, and in large enough amounts and across enough subjects that the non sociological world will take notice. After that, things will become easier.

In your daily life, are there examples you see of good public sociology?

When I have given examples, I have chosen older books by authors who are no longer with us, for example, the Lynds’ Middletown, Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and Liebow’s Tally’s Corner among others. I haven’t tried to choose examples from among contemporary books, partly because data on the amount of attention they have received is hard to get – sometimes that takes many years to judge. And books that get immediate public attention may not be good public sociology. Robert Putnam’s very widely circulated and discussed book Bowling Alone is an example, for the quality of both his data and his analysis have been questioned.

All I can say now is that we need to do more public sociology, make it as good as possible by our standards, and leave the rest up to the public. That’s the challenge for public sociology and meeting it may take a while.

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