Thursday, 7 February 2008

Sociology, Publics, and the Media Spotlight

Long term readers of the blog will know of my interest in the debates around public sociology - my previous contributions are posted here, here, here, and here. On Tuesday evening I attended the latest lecture given as part of the series of presentations held on this topic hosted at Birmingham University. The guest speaker on this occasion was Keith Tester of Portsmouth University. The argument he came to make was simple: if we define public sociology as a sociology reaching out to audiences beyond the discipline, this is only possible if it does so through the media. Drawing on the work of Roger Silverstone and in line with current sociological thinking about the media, "mediated appearance constitutes our worldliness, our capacity to be in the world". In other words for advanced capitalist societies, the media overwhelmingly provides the context for wider social and cultural practices - these are only in the world to the extent they appear in the media. If public sociology is concerned with generating a higher profile, the media is the only game in town for achieving it.

For Silverstone, because the media operates on wide and diverse scales there is what he calls an 'expectation of cosmopolitanism'.This means anyone can be a celebrity, and at any one time there are a cornucopia of voices - the media is a vast great pluralistic entity, which acts both as collective story teller and the repository of shared cultural references. However, Tester argues Silverstone overlooks the elephant in the room. Plurality is a secondary feature to the media's main purpose, which is to turn a profit. Pierre Bourdieu would have put it like this: TV has to attract viewers to satisfy advertisers or justify public funding. TV journalism is subject to the same pressures - news has to be sufficiently engaging to get them all-important ratings. This economic necessity weighs like a nightmare on print media and cultural production in general. Sociology, like all social scientific disciplines, belong to this sphere.

Sociology if it is to be heard in the media has to play by its rules. The problem is, to paraphrase Bourdieu, sociology is a science that likes to cause trouble, or, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, its "questioning and disrupting the routine may not be to everyone's liking". Despite this, sociology does already occupy a media niche, but has to speak with one of four voices. For Tester, these are;

1) The voice of information - the provider of evidence and data that can be taken up by media actors to further their own position in that field and/or draw attention to a particular aspect of the social field and demand the powers that be take some form of action.
2) The voice of the expert - the 'you'd better listen to us because we are the experts' voice. As sociologists, we're the only ones sufficiently informed and knowledgeable about social dynamics, so listen up!
3) The voice of opinion - the sociologist as a member of the press commentariat or a talking head. Here sociology is poppy and non-academic, it must adhere to media production values so no overlong jargon or complex argumentation please! (As an aside Tester noted what sociologists are asked for their opinions is interesting in itself. Researchers from Manchester, Oxford, and LSE might get a look-in, but does anyone bother with Wolverhampton?)
4) The voice of entertainment - the reduction of sociology to a mere observer and celebrator of freakish and exotic social phenomena, the public spectacle of a discipline doing a Louis Theroux.

So sociology has to pay the price of having its research and arguments distorted by the media in order for it to be public. Is this particularly desirable? Not really. Can sociology then be public by taking an alternative route? Tester supposes one way it could reach non-academic audiences is by engaging with civil society. The problem is civil society is so often invoked that nods toward it are meaningless, in fact Tester questions the extent to which we can speak of it in 21st century Britain. But supposing sociology places itself at the service of civil society groups (parties, unions, NGOs, activist networks, think tanks, pressure groups, etc) we immediately run into a problem: a key concern of these groups is getting their voice heard in the media, which immediately brings us back to the problems sociology needs to avoid.

Tester proposes an alternate strategy, but a controversial one. Sociology could refuse to collaborate with the media environment, as Bourdieu did throughout his career. This abandons the push toward a distinctively public sociology and instead requires we pursue a principled sociology instead. This demands a commitment to critical analysis, the denaturalisation of social relations, and to human creativity and freedom. There is no guarantee such an enterprise will attract a wider public but then is it not the conceit of the intellectual to expect people would want to listen to what we have to say?

Some interesting issue arose during questions. For me there were two key issues that came up related to what I do. The first of these is the depoliticisation of sociology. Without wanting to romanticise the period, if you go back 20 years sociology was very much a politicised discipline. Today, politics is a base to be touched on in the same way you're expected to reference key texts and fashionable theorists. If it animates a researcher's concerns one's prose has to bleached white to eradicate any subtext. As a feature of the field it makes Tester's call for a principled sociology seem utopian, but this has been the case before. If you look at the sociology of the 50s and 60s - particularly Anglo-American studies - the discipline chased a positivistic model of explanation and exposition. The upsurges of the late 60s through to the mid 80s saw the field of power shudder under the impact of masses of people getting involved in politics and protest. Sociology as part of cultural production was suffused with the spirit and concerns of these upheavals. Since the co-option/defeat/disappearance of these movements and the ideological victory of neo-liberalism, politics has once again become the business of elites, and so sociology has lost its edge. It's reasonable to argue that while principled sociology is an option, it will not take off outside of a general upheaval. This isn't to say its pointless - important radical work is taking place now but the time has not yet come for these seeds of the future to mature.

The second point is about how sociologists engage with publics. It is clear present dissemination techniques using the specialist networks of sociology reach very few people. Most of our research is poured into books and articles few people will read (the average figure of four readers per academic journal article was floated in the meeting). What about blogging? Tester does not hold out much hope for it, but it does hold opportunities. If we return to the four voices sociology has to use to speak through the media there is no choice but to alternate between them in order to secure an audience. For example. Iain of Leftwing Criminologist fame recently wrote of his frustrations of posting up an essay and not getting much in the way of response. As commentators pointed out, length was an issue and I would imagine perceived complexity of the subject matter may have been a factor too. So there's no way round it, you have to adapt to survive in the blogging environment. But the crucial difference is the blogger possesses authorial control, they can publish what they like within these parameters. In the case of AVPS this has meant interspersing sociology posts with political musings, or, as is more often the case, politics posts occasionally seasoned by a dash of sociology. On an extremely modest level this blog has introduced my project on Trotskyist life histories, research drawn from a variety of areas via reports on seminars and symposia, and one of the key debates within the field through my interest in public sociology to a non-academic audience. I also hope the reverse has been the case, of bringing the relevance of leftist politics to the small academic readership.

In sum, I would apply Tester's argument to blogging. The role of the blogging sociologist is to act as a sign post to what's going on in the research communities. It's up to their audience whether they follow their directions.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

A very interesting post, there is a similar sort of idea in terms of criminology too (hardly suprising since many criminologists are sociologists). I've found these posts quite interesting.

thinking about difference said...

Interesting, especially since in some universities there's a pressure to be out there, in the media and disseminate knowledge.

SSHRC (Canada), the main funding institution in academia, came up with a new goal and had a strategy for what they termed 'knowledge mobilization' (here's a link to a conference we did on the topic:

While I definitely see the need for connecting academic knowledge with everyday life, I wonder what happens to disciplines less interesting to media, like philosophy. Some topics are hot, and they get coverage, in a particular way (according to media practices). Some are not.

There's a fine balance to be protected, especially since the triple helix (academia/government/industry) seems to regulate funding for research and teaching.

unionstreet said...

Wonderful post. My own reaction - without speaking precisely to the points you've covered - is that, aside from the fact that I'm just a grad student who doesn't know any better, sociology has got more problems on its hand than simply raising its public profile, whether through the media or not. In particular, I find the discipline incredibly heterogeneous in its substantive interests, methodological and philosophical commitments, theoretical orientations, etc. - that's part of the charm, I suppose, but it's then difficult to make sense out of arguments that 'sociologists' ought to do X, Y or Z to raise 'their' public profile when it's not at all clear to me, at any rate, that we can think of sociology as a coherent, cohesive group that has anything like a collective identity and agency that would benefit or not from such strategies.

For my own part, the animating idea of sociology - that there is a specifically social remainder to our institutions and circumstances that is left uncovered or is only inadequately treated by academic rivals such as economics and psychology - remains valuable to me. But many insights that have their origins in sociology can now be found in other departments, such as 'media studies,' 'communication studies,' 'cultural studies,' and even the marketing departments of B-schools, and so on, and these may be more successful in the changed political and economic environment of our times in securing the funding and publicity that would have once gone to sociology. While the appearance of sociological ideas in these venues - and I may be talking nonsense - doesn't necessarily pose a fatal threat to the discipline, it certainly vitiates its claims to exclusivity, and hence the degree to which it can control its public profile.

Phil BC said...

Unionstreet, part of the controversy around public sociology is that Michael Burawoy's critics charge him with lumping all types of sociology together and suggesting there is a common disciplinary interest. I think it's more complex than that. Some sections of the discipline, for example those closely tied to publishing research for clients - be they corporate or state actors, are nominally in the same disciplinary sector as those who use sociology as a tool of activism. One group owe their career to a managerial problematic, the other an empowerment problematic. Hence at an abstract level there is a fundamental contradiction. Some representatives of professional and policy sociology are well aware of this and that's why this quarter has been the source of some vicious attacks on public sociology. Nevertheless Burawoy does not conclude there is no disciplinary unity and often regards his critics as an over hang from the previous positivistic/naturalist sociology that dominated Anglo-US sociology until the late 60s.

More can be written about this - I've devoted about 5,000 words to it in my PhD. When I've polished it up I'll stick some extracts on here.