Sociology’s Irrelevance in the News…It Hurts :-(

by  Syed Ali
from Context Blog

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). Anarticle 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 thathuge? 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 (likeContexts 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 Timeshad 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.

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