Sociology is a misunderstood discipline. Much of the general public equates sociology with psychology, assuming that sociologists are in the business of mental health evaluations. Others confuse sociology with social work. Sociology is neither. Put simply, sociology examines patterns of human behavior and attempts to explain why these patterns exist.
Sociologists can only blame themselves for the public’s confusion. We tend to write in a jargon-laden style that confuses even the most experienced sociologists, and we hardly take the time to talk with the public about social issues. It seems that we’ve fetishized the academy, labeling the outside world as a vulgar representation of the reality we claim to understand. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Sociologists can only capture a glimpse of society through their sociological lens, while those living outside of the academy actually “create” society. They have a better understanding of the social world than we could ever hope to achieve.
This is why public sociology is so important to the development of sociological research. Public sociology allows the sociologist to emerge him or herself in society, joining non-academics in the creation of the social world. This participation endows us with a more intimate understanding of society while also educating the public about our discipline. Furthermore, it affords us the opportunity to affect social change in a positive way. This last bit is especially important. Sociologists are constantly fascinated by social problems such as racism, poverty, crime, violence, and sexism. We tend to observe these problems and leave it at that, believing that further involvement will somehow taint our research. This is ridiculous and morally offensive. As relatively affluent individuals, we are obligated to use our privilege to help ameliorate social problems. Do economists refrain from addressing economic issues? Of course not, and few people doubt the legitimacy of their research.
At this point you may be asking yourself what public sociology is. Ironically, sociologists are asking the same question. Many sociologists have attempted to define public sociology, yet few have agreed on a common definition. Also, public sociology is met with a large degree of resistance. Many sociologists worry that public sociology will corrupt traditional sociological research with values and opinions. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In any case, two issues must be resolved before public sociology becomes accepted as a legitimate endeavor. First, a common definition of public sociology must be established. Second, the myth of “value-free” research must be debunked. Sociology for the People is an attempt to resolve these issues. Please, follow this blog on a regular basis. Input and feedback from all walks of life are invaluable and more than welcome.
- Joshua Tuttle, George Mason University.