An interesting article on Savage Minds recently discussed public engagement within anthropology and its recent history. The author argues for the potential contribution which anthropologists are able to make within public debate and discusses her own experiences of seeking to do this:
“Anthropology,” James Peacock said in a 1995 address at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, “boasts brilliant observers, cultural critics, writers, and creators, yet few if any of us have produced books that we (not to mention others) crave to read, films that we crave to see, or music that we crave to hear.” Thirteen years have passed since Peacock spoke these words. So, have anthropologists today heeded his call? Are the crucial issues of our time receiving public reflection from anthropologists, if not in books, then in popular media? What are some of the obstacles that prevent us from doing so more often?
With every passing year, I see more anthropologists using their regional and topical expertise to weigh in on social issues in the media. In this post, I’d like to address two possible ways that we as anthropologists can communicate with a lay public—media appearances and Op-Eds– and the positives and negatives of both.
What particularly stood out was the parallel here:
To me, this issue of communicating with wider audiences is becoming increasingly crucial, particularly as anthropologists are constantly forced to defend the value of an anthropology degree in an environment that insists on quantifying knowledge. To write for the public is to demonstrate that anthropologists have knowledge, expertise, and thoughts worth considering, and that we value civic engagement. In a future post, I’ll offer some tips for writing Op-Eds, and also discuss how graduate programs and other entities, like the Center for Public Anthropology, are encouraging students to learn to engage with the public this way.
I’ve tried to make the corresponding point about sociology a lot, though have never done so in a way that left me feeling satisfied that I’ve managed to articulate my underlying belief adequately. As sceptical as I am about ‘Impact’ and ‘Public Engagement’ in their institutionalising and top-down manifestations, it seems blindingly obvious to me that sociology needs to actively and creatively represent itself through interventions outside the academy if it is to have any hope of securing its wider esteem and legitimacy in an increasingly inhospitable climate.
In theory much of this falls within the remit of ‘public sociology’ but, to be utterly frank, my defining experience of public sociology was a failed attempt to setup a public sociology group which led to countless hours of tedious arguments about what ‘public sociology’ is. It did lead to the production of this wonderful resource (the public sociology bibliography) but the experience was otherwise an extremely frustrating one.
I may be generalising wildly from an extremely particular set of circumstances but the intuition this left me with was that debates about ‘public sociology’ unfold at too high a level of abstraction. However I think the converse obtains with ‘public engagement’: I’ve been at the fringes of this for some time (e.g. I’m a Public Engagement Ambassador at the NCCPE) but the lack of any abstract vantage point, such as would consider purpose or politics, leaves me unwilling to jump any further into it. Though it’s worth noting that the reason the terminology of Public Engagement (with a capital ‘P’ and a capital ‘E’) seems so sterile to me might be that it’s purged of disciplinary specificity.
But as it stands I’m not sure where to get support in pursuing public engagement activities. I took a media skills session my university communications office offered a few years ago but other than that, it’s unclear to me what assistance is on offer. I’m lucky in that there’s a few people who are more established in their careers than I am who are happy to talk to me about issues related to working with the media. But on occasions where things have gone wrong or where I’ve struggled to make a decision about what to do (this happened very recently) some sort of organised support, perhaps at a disciplinary level, would have been really useful. I’m not sure what form this could take but even to have more online conversations about the practicalities of doing public sociology than currently take place (I do go looking for them) would be beneficial.
At present my experience is of there being no institutional support (or institutional recognition) for many of the things I do – in fact I’ve sometimes felt faintly embarrassed by it and kept it to myself. My assumption that this was an irrational reaction was challenged recently by hearing someone be described as a ‘media whore’ as a genuine term of abuse. But I like talking to print and broadcast journalists. I like producing websites and podcasts. I like trying to get media projects going (though I’ve yet to succeed). I like talking at non-academic events. I like organising exhibitions (hopefully coming soon after 3 years + of intermittent work). I like the idea of communicating my own work as widely as possible. I like the idea of writing books that popularise the work other people have done.
It’s this affective dimension which I find so utterly missing in institutionalised conversations about public engagement i.e. why this activity matters to people. But for me at least, it leads naturally to practical questions about discussing projects and comparing experiences – it’s this space of discussion, affectively laden but orientated towards practical activity, which seems stuck in the middle between public sociology and public engagement. Occupying this ground was actually my initial idea for what The Sociological Imagination would be but it soon transmuted into something quite different. It’s also something I’m keen to incorporate into the remit of the BSA Digital Sociology group but it remains to be seen whether the broader set of questions gets squeezed out so only the digitally orientated ones are left. Writing this post has also reminded me that I started creating this Bundlr (Getting Started: Public Engagement for Social Scientists) some time ago but never got round to finishing it – any suggestions for inclusion are much appreciated.
In short I don’t think sociology in general (and digital sociology in particular) has a demand problem – at least not in the way that some might assume. However I think an apparatus for supporting public sociology is crucial if we accept it as axiomatic that greater public engagement by sociologists is a good thing.