Intellectual diversity, disciplines and public engagement

Why do psychologists and economists enjoy more prominence in the public sphere than sociologists? I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of days about what seems to me to be a failure of sociology to value or encourage media engagement by sociologists. It should go without saying that these aren’t the only reasons for the difference in visibility. It’s easier for psychologists and economists to talk confidently in terms of an accumulating body of knowledge because of the relative lack of dissensus within these disciplines. This shouldn’t lead us to minimise the methodological and theoretical disputes which occur within them, as much as to ask why these lead to growth outwards rather than fragmentation inwards? As this thoughtful review of Doug Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach by Priscilla Alderson put it,

One defence of our discipline’s diversity is that its adaptable rich variety can embrace numerous theories, methods and topics. However, variety does not preclude coherence, and coherence does not demand narrow uniformity – like the neoclassical mantras that now monopolise economics. Medicine is a hugely varied discipline yet, fortunately for society’s healthcare, it is unified by powerful common values and theories about causal realities. By contrast, and unfortunately for society’s wellbeing, sociology is split not only by disagreements but, more seriously, by basic contradictions: positivism accepts pristine independent social facts and aims to discover general laws, whereas interpretivism sees only local contingent variety; statistics and experiments are set against ethnography; sociology is variously taken to be value-free, relativist or a moral endeavour.

In this review, Alderson looks to social theory as something that could bring order to this mess. Not in the sense of imposing unity upon diversity but rather bringing divergent perspectives into the same intellectual space. In this sense, I share her aspiration to “position its many valuable insights and methods in relation to one another, showing how they connect and interact within larger relations, to be more like a coherent jigsaw puzzle in progress, rather than a heap of pieces”. But how else could we pursue this other than through social theory? I wonder if the internal diversity of disciplines and how they conduct external engagement are intrinsically linked?

I’d suggest that communicating sociological knowledge – as well as public engagement more broadly, though in a somewhat different way – should not be seen as something extrinsic to sociological inquiry. Instead, it can potentially bring order to the discipline, through forcing its practitioners to develop their capacity to contextualise, translate and apply knowledge outside of the academy. Particularly when the practitioner in question is working beyond their area of immediate expertise and talking in terms of the discipline as a whole. This could then be something that feeds back into the core of the discipline, both directly (research and teaching) and indirectly (their broader influence).

The challenge is how to ensure that we recognise, value and encourage these capacities. My hunch is that few of these conditions obtain at present. There’s certainly a widespread openness to public sociology but a disconnection between the rhetoric and the reality. Furthermore, working with the media and pursuing visibility seems by many to be seen as vaguely suspicious (or worse). What I’d like to understand is how these practical challenges which can easily be construed as being outside the discipline, in fact reproduce core intellectual features which many would see as problematic.

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