Chris Uggen's Blog: conferring with interested publics

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

conferring with interested publics

i did a conference call yesterday, tied to the release of on your own without a net: the transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations. the book has chapters on homelessness, mental health, juvenile justice, foster care, disabilities, mental disorders, and other issues. my piece with sara wakefield discussed difficulties facing young adults coming home from the criminal justice system. i think that conducting and disseminating research in interaction with affected communities is an important public sociology and policy sociology task. so, i'm usually happy to participate in such calls when i feel qualified.

here's how it worked. connect for kids publicized the date, time, and call-in number to its mailing list. some of these folks called in at the time to listen, email questions, or ask questions directly of the panelists. we had 5 presenters, each with about 10 minutes to talk before taking questions. we were asked to start with a brief review of the data in the chapter (e.g., trends), but then focus our remarks on policy solutions (e.g., what do we do about it?). approximately 130 people were listening, with a mix of policy folks, advocates, and on-the-ground practitioners and program coordinators.

the other presenters were real experts on their topics (e.g., john hagan on homeless adolescents, mark courtney on foster care) who did a terrific job speaking to the policy and practitioner audience. i too tried my best to give a responsible overview of the field without getting bogged down in statistics or jargon. everybody seemed to make 3 or 4 take-home points that were reasonable and constructive. relative to the call-in talk radio i've done, this audience seemed well-informed and quite expert in their fields.

that said, i was struck by the real-world concreteness of the questions relative to our 20,000-foot aerial view answers. for example, one woman with a teenage son in the mental health system asked for some guidance or suggestions on transitioning out of care, but we pretty much replied in abstractions and generalities. i would have been similarly stumped if a caller had asked whether her felony conviction prevented her from getting, say, a fireworks license in albuquerque, new mexico. even though i'd call myself an expert on felon exclusions, i'd likely do what any non-expert would: start googling. lacking much on-the-ground experience ourselves(or a staff to chase things down), individual academics have trouble bridging this gap. i learn a great deal from the journalists, practitioners, and felons who ask me questions (e.g., ohio? no I didn't know that. who is pushing the legislation? does it look like it will pass?), so i now make it a point to interrogate my interrogators whenever possible.

during yesterday's call-in questioning i had the distinct sense that the audience probably had more useful answers than the panelists -- and that they could help frame more interesting questions for the next round of research. for me, such conference calls illustrate burawoy's distinction between simply disseminating our work to affected publics versus doing work in dialogue with those publics. dissemination is a good and worthy endeavor, of course, and more of us should probably do more of it. engaging in dialogue with affected publics throughout the research process, however, might help produce rich scholarship of even greater utility.


At 4:34 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

Out of curiosity, and because I'm too lazy at the moment to look it up myself, are any of the authors social work researchers?

At 8:47 PM, Anonymous chris said...

it is a pretty interdisciplinary crowd, sarah. mark courtney is definitely a social work ph.d., but others are in med schools, psych depts, etc.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Brayden said...

I think sometimes academia suffers from an information problem. We have lots of ideas but many of them are redundant. Also, if we only talk to ourselves (discussing issues with other experts), we are creating a closed-system lacking in innovation. I obviously value academic knowledge, but interacting with the public in a learning fashion only makes our work better/more complete. So, basically, kudos for your efforts!

At 3:23 PM, Blogger michelle inderbitzin said...

This post strikes me as similar in some ways to thinking about the different strengths of quantitative and qualitative methods.

In general, quantitative analyses are more likely to give us the big picture--that "20,000-foot ariel view," that is really useful, but not particularly concrete. Qualitative analyses, on the other hand, offer great detail and insider views, but not a lot of "generalizability"--or so my reviewers like to tell me.

It seems that encouraging dialogue within our methods, as well as with our publics, would go a long way toward giving us a more complete picture of any social problem and its policy implications.

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous chris said...

thanks, brayden. i like your "closed-system" idea -- i tend to overuse the term "inbred" about our disciplines and (especially) subareas and (even more especially) sub-subareas. "closed" is really more accurate -- we need new inputs...

michelle, i hadn't thought about it that way, but more qualitatitively-oriented experts might have done a better job connecting with some questioners. they'd still lack the local knowledge that would make them really helpful for a specific case, but they might better understand the questions and better engage in the conversation.

maybe the best experts for such purposes would be multimethods folks. for my part, i'm hoping that the current emphasis on multiple-methods training is a trend and not a mirage.

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

It makes perfect sense that academics (or anyone speaking to a group in a different locality) might not have locally-relevant information or insight to share, but as a budding social work researcher, the idea that conducting research into social problems wouldn't lend itself to the ability to speak to tangible, practical situations (at least in a "general" yet not "abstract" way, with due regard for the fact that all knowledge is tentative and subject to refutation, and accompanied by an acknowledgement of one's own limitations in expertise) is a bit befuddling. Unfortunately, even in my own field I'm finding it's quite common. I guess I can't make much of an apology for my naivete.


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