Chris Uggen's Blog: talking to ourselves

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

talking to ourselves

garrison keillor read from the new edition of homegrown democrat in coffman union last night, the very campus building in which he began his broadcasting career. mr. keillor, a great friend to the minnversity and public education, spun a warm yarn about being entrusted with an important responsibility during this formative period. shortly after arriving on campus as a freshman, he was given his own 15-minute radio newscast on wmmr.

i never got a newscast as a wizversity freshman, but i was similarly baptized by fire at the daily cardinal. i got to write music reviews -- complete with tickets, albums, and coveted backstage passes -- after only a few days on campus. i only completed a handful of articles, but it was thrilling to find myself writing for a mass audience of my peers. live radio must have been way more exciting for an 18-year-old.

wmmr was then a low-power "carrier current" station, broadcasting only to the dorms and other campus buildings. nevertheless, mr. keillor reported that he offered authoritative newscasts throughout the school year. unfortunately, due to a an engineering problem, he claims that his broadcasts never left the control room. so, in essence, he was talking to himself -- presenting well-written and sonorous newscasts to an audience of one.

the story may be a slight exaggeration, but it reminds me of the dissemination problem in sociology and academic work more generally. are we talking to ourselves?

well, our journal circulation figures remain in the low thousands and rarely hit five digits. for example, the american sociological review appears to have a circulation of about 11,500, sociology of education is much lower at approximately 2,800, contexts gets about 2,500, and sociological theory comes in around 2,300 subscribers. by comparison, blogs such as crooked timber likely exceed these numbers on a daily basis. for my part, i doubt that any of my academic publications have ever reached as many as the 45,000 subjected to my abominable cardinal music reviews or my goofy stream-of-consciousness blog.* i bet that the asa website gets plenty of traffic, but only a small subset of the articles are ever available online.

i know that many folks search out and read library copies of our journals, but can't we do a bit more in the age of google? i'd like to see our discipline think long and hard about how we might increase the readership and ensure distribution of the material we work so hard to write and edit and review. while i'm at it, i might as well ask for a serious analysis of the economics of free and immediate online availability, and whether such costs could be offset by new revenue streams and distribution channels. personally, i'd love to spread the word about the great new papers i read, but feel frustrated that i can't link to them for students and non-academics who stop by to read my coursepages or blog.**

but maybe that's just me. if i heard his introduction correctly, garrison keillor now speaks to 3,300,000 listeners on 586 stations per week, so his audience has increased by 3,299,999 in four decades. doesn't the very best scholarship in our discipline merit the attention of an audience that is, say, 1 percent that of the praire home companion? i'd say that 33,000 readers per week -- scratch that, i'm feeling bold; let's make it 330,000 page loads per week -- would be a reasonable start.

*jeff and i did an la times op-ed that might have reached a million readers, but that's a (too) rare occurrence in (my) academic life.

**i've got a related rant about style and presentation, which gets into thornier issues of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, but i'll save that for another post.


At 11:08 PM, Blogger Mike W. said...

I am the editorial assistant for a sociology journal. Sadly, I think I talk to more people at the bar on any given weekend than subscribe to the journal.

Part of me wonders if this is just a reflection of the non-sociological public not knowing what the hell sociology is. If I had a nickel for each time I was mistakenly described by a friend/relative as a "social worker," I wouldn't need to pursue a tenure track position.

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

I think it cuts both ways, Mike. I am continuously pelted with, "So what are you getting your PhD in? Sociology, right?" It's as if there's no category for academic social work - don't social workers help people?

At 12:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What unique function does social work have that is not claimed by another discipline? When I think of therapy, it competes with psychiatry and psychology. When I think of social services, welfare, family, poverty, etc., public policy, sociology, and law come to mind. Social work does have a unique set of exams for professional certification, but it has a lot of competition from other disciplines.

Sociology is very theory based, but also suffers from a lack of application. Benefits are not immediately seen, and there is not a great deal of visible prestige to lend it credability. I think its a hard sell in a market-based, individualistic society where it is seen more as a study of the 'irrational' not covered in psychology.

Like great art, maybe these fields are a form of conspicuous consumption. Building onVeblen, individuals obtain doctoral degrees and positions at a university for the purpose of the sole purpose of finding and validating forms of esoteric knowledge. A sort of intellectual capital with no use, and therefore quite valuable for an intellectual elite. By extension, public sociology is the demonstration of such applied knowledge to non-sociologists. When non-sociologists pick up pieces of this knowledge [say, buying copies of Locked Out and discussing it as a means of democratic reform], it becomes emulation by the masses.

Uggenites, anyone?

At 7:07 AM, Blogger Radio Free Newport said...

I get the same reaction as my pal Mike W, and when it's not social work, it's psychology, as in someone saying, "you're probably analyzing everything I'm saying right now, aren't you?" (Maybe a valid comment if they know about conversation analysis!)

Chris, this is absolutely one of my biggest frustrations with sociology. In fact, it's one of the many reasons I left after one year of PhD work in my first stint in graduate school: the whole enterprise started to feel pointless.

There is much that can be said about this issue, but I'd sum it up with an anecdote from the 2004 ASA meetings. At one of the big plenary sessions, and after much talk about the importance of public sociology, a grad student asked William Julius Wilson what a young scholar should do given the current framework of academia.

You know his answer, of course: "wait until you have tenure." Great!

Until the powers that be are willing to reform the way tenure is evaluated -- and I completely understand why it's a thorny issue -- nothing will change.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Kim said...

I've always wanted to tell someone I'm a marine biologist (per Seinfeld), but I've never had the nerve.

According to a labor economist friend of mine, telling non-academics that you're an economist also has its perils: as soon as he mentions his field, he gets innundated with requests for stock market tips.

At 5:12 PM, Blogger Woz said...

I, too, am one of many who gets mistaken for a social worker or psychologist (or get the "what the hell is sociology?" response), but I think it comes from lower academia as well. Lower academia, of course, being the term reserved for all school that is not higher academia.

Anyway, I'm reminded of the fact that in high school, sociology was the class that was only offered when a new coach was hired and they needed a phony teaching position to justify their existance (in Iowa, only teachers may coach high school athletics). As such, you can imagine the class was of little interest to anyone but athletes, though this may explain their prevalence in college sociology programs.

At 4:28 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

Anonymous has asked a question which may very well appear on my prelim next fall. I don't think I'll suck up the space on Uggen's blog with my long-winded (many worded?) and (at this point) inconclusive answer. Social work is inherently applied and interdisciplinary. Thanks to Abraham Flexner, the field/discipline has been mired in a century-long identity crisis over this very issue. A good search of the lit would produce the various aruguments...


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