When we decided to pivot the Berkeley Journal of Sociology to public sociology, we had to take stock of what was done before us. To guide us in our own project of relaunching a public sociology journal platform, we sought out resources for academic social scientists to translate their research to the public in meaningful ways. Going Public (UChicago Press, 2017) was high up on our list. A collaboration between sociologists Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels that started over a meal of Korean dumplings, Going Public is a pathbreaking field guide for academics to connect their work with policymakers, the public, experts, and journalists in the digital age. It is an affirmation of the sustaining power of words to resist domination. Beyond using Going Public as a resource, we thought, what better way to relaunch our public sociology issue than to interview Arlene and Jessie about Going Public now? In the conversation that followed, we covered a range of topics, including the intersection of the personal and the professional, the changing norms of academic publishing, and of course, what public sociology means to them today.
BJS: To start, we’re really interested in hearing more about how you see yourselves as sociologists and your journey to sociology.
Arlene Stein (AS): I identify as a sociologist, a public sociologist of sorts, an activist, and a writer. My academic work has mainly been in the areas of sexuality studies and gender, and also political sociology and the sociology of culture. When I was at Berkeley, I was heavily involved in trying to carve out a niche for people who were interested in sexuality and LGBTQ studies. I had also come to graduate school with a background in community organizing. So, I was interested in figuring out a way of putting my organizing knowledge into practice in some shape or form. I had known Jessie and was a fan of her work, so I invited her to join my little plan to put together a guidebook for scholars who are interested in public-facing work.
Jessie Daniels (JD): So Arlene was a friend for a while and invited me out for Korean dumplings one night, and I knew she wanted to ask me something, I didn’t know what it was. And she was like, I’m thinking about doing a book on public sociology. I’m like, cool, awesome, pass the kimchi. She was like, I’d like you to be a co-author. And I was like, what’d you say? So yeah, that’s the genesis of how this book started. For me, I’ve always been interested in both writing for public audiences and how sociology could be more public facing. I was born and raised in Texas, I did my PhD at the University of Texas at Austin and then did a postdoc with Patricia Hill Collins at University of Cincinnati. It was also when the popular Internet was on the rise. And I was like, you know what, I’m gonna peace out and go work in a dot-com, so I did that thing and that was absolutely cool and fun while it lasted. Then I got laid off and went back into academia through a very circuitous route. But that kind of unconventional career drove home for me my early interest in public sociology and emphasized for me how important it was to reach a broader audience beyond the academy. My work has been mostly focused on white supremacy. I started out doing that in my dissertation which became my first book. And then because of the rise of the internet, I started looking at white supremacists online which led to my interest in digital sociology. I think that there’s a big Venn diagram of digital sociology and public sociology, and there’s a lot of overlap between those two.
BJS: Can you tell us more about what sorts of public sociology projects you’ve been involved with in your career, and also some active ones that you’re a part of now?
AS: When I was at Berkeley in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was really inspired by a lot of the faculty there, who were public intellectuals. They were involved in speaking to broader publics about their work and they wrote in ways that were engaged and accessible. They wanted to speak to more than simply other sociologists. I’m thinking about people like Robert Bellah, Arlie Hochschild, Todd Gitlin, and others. But it seemed to me that we students were never actually trained to do that kind of work. I always dabbled in journalism on the side, and I was always engaged in trying to reach a broader audience. But the longer I spent in academia, the less equipped I felt in doing that. I had kind of unlearned how to write for “real people.” I found that very frustrating, so one of my goals was to try to figure out how to talk about and build skills among academics to do more public facing intellectual work. For a long time I would write for New York Newsday, which is now defunct, about research I was doing. Then as editor of Contexts magazine, I spent a lot of time working with other sociologists to translate their work to broader audiences, which was fun but also really, really challenging because very few people knew how to write in that way. It’s not something that you automatically know, it’s something that you have to figure out and it’s a skill set that needs to be taught.
JD: I actually have a weird origin story on public sociology, which I don’t even think Arlene knows. When I was in graduate school, there was a period of time where I thought about doing a dissertation on the daytime television talk shows that were popular then. So at the time it was Phil Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Oprah, those were the big four, and they were on every afternoon. I was always intrigued by the fact that there were always psychologists on there, and I was like, you really need a sociologist on this panel. I sort of went down that path for a while figuring out talk shows and why sociologists weren’t on there and actually interviewed some of the producers of those different shows. I ended up not doing that, obviously, as my dissertation. But that idea was still with me. And I talked to people about it at the time, like “why aren’t sociologists on TV?” I worked with Joe Feagin at UT Austin, who is a really great sociologist, and the big project that I worked on with him was called Living With Racism, which went to Beacon Press (a trade press) so it was definitely written with a broad audience in mind. Joe and I had a lot of conversations about what the general reader, like a smart person but not an expert, would understand. I did that postdoc with Patricia Hill Collins [where] I had this dissertation on the Klan and assorted other groups, and the postdoc was about transforming the dissertation into a book. I talked with Pat Collins about it a lot, and part of my idea was maybe I was going to do this high theory thing, you know, like Judith Butler, Diana Fuss, or whatever. Collins said don’t do that. She said, write the book for a smart undergraduate audience and it will serve you better and it will last longer. And damn was she right. I mean that book came out in 1997 and people are still assigning and reading that book. So Joe Feagin and Pat Collins were really my guides on being a public sociologist. I have to shout out to Christine Williams, too. She was on my committee at UT Austin and she was great at helping me formulate how to write analytically, but also for a popular audience. I ended up becoming a sociologist because I wanted to write about the world around me.
AS: Reflecting upon your question about how we came to do this work, for me it was also a product of my own class background. I’m the first person in my family to go to college. I didn’t come from an intellectual background. It was always very important to me to try to speak to people in my world to the extent that I could. It was always my goal to try to bridge the place that I came from, which I suppose would be the lower-middle working class, and the middle class academic world I had entered.
JD: I also come from a not-privileged class background, although more complicated than yours, I think in some ways. My father went to college, but didn’t graduate because he was pissed at one professor, and my mother never finished high school, so they had really different class positions. I also think we haven’t talked about queerness yet. For me, being queer and being from a lower class background made me feel like I could never be a part of the academy in that kind of way. I never thought that I was gonna publish in the ASR since I thought it wasn’t my audience. One of the key early influences for me was Ida B. Wells and The Red Record and journalism certainly claims Ida B. Wells to be its godmother. And I think sociology should too, because The Red Record is really sociology. And I wrote my Master’s thesis on lynching and this one professor that I had, who shall remain nameless, told me that it was magazine writing and “not sociology.”
AS: Well, Jesse, you bring up this statement, “this is not sociology,” which is what I think both of us have heard at various points during our career and have had to push back on. I think it unnecessarily creates barriers to doing more interdisciplinary, more creative kinds of work. Nobody really knows what sociology is. I was drawn to sociology because I was told that sociology is the only field where you can basically study anything. And I thought that was incredibly exciting. And I think we should embrace that virtue, which isn’t to say that we should be able to write just anything and call it sociology. But the claim that we often hear that “this is not sociology” makes us very timid about trying to push the boundaries and break out and do really interesting work.
BJS: That’s super interesting. Our next question relates to your book Going Public. We were
wondering, who was your explicit audience for this book when you were writing it?
AS: Not everybody aspires to write for broader audiences, but many people out there do want to do this work. So we wrote it for them. We also wrote it for graduate students, as a way of saying, this is something that you can do, which is legitimate. There are tools that you can draw upon, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
JD: I really thought of it as an early career and graduate student book. One of our inspirations was Howard Becker’s “Writing for Social Scientists.” And it’s part of why we worked really hard to include illustrations in the book, because Becker had done it. There are some lessons from Becker’s book that are certainly still relevant and we weave those in, but I think we’re also in a new moment now. That’s part of why we wrote Going Public.
AS: I’m glad you brought that book up, Jessie, because that really was an initial inspiration that I completely forgot about. Becker has a really nice way of writing, in a very kind of informal style that draws people in and to the extent that we could, we wanted to replicate that.
JD: I think as the authors of this book it’s also like, “we’re your aunties in sociology and we’re here to help.” As Arlene mentioned earlier, there aren’t many great models for the actual practical aspects of how to do public sociology. The book was really intended as a “let’s break this down for you,” in this very inviting voice that we tried to cultivate in the text.
BJS: That’s really interesting to hear that you had graduate students in mind with this book. I actually got the sense that it was written for social scientists who were perhaps more established in their research already and had a whole research agenda going where they could translate their findings to the public. So we were wondering if you had specific advice for grad students in terms of navigating both public sociology and the benchmarks of academic production, at this current moment?
AS: Yeah, those are real concerns. The academic job market is even more competitive now so it’s important that you publish in academic journals before you go in the job market, if that’s what you’re planning to do. So how do you do and write public sociology? Some of us do it because we just love to do it and we want to make time in our lives for it. But it makes sense that as a graduate student, you probably would want to prioritize your academic writing. You’re right that, in some ways, the book is geared toward people who actually already have a research program of some sort. It offers people a kind of toolbox for how to translate their work for larger audiences. But at the same time, my hope was that it would be a kind of resource guide for graduate students to get their hands on as well. Even if they’re not able to or they don’t have the time to do that work at this moment, just knowing that there is a tradition of public sociology out there. It’s got a name, it’s got legitimacy, which is an important thing.
JD: I really see the book in some ways as a legitimation exercise. It’s like, you don’t even have to read it. You just have to hold it up and show it to your committee. It’s a thing that exists! I also think that there have been some extraordinary sociologists who do both things at once. I mean, not everyone can be a Tressie McMillan Cottom. What she’s doing is just exemplary, right? I mean, on the public facing side, she’s written Thick, which is a collection of essays and was a National Book Award finalist. In my digital sociology master’s thesis class, I assigned her work on when platform capitalism is racial capitalism. And it’s just so clearly written, peer-reviewed sociology. So I think that in some ways, people see folks like Tressie and see that you can write for a public audience and be a well-respected sociologist. And I think that’s a very, very good thing for the discipline and for society.
AS: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because I think there is now a little boom within public sociology. Tressie is probably the highest profile person who’s doing that kind of work at the moment. There’s also Matt Desmond, Eric Klinenberg, and more recently, Grace Cho, Zeynep Tufekci, and others. The list is growing. Hopefully, it will have an influence in broadening the ways we can envision the kind of work that we do.
BJS: From where you stand now, within sociology and with the public, I’m curious what your thoughts were on how public sociology work is actually integrated and valued in the discipline? Using specific tools, strategies, or platforms to communicate research to the public can be more individual micro level strategies of change rather than addressing the larger field itself. I’m wondering to what extent this legitimization exercise for public sociology has been successful?
AS: I think it’s been slow. I was, for a while, part of a subcommittee in the American Sociological Association on publicly-engaged scholarship and we were trying to put together guidelines to circulate to different graduate programs about how to create a different reward structure for public-facing work. It eventually resulted in the crafting of guidelines which give people a language and a way of thinking about how to value work that deviates from standard journal-based publication. It seems as though there is a movement afoot, a kind of internal conversation about how to value public scholarship, and how to consider it in terms of the promotion process.
JD: I think it’s still very patchwork across the US. I write in the last part of the book about the process of making your public work legible to the institution. I think that there’s a kind of reverse translation that the individual scholar has to do. It’s like, oh, I was in this incredible venue where I spoke to a million people. And the institution is like, “is that a peer reviewed journal?,” and you’re like, “no, but this is making a difference in the world,” and you have to explain it to the people in the institution. So that’s what I mean by making it legible to the institution, you have to translate it back to them in a way that’s meaningful for them. I think one of the biggest changes since we published the book has been the ramp up of the far right who are going after higher ed, which we didn’t really grapple with that much. I’m talking about organizations like Turning Point USA who are really going after academics. Institutions who traditionally have been, “oh, you are on CNN, awesome!” Now, institutions are like, “yeah, you were in CNN, but then we got all this troll activity from the far right, and some of our donors are from the far right, so we’re not exactly sure how we feel about that.” So the reverse translation back to the institution is actually much more complicated now, I think, because of the political environment that we’re in. I don’t have an easy solution for that. My own experience has been a lot of educating the people in my institution higher up, like the dean and the provost and the president.
AS: Universities do love it when their faculty members are in the public eye, unless the work that they do is super controversial.
JD: Exactly. Then they’re conflicted. Because they’re like, is this gonna hurt our donor base? Is this hurting our reputation?
BJS: So is there any advice you would have for graduate students balancing both academic research and public engagement in this current environment?
AS: Our democracy is failing. We need intelligent progressive voices to be out there in the public eye. Younger people are taking on the important issues of the day. Sociology is not an ivory tower discipline and should never be practiced as such. The people that you work with, if you choose wisely, will support you in that. I always tell my students that you’ve got to choose your dissertation committee according to insure that their values as academics are compatible with your own. There are many scholars who value publicly engaged work. They might not do it themselves. But if they’re going to hold you back, if that’s what you’re interested in, you probably don’t want them on your committee. This isn’t to say that you should necessarily make your public work front and center, but it should be one of the hats that you might wear.
JD: It’s also about who’s your reference group? Who’s the group whose opinion you care about? A long time ago, I let go of the idea of being rewarded within sociology, and I do work on white supremacy and nobody’s giving out ribbons for that these days. (laughs)
AS: Don’t let the voices within your department keep you from doing what you really want to do. When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, I considered writing a dissertation about lesbian feminism. There were people who said to me, that is career suicide. You will never get a job if you write about such things. But you have to follow your passion in your heart, and your political goals. There will always be people who tell you that this is not professional, or this is not marketable, or this is not sociology, or this is career suicide, or so on and so forth. You have to be very careful not to allow those people to completely shape your research agenda and your professional life.
BJS: Going back to the book Going Public, we were curious about the response it has gotten from other sociologists in the field, or if you had any anecdotes about people who have actually read or implemented the book into their work?
JD: There’s this one guy on Twitter that loves it, he tweets about it almost every week. I’m really grateful to him.
AS: It’s pretty funny, he really does tweet about it like every other day.
JD: I adore him.
AS: Jessie thinks that he might be a bot.
JD: And I don’t care. I still love it.
AS: Well, you know, one thing about academic publishing is you often don’t hear very much in the way of response unless people really hate what you’ve done. (laughs)
JD: I actually use the book in a course I teach at the Graduate Center (CUNY) for PhD students called Writing for Publication. So I get a little more of an up-close reaction to the book in some ways. When we wrote the book, we certainly tried to make it one voice, but Arlene really took the first half and I took the second half. I still feel like Arlene’s part is much more useful for my graduate students right now than the second half on the digital aspect just because it goes out-of-date so quickly. If you can write something that’s useful for your students, then your book has found an audience. Several people have remarked that they really liked the “Perils of Going Public” chapter about the blowback that you can get especially at this moment and they found it comforting to know that they’re not alone.
BJS: That leads really well to our next question. What are both of your thoughts on how public and media engagement might be different for academics from marginalized backgrounds compared to others?
JD: There are a couple things going on. One is that, for those of us who occupy marginalized spaces or marginalized identities, for queer, working-class, people of color, women, trans people, whatever the category is, if we come into the academy, I think the stakes are different because, as Arlene was alluding to at the beginning, people who are marginalized are more invested in making a difference. I think that is especially true for people who come from communities of color, because they often want to speak back to their own communities, which is not something that the academy is necessarily interested in. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that those of us with marginalized identities in the academy are often the most vulnerable in the academy. We’re the ones who are less likely to be a full professor, less likely to have tenure, more likely to be precariously employed as adjuncts, or less likely to have a union that represents them. The combination of those two things, like my marginalized identity is making me want to speak out and that may mean that I’m in a more vulnerable position. I think that those two things come together at a particular moment in our political history, where the far right totally gets that equation in a way that people who are running the academy seem to not be able to understand.
AS: If we wrote our chapter on the “Perils of Going Public” today, we’d have to add a great deal. Things have gotten more dangerous because, as Jessie has been saying, the far right is out there and they’re not holding back. Women of color in particular are being targeted. Doing this work is more dangerous than it was when we first published the book.
JD: Yeah, I have a colleague here at CUNY, who’s on another campus, and she has no social media presence whatsoever. She wrote a peer-reviewed journal article about mathematics education, but there was something about whiteness in the title and the far right is trolling peer-reviewed journal titles, not reading the article, just reading the titles and they went after her, and tried to get her fired. So it’s not just about social media presence, like if you would just shut your mouth on social media, then you could skate by. No, it’s the routine function of our jobs as academics that are now more open because of digital technologies and the far right gets that and they are using that because they’re innovation opportunists. They see this innovation in the way that we do our jobs as academics, they see that as an opening, and they are running a bulldozer through it.
BJS: We have a retrospective question to start wrapping things up. A lot has changed since 2017 in a series of social reckonings, with COVID, #MeToo, BLM, the most recent election, etc. Especially with COVID, we’ve seen how important it is to communicate science with the public. So looking back now, what would you add? What do you think is missing? What would you change?
AS: I think what has changed most is the social media environment. You’re the expert, Jessie, what would you say to that?
JD: I think about revision a lot, and I don’t know that I would revise this book. For me, it’s kind of a moment in time, and I think it serves a particular purpose. There should be a different book now. I have actually thought about writing a book about the far right’s attack on higher ed. But that’s not this book, which is meant to be helpful to graduate students and early career researchers and other people.
AS: The last thing I would say is that teaching can be a really important form of publicly engaged work. Michael Burawoy has made that argument very powerfully. Even if you don’t do the kind of public work that we’re talking about, by teaching engaged sociology in the classroom, you’re also doing public work that is really important.
JD: Yeah, I would actually end with something about writing. I think that clear, powerful writing is a tremendous force for good. I got this wonderful email from a student from one of my classes this semester, and I’m just going to read it really quickly. He wrote: “Early this semester, you said ‘good sentences, paragraphs, and essays are a way to resist forces of domination.’ This changed my view on the power of writing, and it’s something I think about frequently.” The big takeaway is that ideas matter. It’s important that we get our ideas out into the world to resist all the terrible rain that’s raining down on us.
BJS: Thank you both so much. This has been really inspiring for us. Thank you!