Yesterday, I responded to critiques of “Lower Ed” with an explanation of what sociology is, how my sociological methods work, and what the research process is.
Today, I thought I’d expound some more on related issues.
People ask me a lot about “public sociology”. I put this in quotes because what people mean by it and what it actually means is always debatable.
There is a really long discussion in sociology about what public sociology is. You can read some things about that.
In the traditions where I most often locate my work, I think public sociology is the act of considering social problems and designing sustainable research that illuminates those problems. I’m mostly drawing on the tradition of black and black feminist sociologists here. You can see the more western male canonical discussion in work by Burawoy, for example.
Is my work public sociology? I don’t know.
I think about social problems.
I do a lot of my thinking in “public” via this blog, media outlets, and social media.
A lot of my work is publicly viewable, at least.
But, I do not do applied sociology or sociology in the service of a specific political project.
For students, especially, the difference might be instructive.
Throughout my academic career, however young it might be, various groups and projects have wanted me to say certain things. Most of this is about my academic microcelebrity, or the social networks and platforms I might bring to an issue.
Sometimes this is good natured. People respect you, what you do and think your interests align. That’s been true for me when I work with Dissent or AAUW or Fight for $15 or AFT-Higher Ed. Our interests align.
However, I have not been able to do the actual work of systematic social inquiry while holding a political agenda in mind. Maybe an example will help me split this admittedly very, very fine hair.
When I started blogging about my research I was in graduate school.
It became clear very early on that any nod I made to “agency” or “choice” among for-profit college students would be misconstrued by some as tacit approval of for-profit higher education. In fact, any political project I had in mind only wanted to resist the trend in research that assumed for-profit college students are stupid. Given that so many of those students are black women, my political project was that I never ever wanted to contribute to hegemonic constructions of black women as cognitively inferior to anybody anywhere. As far as biases go, it is one I can live with.
That meant that early I on I rejected using the “predator or prey” framing that was popular at the time. And, I resisted assuming that the dominant mode of higher education “choice” was rational or superior. That dominant mode assumed that everyone not only WOULD trade their left leg to go to Harvard (or, some sufficiently higher prestige option) but that they should do so. Because so many black students did not or could not do so, the assumption was that they were doing higher education “wrong”.
By rejecting this framing I inadvertently created an opening for less ethical actors to say, “see! for-profit colleges CHOOSE these schools ergo these schools are great.”
My challenge was how to get out of that trap?
The answer was in adhering closely to the sociological method. In my case that meant, drawing coding schemes from theory in the case of document analysis, using open coding of interview data to resist hegemonic ascription to respondents, and triangulating the hell out of every data source that I could.
None of these things would be useful political projects. For example, when I chose not to call students “victims” because it wasn’t emerging from my data or from theory I became much less useful for some political projects.
But, along the way, by resisting these frameworks I think I happened upon a much more interesting empirical story: consumer choice is not natural and customer demand is politically constructed. By focusing on this construction and how these students experience it, I did not serve any intermediate political goal. I do not go looking for fraud. I do not go looking for success stories. I do not go looking for outliers or an explanation of one person’s experience. By focusing on my level of analysis and methodological approach, I resisted the political project some people had in mind. But, in so doing, I found a much more sustainable political project: how and what is “bad” education?
I argue that bad education, or Lower Ed, is:
credential expansion created by structural changes in how we work, unequal group access to favorable higher education schemes, and the risk shift of job training, from states and companies to individuals and families, exclusively for profit (page 11)
I would never have gotten there if I had stayed stuck in the political quagmire of predator and prey.
I also would not be able to do my work if I had become stuck there. For every group interest that will speak to me because our politics align there are groups who never would for the same reason. In “Lower Ed” I include invaluable information from for-profit college leaders. Over and over people agreed to speak with me knowing my political leanings because, despite knowing them, they perceived me as fair.
Is that public sociology? Not by design, it isn’t. But in effect, hopefully so.