Public Sociology at ASA14

Like a good sociologist, I joined my tribe in San Francisco this week for the annual American Sociological Association conference.

In addition to my usual fare, I conducted a pair of sessions/workshops on public sociology and digital media.

I have three social media maxims: be deliberate, be useful, be interesting. Each comes with risks and rewards that are different depending on who you are and what you are. I am honest about that with audiences.

The biggest takeaway for me, as a presenter, was the extreme amount of fear and confusion academics face as they consider speaking to publics. They are not wrong to be afraid. But, I tell them that fear has never made you safe. Indeed, it may only render you mute when you realize just how unsafe you are.

But moralizing and pontificating aside, I argue there are ways to manage the commitment of engaging publics with the work that “counts”, in the tenure and promotion sense. You cannot manage any of it until you know what you speak to, why you speak to it, and to whom you speak. The “expert to resource” guide is a way to get at that. The answers to those questions guide what media you consume, what audiences you engage, and when and how you engage them.

I promised the audience I’d share some of the information I alluded to in my presentation. I’ve put together some info from my slides, as promised. But, perhaps, the most important take-away is this.

Speaking of publics and sociology, I was struck by the gulf between ASA and the world as I stayed up until 3 am every night following the events in Ferguson, MO. As a black woman, I couldn’t choose not to engage the systematic disenfranchisement and violence inflicted on a mostly black community for daring to exercise their constitutional and human rights. As a sociologist, I thought this is where everything we do is made legible.

For sure, black sociologists were talking about Ferguson — in sessions, over coffee, in the lobby, with each other. And some critical sociologists bemoaned the field’s lack of engagement. But, where could we turn as a profession to converse, yes, but also to console each other during these times? It wasn’t clear that there was a place.

Then Judy Ludin sent a tweet, calling for sociologists to meetup to talk about Ferguson. Sociologists embedded in social media responded. A meeting was held. A set of actions were put forth. And a follow-up is in the works. In the meantime, support Black Lives Matter.

We are sociologists wherever we are. And if we’re good sociologists then we are where people are. To the question of why use social media, I always say why wouldn’t you? The word “social” is right there in the name.

I’d amend that to say, we are there because we are not just sociologists but because we are human. We live here, too.

That is the deal.

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What Is Left to Say?

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