Monday, August 27, 2007

regarding the purported glory days of public sociology

For whatever reason, after a couple different exchanges with the proprietors in which we believed the problem to be fixed, I am still not able to comment at Orgtheory (boys, eventually I'll start to take this personally). Fabio has a post about a speech that Orlando Patterson gave on the occasion of Malcolm Gladwell receiving the ASA award for "Excellence in Reporting of Social Issues." Says Fabio:
Patterson noted that until the 1970s or so, you had quite a few sociologists who captured the public’s imagination such as David Riesman and C. Wright Mills. After that time, prominent sociologists decreased in the public imagination.
Fabio raises several hypotheses for why you might believe Patterson or not. On the negative side, I would like to raise another, which is just that ideas of the existence of "quite a few sociologists who captured the public's imagination" then as opposed to now is wildly overblown. Evidence? If Fabio had just included blanks instead of the names of Riesman and Mills, experienced sociologists would have guessed exactly which two names to fill in. If there was such a public sociology efflorescence back then, why wouldn't there be a larger pool of salient examples? (Especially since The Lonely Crowd was published in 1950 and The Power Elite in 1956, and apparently Patterson was talking about a 20-30 year period.)

Not even to mention that Tuesdays with Morrie probably outsold The Power Elite and The Lonely Crowd combined. Why doesn't sociology do more with its Tuesdays with Morrie legacy. I say, Every Day With Morrie!*

BTW, Dan has written an enthusiastic post about Gladwell's acceptance of the award. Meanwhile, I seem to remember being on a panel at the Eastern Sociological Society meetings this spring in which another panelist, a sociologist of some prominence, alleged with considerable irritation that Gladwell interviewed the sociologist Duncan Watts for three days for the Tipping Point and then wildly undercredited his contribution in the book.

* OK, so I don't actually say that. However, I do have a friend who has talked about getting an EDWM tattoo.

Update: Thanks to Brayden, the commenting problem appears resolved.


Dan Myers said...

I share that view of Tipping Point, by the way. But I guess when you play in a tribute band, you neither use footnotes, pay royalties, or observe copyrights.

kristina b said...

Ouch! I guess not all sociologists love Gladwell then, eh?

In any event, thanks Jeremy, for these comments and links. This is a subject that is near and dear to me. It was, in the moment, easy to get caught up in the "Yeah, what about the good old days??" bandwagon. But you are, of course, right! There really were no glory days as such. That doesn't mean there can't be now, though!

Actually, I don't care that much about popularization... I care much more about policy-makers listening to social scientists before making social policy decisions.

jeremy said...

Kristina: At least, I think the glory days are easily overstated, especially given a tendency to collapse 20-30 years of the discipline's history like it was all sort of happening at once and then compare it to now.