Large, windowless rooms, white walls, flowery carpet, rows of people: some with concentrated looks on their faces and others feverishly writing, powerpoint slides, authoritative gesturing, jargon, old theories, new ideas, lightheartedness, seriousness, warmth, self-importance…all things you’ll find at a typical sociological conference. Sure, conferences can be tiring, stressful, and even surreal but they’re pretty great too, even if you’re a newcomer or just an attendee. There are any number of opportunities to meet new people who share similar interests to your own. Conferences and networking seem to go hand-in-hand. There will most certainly be opportunities to hear people whose work you admire speak about their recent projects. This can be incredibly uplifting and inspiring.
The most recent conference I attended was the American Sociological Conference, the mother of all conferences. It was my first time attending and I was beside myself with all of the wonderful sessions and roundtables on offer. I heard some great papers and some less so (a colleague of mine warned me of this). All and all it was a good first giant conference. I made the very most of my time and I managed to sidestep fears about looking foolish by making sure I spoke up and asked questions. I came away knowing more about my own research areas and other areas that intrigue me but will have to wait idly-by while I focus my time on my PhD.
I also came away certain about something else. Sitting in those closed conference rooms surrounded by academics presenting to other academics, critiquing one another, just reinforced even more my desire to bring professional sociology to the public and the public to the insular, often exclusive world, of academia. Public sociology, if you’re not familiar, is a style of sociology that uses the knowledge it garners to benefit the societies it studies (PSA, 2013). The idea is to make sociological projects and interests accessible to audiences outside of the academy through discussion, information sharing, analysis, and so on. Most sociologists hope to use their research findings to influence public policy changes. This is an important part of what we do. But there are other ways we can involve people: open access journals and workshops, public conferences, collective organisations, mixed-discipline initiatives, and critical think tanks. The idea IS NOT to go rogue and abandon all critical practice. This is often the argument critics make of public sociology.
Sure, things are changing a bit; public sociology is gaining more credible ground. But like many ‘new’ areas of sociology it’s inspected with suspect eyes. Given what we do for a living I suppose we’ve only ourselves to blame for that one! All the same, I can’t help but think that professional sociology produces for itself and really only for itself. This is strangely ironic to me. I understand that the discipline as a whole needs professionals to ensure that the work produced is to a rigorous and high standard. But doesn’t it make sense that we include the people we study in solutions that affect them? They do have unique insight into their own lives. And doesn’t it also make sense to work with public advocates? Like academics, they too work long, hard hours and can provide a thoughtful and well-informed perspective. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water. We can be public and professional at the same time. We can be critical and open to ideas outside the profession. In my opinion, it would probably do us all some good. Besides, as Karen Sternheimer asks, aren’t we all really students of sociology?
Check out the following links for more information about public sociology: