By Kimberly J. Cook

Sociologists are currently debating the utility and applicability of “public sociology” and many argue that we can harness its potential for alleviating suffering in our communities – for various ‘publics’.

Sociology is Public Sociology when it includes the following:

  • A sociological theoretical framework for outlining the nature of the social problem being addressed.
  • A current and comprehensive examination of the sociological literature on the social problem.
  • Sociological research methods either developing empirical measures or analyzing empirical evidence (quantitatively or qualitatively, official sources and ethnographic sources, etc) exploring the nature of the social problem.
  • Dissemination in conventional scholarly outlets (peer-reviewed journals, university or academic press publishers, etc.) as well as dissemination for broader public use (such as testimony to Congress, or presentation to the City Council,) to advocate for a sociologically-informed solution to the social problem.

As scholars who are engaged in public sociology work, we identify the social problems we wish to explore by understanding the existing sociological research on the topic and we explore the existing theoretical frameworks that shape our approach to collecting and analyzing data in our public sociology projects.  Dissemination of these findings to the publics we study is critical.  We may develop policy recommendations based on the engaged scholarship of the problem, or help community leaders and organizers work toward a project’s goals.

Public Sociology is not inherently politically liberal or conservative. For example, at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, we define our “publics” broadly, and include local, national, and global issues with which to engage in.

It’s critical for Sociology departments to outline reasonable parameters for supporting public sociology as part of building a credible and successful program.  Each department needs to define for itself what ‘public sociology’ means and how it is to be evaluated for promotion and tenure purposes.  I strongly recommend to so on the basis of existing published research and analysis to apply the best practices in public sociology. There is no need to reinvent the wheel given the ASA’s guidelines, though there may be a need to tweak some elements to suit specific circumstances.

Public sociology, when undertaken in the way we have done so, is very labor-intensive.  For candidates being reviewed for RPT, there is a need to define what ‘counts’ and how it counts.  I recommend the following parameters:

  • Public sociologists should publish their community-based research in peer-reviewed outlets whenever possible.
  • Public sociologists should get ‘scholarly’ credit for programming grants that fund their community-engaged scholarship.
  • Public sociologists should get ‘scholarly’ and ‘teaching’ credit when they and their students make research-based presentations in public settings (for example, presentations to a city council).
  • Public sociologists should get teaching credit for the intensive individualized instruction required to conduct community-based research with teams of students.
  • Public sociologists should get service credit, as well, for maintaining strong and productive working relationships with community partners.
  • Public sociologists would be well-advised to secure support from their departmental colleagues in advance of launching a public sociology project in order to prevent unpleasant rejection after the fact.
  • Public sociology demands open and regular communication within the department to understand and evaluate the parameters and the rewards for the work to be done. The ASA Taskforce on Institutionalizing Public Sociologies has created a set of recommendations for Research Promotion and Tenure that departments may use in reviewing public sociology activities.

The academic discipline of sociology has experienced a revitalization of our purpose and our value thanks, in part, to public sociology.  Sociologists can take the original inspiration of that age old question “so what?” and transform the answers into building community work in our local, national, and global world.  Taking the lessons and wisdom of our discipline beyond the classroom walls and out in the community provides a value-added incentive for our students to pursue.  Our students come to our classes from multiple life experiences, some are lives of comfort and expectation, others are lives of struggles and insecurity; all of them deserve the best that sociology has to offer.  We must perpetually reflect on JoAnn Miller’s question, “whose life am I affecting and how?”  I am convinced that once students embrace public sociology their training takes on an added dimension that prepares them for life after college. The theories they learn become flesh and blood people whose names they know, whose desires they understand, and whose lives they value.  The empirical evidence they collect and then disseminate in their projects is credible and concrete material that helps them realize the promise of sociology while also creating meaningful social change.  To quote Ellsworth Faris as my final thought, “ours is a profession of the highest dignity. There is every reason to hope by our efforts human welfare may be advanced.”

Dr. Kimberly J. Cook is chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington, and co-author of the forthcoming book Life After Death Row: Exonerees Search for Community and Identity (2012, Rutgers University Press).  Her faculty page can be found here:

This post was excerpted from the 2011 North Carolina Sociological Association Presidential Address: “Realizing the Promise of Sociology: Going Public and Enriching Community” The address can be read in its entirety here:

(Recommendations for) Realizing the Promise of Public Sociology

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