The promise of public sociology

Published 10 months ago - 2

Think of the era we are in. Do you sometimes feel a sense of uncertainty and discord? It is understandable if you do. How many of you worry about how you will pay back your student loans in a time of pervasive wage stagnation and elusive middle class employment? We are more cognizant these days of mass shootings and gun violence; it gives us further pause when we realize that the likelihood of gun violence is far greater in the US than in other modern nations. How do you feel about the state of race relations in a time of mass incarceration and emboldened white nationalism? What crosses your mind when powerful men, from the president to Hollywood producers, engage in sexual assault and/or harassment? I would think such thoughts leave us with sadness, anger, and sometimes even despair.

Having said that, we may also look on in wonder and awe at the determination and resilience of the human spirit, and admire how changes to social institutions can indeed positively transform the lives of many. Just over a half century ago our nation held on to a regionally-based system of racial apartheid (i.e. Jim Crow segregation) and the opportunities for women to live independent lives were clearly blunted when compared to today. How do you feel knowing that you can no longer be kicked off of your health insurance plan due to a pre-existing condition? I would think such changes give us hope that things can get better.

Of course, this is what humans do: we collectively create these social forces that enable and constrain us. We develop ideas and they become codified into customs, laws, and social organizations; sometimes these forces appear as though they are created by an immutable force of nature and at other times we watch them collapse like a house of cards to see new systems come into being. This is a social fact and it is exactly what the discipline of sociology studies—those institutions and cultural systems that create pattern social relations and constitute our identities.

You would be mistaken, however, to see sociology as only an academic method to better understand the human condition. It is more. It is through sociology that we can both study the social world and engage it—and with sociology we can take on the major social issues of our time. This is what the great 20-century sociologist C. Wright Mills dubbed the “promise” of sociology. Today, it is what we in the discipline call “public sociology.” The practice of public sociology is to take the disciplinary skills of sociology to the public for the benefit of the greater good. Public sociology is about sharing important research to citizens that could transform their lives; it is about using sociology to create social and public policy; and it is about showing how sociology can be used in nonprofit and private enterprise. This is exactly what the sociologist Matthew Desmond did. He studied the low-income rental market where he found evictions are now common. He then wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted, created a nonprofit called to help low-income renters gain access to social and legal services, and now he writes for major media outlets and tours the nation talking about the eviction crisis. Desmond has met with politicians and has innovative ideas on how to reduce both eviction and poverty. Doesn’t that sound like appealing work? This is what sociology can do, and it is you who could be the next one to develop a nonprofit or business to solve a major social problem.

If you share these concerns and harbor such hopes, you should come major in sociology. Here at AC, you will find a newly designed curriculum that is built around the tenets of public sociology. Our goal is to provide you with the skills that will prepare you for both professional work and graduate school education—so that you can help make a difference in the social world. Please come visit us and learn more.


Professor Farough is a sociology professor at Assumption College. He is a staff writer for Le Provocateur.

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