One test to see if your argument is a work of social science is to find out if the people you are writing about learn something from the concepts you develop or the analysis you provide. “We’re glad you’re telling our story” can be very important but it’s not really sociology.
This is just as true if you’re writing about your own community or if you’re writing about other communities. The point is that good social science, at least as I see it, gives some sort of concept or analysis or causal story/mechanism that *explains* some element of social life.
Some social scientists can coast on the fact that many of the folks hearing talks or reading articles or books don’t know what is actually quite obvious to our respondents or the people we describe. What seems insightful to other academics can be banal to the people we study.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Telling stories can be important for political and personal reasons, and sometimes academics are in positions to tell stories that need to be told, even if the people the stories are about already know them. But I’m not sure it’s sociology.
For example, I love teaching @DumiLM’s book about racism in suburban schools because the book is great at fusing theoretical analysis with describing a situation that needs attention even if his respondents are well aware both race and class matter in suburban school inequality.
There’s a lot going on in that. The first is that any description is already laden with theory, politics, and broader normativity. Part of our role as social scientists, at least as I see it, is to use our training to manifest the implicit.
So @DumiLM brilliantly uses theoretical and methodological training to explain not only what he’s seeing but why others have not been able to see it before. And that model strikes me as how sociology is helpful to respondents in ways beyond the key task of raising awareness.
Someone might ask the question will which matters more: raising awareness to a wide group of people about something respondents already know or developing a key analytical insight that respondents find insightful but only academics ever encounter. And it’s a fair question!
I sort of hope it’s a false dichotomy, but in some cases obviously it’s not. In that case I would say just to go with your conscience and what you feel is most important for you personally, politically, and frankly in terms of your ability to get and keep a job.
What defines sociology has all sorts of practical effects on where articles land and where careers can be placed. That stuff is real and far too easy for someone with a tenure-track job to be overly idealistic about. I’m not trying to police any grad student’s project!
What I’m saying is that journalists and nonfiction writers have excellent training to tell stories that need telling. That’s their edge. And I think our edge is methodological rigor to ensure those stories are generalizable and theoretical chops to explain how or why they happen.
I think we social scientists—especially qualitative scholars, but honestly maybe even more quantitative scholars!-have a tremendous amount to learn from journalists and non-fiction writers about the craft. But I think they might have a few things to learn from us too.
You can follow @jeffguhin.
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