tenure and public sociology

There have been several posts lately about public sociology and the tenure process, including newsocprof and thepublicandtheprivate and, most recently RadioFreeNewport. All are written by young scholars. The general tone of these remarks is either to worry about the impact of public sociology on getting tenure, or to decry older sociologists who tell younger sociologists to focus on getting tenure before getting heavily involved in public sociology. So another view seems helpful. I say this as someone who did not do public sociology until later in my career, well after I had tenure. These younger writers are ignoring the central point that tenure protects you when you do public sociology. The first time my name hit the front page of the local newspaper, I pulled my home address and phone number out of the (public) university directory. Although I’m generally viewed by local elites as mostly responsible if annoying in my persistent work to call attention to racial disparities, I do get negative reactions. I have been attacked in letters to the editor and on talk radio. I get crank letters and emails. Some state legislators and other public officials would prefer that I just go away. I am at a public institution whose state legislators have been known to insert lines in budget bills calling for certain centers or schools to be closed. Job security while advocating controversial or unpopular positions is what tenure is for, to protect academic freedom.

While I agree with the point thepublicandtheprivate and RadioFreeNewport made that you develop habits of responsibility or its lack toward civic/social obligations, I disagree that this means that every sociologist should do public sociology when young. You don’t have to have a job doing public sociology to play a responsible part in civic life. My early academic work was abstract and theoretical, but this does not mean I ignored my responsibility to the collectivity. To the contrary, I was a feminist and then a socialist feminist activist in graduate school and during my first assistant professor job. And before politicizing in graduate school, I did volunteer work all through undergraduate school. I took a break from my habit of community involvement when my children were young, but when they got older, I started looking around for something to do. That is actually what led me into the work that ended up being public sociology.

Many people – factory workers, bakers, lawyers, teachers, homemakers – do political or civic work without being paid for it. Many academics do intellectual work that does not have a public or applied angle. I do not see that it is any more immoral to do non-applied intellectual work than to be a factory worker, a farmer, or a homemaker. I believe in the value of intellectual work and science for its own sake, just as I believe in art for art’s sake.

In fact, when I was in that earlier life phase, I argued (and I would still argue) that your civic or social responsibility work is purer and more responsible if you are not also trying to get career rewards out of it. If you are trying to make your public service the basis of your career advancement, there is a very serious danger that you may behave in opportunist or careerist ways to the detriment of the programs or groups you are supposedly helping. If you have been involved in community or political work, you can probably think of examples of what I’m talking about. In fact, some of the arguments advocating public sociology are themselves essentially careerist in a collective sense, arguing that sociology’s position as a discipline will be enhanced by greater visibility in the public sphere.

I would never give general rules about this. For some people, separating service or politics or advocacy from your research or teaching is simply impossible because of the very nature of your work or your social location. Or you may have a genuine call to do research and outreach work on an important social issue that just won’t wait for tenure. If that is who you are and what you do, then you need to do it and I appreciate concerns about wanting to feel institutionally supported in your work.

Some other time we can talk about the larger question of what kinds of research problems to work on and whether/when/how social concerns should shape those choices.


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

15 thoughts on “tenure and public sociology”

  1. Thank you for the post, OW! But I’m afraid whatisthewhat can’t take credit for the good work of Radio Free Newport, even if we are (as far as we know) the only person here from Little Rhody.

  2. Dave P and Jenn Lena: I’m so embarrassed! I have both you in my blog reader and I wasn’t careful about attribution. I fixed the mistake. I hope.

  3. This is a really insightful piece, OW, and I particularly appreciate the point that one can (and should) be a responsible, engaged citizen without expecting career advancement. And I agree that it’s reasonable to let tenure status change one’s degree of “in-your-face”ness vis-a-vis both the university and the community. My own tenure has certainly made me more comfortable speaking my mind around campus, although not so much in the community in general.

  4. i agree with OW that the best argument for tenure is to protect scholars with unpopular ideas. (note that this argument greatly predates the 2004 ASA).

    i would add a corollary though that one potential problem with explicitly evaluating public sociology as part of the tenure record is that your colleagues are human beings. as such, they may find it very difficult to bracket their opinions about the ends to which you direct your advocacy from the talent and effort with which you do so. that is, evaluating public sociology as part of the tenure record sounds fine if the cause you’re pushing is popular (or at least indifferent) with your senior colleagues, but imagine if you were dedicating yourself to something that they strongly opposed. suffice it to say that this issue is not hypothetical but involves a friend of mine who has a good research record but whose advocacy is unpopular with his/her colleagues. [this same problem could conceivably come up with the research record, but it’s much more severe with service since with research we tend to have a kind of implicit compact to treat your findings as coming from the data and not your inclinations, especially if you take an ivory tower stance and don’t use your inconvenient findings to push for unpopular policies.]

    i’m not saying junior scholars shouldn’t do advocacy if they are so inclined. (i myself am collaborating with Future of Music and A2IM on a project — a project i might add that i think is very unlikely to offend either my colleagues or the state legislature). i’m just saying that i agree with OW that we ought to keep such issues at a distance from personnel evaluation.

  5. good thoughts, ow/ww. i’d quibble a bit with whether we ignored the tenure protection issue in our posts though — i think that’s really important and am glad you wrote about it but my own orientation is that i’d never want to advise anyone whether or not to accept public sociology risks pre-tenure (e.g., the reason WJW was booed in RFN’s post and why you conclude yours declining to offer rules as well). instead, I’d argue that if one decides to do so, it’s still problematic on an evaluation level even if all are in agreement that the goals/aims/outcomes of your public work are good (unlikely?). i also like to think that tenure (in addition to providing protection and in admittedly error-prone and messy ways) conveys some sort of legitimacy that is needed for good public advocacy.

    i hadn’t thought much past that — your comment that putting this sort of work into the tenure process has the potential to undermine the reasons for doing public sociology in the first place or undercut its quality is intriguing. if, as RFN notes, departments now explicitly want this sort of work or, in the case of people i know, senior faculty in your own department encourage this sort of work (and provide collaborative opportunities, for example), this is of great concern and makes the situation much messier than i initially thought.

  6. Great discussion. Some of you might be interested in the treatment of the question of ‘when is it ok or even recommended to engage in public sociology’ in my working paper with Damon Phillips (here’s a link: http://web.mit.edu/ewzucker/www/Conformity.pdf; see esp. pp. 14-17; the paper may be taken down soon though since we are currently revising it as an R&R for a journal; in fact, the stuff on public sociology may have to go). The issue comes up as an example of the general tension between intraprofessional status and engaging in impure actions. (Public sociology is impure in the sense that it is hard to tell what is specifically sociological about it; by contrast, a publication in a journal with ‘sociology’ in the title is pure).

    Were we to come at the issue directly, I guess we would say that we are surprised by how little the debate on public sociology has been informed by the soc of the professions and, in particular, research on professional stratification. A summary of how we come at the issue is to refine Abbott’s (1981, AJS) argument that intraprofessional status is derived from purity. While it sometimes seems like academics and other professional prize purity above all else, counterexamples from our world are sufficient to demonstrate that this argument is incomplete– e.g., if anything, the Jim Colemans and Bill Bielbys gain rather than lose status from engaging in public sociology. Rather, we argue that professional purity is important only at career stages where it is not yet clear whether the person in question is a sociologist (i.e. someone who can compete for jobs that are reserved for sociologists) or not. Once established as unquestionably a sociologist, one can engage in impure actions and it may even be advisable (from a status-enhancing point of view) to engage in public sociology.

    Note that this implies that the facilitator is not really tenure but status. This can be seen by considering whether it is a great idea for someone who has tenure but wants to move up within the academic ranks to engage in public sociology. Conversely, the same sets of issues apply in professional systems that don’t have tenure.

  7. @ Jenn Lena, with apologies for the thread hijack,
    You’re not the only Rhode Islander here! I drive past the Big Blue Bug every day I go to work. 🙂

  8. @9: Nothing like bragging rights to pest control!

    @10: Funny, indeed. Now we can battle out high school loyalties at ASA? I might make a trip down from Boston for a Dells Lemonade. Or a coffee cabinet.

  9. @9/@11: Ah, but how many of you still have a NE Pest Control jingle in your heads?

    @11: You can even get Del’s in a few spots in the Boston area (see here http://www.dels.com/find_dels.htm). There’s a place in Newton and in Lynn. Probably not as good as getting it from a truck though…

  10. Every time I browse by Scatterplot I see this thread out of the corner of my eye, and I think I read “torture and public sociology.” Sorry, just had to share.

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