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.