What is public sociology and why does it matter more than ever? Gary Younge, Chantelle Lewis and Cecilia Menjívar join Michaela Benson to reflect on its meaning, value and stakes.
In a time of perpetual crisis and gross inequality, how can sociologists best change minds and set agendas? Why are some voices valued over others? And who does being truly “public” involve more than simply being high profile?
Gary Younge reflects on what sociologists and journalists can teach each other – and the ongoing struggle in the UK for space in which work on race can be truly incubated and explored. Cecilia Menjívar describes her deep engagement with migration and gender-based violence – and how in Latin America, “public sociology” is simply “sociology”. And Chantelle Lewis describes the lack of value applied to black scholarship in UK academia – and urges us to embrace hope, honesty and solidarity.
An essential listening! Discussing thinkers ranging from E.H. Carr on history to Maria Marcela Lagarde on feminicide, plus Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby, bell hooks, Sheila Rowbotham and many more.
Guests: Gary Younge, Chantelle Lewis, Cecilia Menjívar
Host: Michaela Benson
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
From The Sociological Review
By our guests
Read more about the work of Hazel Carby, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall and bell hooks, the life and work of Marcela Lagarde and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the work of Jane Addams on public housing, as well as the poet, essayist and activist June Jordan.
Michaela Benson 0:06
Hi, I'm Michaela Benson, and welcome to this bonus edition Uncommon Sense. As ever, this comes from the Sociological Review, where we're committed to inspiring – not just new ways of seeing our world – but forging a better future too. Pushing it boundaries, disrupting hierarchies, promoting critical thinking, we think sociology should be for everyone – out there, accessible, engaging and world changing. It's part of a commitment to what gets called public sociology. And you could say we need this now more than ever, at a time where we seem to be lurching from crisis to crisis. And thinking about public sociology cuts straight to a crucial question: what is sociology for? How do we produce and value knowledge? Now, it's something that I think about a lot. I'm a professor of public sociology, and that's quite a daunting title. I'm based at Lancaster University where I work on migration, citizenship, identity, and yes, Brexit. So I'm always reflecting on the place for sociology in respect to hot topics, and how we make space for this in different spheres, from media to policy. Today, I'm with three brilliant sociologists whose work I'd call public sociology, although we're going to be discussing the many meanings of that term soon. They are Gary Younge – who became professor of public Sociology at the University of Manchester in 2020, after a long career at The Guardian in the UK and the US. His books include "Another day in the death of America" and his latest "Dispatches From The Diaspora" gathers his journalism on race, racism, and Black life and death. Also with me is Chantelle Lewis, who is currently a junior research fellow at Oxford University. She is the co founder of the popular sociology podcast "Surviving Society" and she works with Leading Routes – an initiative exploring ways to strengthen the pathway for Black students into and through academia. We're also joined by Cecilia Menjívarour, professor of sociology at UCLA. She focuses on migration bureaucracies, and the experience of Central American immigrants in the US – as well as gender-based violence in Latin America, and the system that fails and sustains that. Her work – ranging from writing affidavits to assisting NGOs – has informed asylum cases and policy discourse in the US. Hello to you all.
Gary Younge 2:43
Cecilia Menjívar 2:43
Chantelle Lewis 2:44
Michaela Benson 2:44
I said we come to the question of what public sociology means. I wonder if each of you can answer that question for me for a few examples from your own work. So I'm going to come to you first, Gary, I mentioned "Another Day in the Death of America" – your book that looks at 10 young lives lost to gun violence in a single day, in 2013. I think it's possible to class that work as a work of public sociology – argely because it connects individual experience with wider structures. Do you see that book in the same way, and what about your wider journalism?
Gary Younge 3:22
Well, I was told to understand the book in that way. So now I did. So I wrote it as a piece of journalism. And when I was in discussions at the University of Manchester, they said... I said "but I haven't done any sociology" And they said "but you're doing sociology all the time" And through a slightly different lens now – some three years later – I have a sense of what they meant – even though that wasn't my deliberate aim, and I would never have called myself that. That covering what Obama's candidacy meant, or how we should understand gay marriage in America, or what Stormzy means as both an artist and a kind of political actor – that all of those things can be understood sociologically – as well as in other ways. And that my approach was one of trying to tease out – what does this mean, societally?
Michaela Benson 4:27
It's really helpful to hear that journey into, being told that you're a sociologist or having your work characterised in that way. Chantelle, Gary's work has reached a big audience beyond academia. And I think that "Surviving Society" – the podcast that you co founded, and host – aims for the same. Can you tell us a bit more about that podcast and how you understand it in terms of public sociology?
Chantelle Lewis 4:53
Yeah, I'm gonna follow on from Gary and say, I think the opposite has been the truth, the truth for me and that I've constantly found myself asserting myself as a public sociologist and people have been constantly telling me I'm not. And I think that definitely has cut across racialised, gendered, disciplinary lines. So I think that part of my work as a public sociologist has been about stretching and expanding what we mean by public sociology. And I think part of my role – as a Black feminist podcaster – has been about recognising that public sociology is about picking sides, and picking a side being that we should be – or in my opinion – focused on how we can contribute to understanding marginalised lives and structures, which make people much more likely to be on the sharper end of marginalisation. And I think that with "Surviving Society" we founded it – myself, Saskia Papadakis, and Tissot Regis – as a way to sort of assert how sociology could help to answer questions around Brexit, and the Grenfell tower and the election of Donald Trump – and sort of say that there was existing sociological research that could help people to make sense of some of these political urgencies. Quite soon we realised that what we were doing was part of a broader, long standing tradition – particularly amongst Black radical practitioners that have produced outside of the academy – to assert that we have ways of understanding society, which can help people make sense of things. And I don't like to talk about language in terms of accessibility, but I think, I think it's just the easiest way to do it now, I think. I don't ever want to play into your kind of Michael Gove-ism, like "we're tired of experts" but I do think that there is merit in trying to make academic jargon more accessible for people. And I think that's one of the things that we've really tried to do on "Surviving Society".
Michaela Benson 7:16
I think, from listening to "Surviving Society" – and following it as a project over the past seven years, I think it is – that the values that underpin that, that project of public sociology for you, are around democratisation, political education and redistribution of knowledge. And I'm thinking about that in respect to the other initiatives you're involved with, too. So the Race and Resistance series that you help to run at Oxford and "Leading Routes" do you think that that's, that that's a fair characterisation?
Chantelle Lewis 7:47
Yeah, definitely. And I think like political education has never been more important. Like we have so much access to – quote unquote – information. But how that information is distributed is very much mitigated along capitalist and racialised lines like – that simply – there's money to be made, if you're spreading hate. So it's never been more important for us to put out there political education informed by knowledge, research, facts. And yeah, being really bold with that. And the democratisation has been about access to knowledge, access to resources – but also really focused on who is at the forefront of that knowledge production as well. And as we know – whether you're within the academy or like Gary, within the journalistic world, or as an author – who gets to tell the stories is very much mitigated around racialised class and gendered lines. So yeah.
Michaela Benson 8:43
Gary, you wanted to come in there?
Gary Younge 8:45
I just wanted to ask them tell if people insist that you're not a public sociologist, then what did they think you are doing? What did they accuse you of doing what misrepresent you of doing?
Chantelle Lewis 8:57
Um, I think that there is a lack of value of, on when it comes to Black scholarship. And I think particularly if you're a Black scholar talking about Blackness or talking about race, class, social issues then it's very much seen by some as a loose topic or a topic embedded in lived experience – and that being that it can't be objective. I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't go out of my way to prove these people wrong. But you do notice when you get missed off of lists around like left wing podcasts or lists around academic podcasts or people that are accumulating resources to help people understand political issues – and it's like, we're seen as the race podcast but not actually seen as the like, left wing, politically informed, education podcast. I think that it just comes back to that – I guess – epistemological and philosophical point that for Black people, we are constantly positioned as inferior – whether we're in the academy or not.
Michaela Benson 10:05
I'm gonna, I'm gonna turn to you now, Cecilia. And I think that there's a connection here in that point that Chantelle just made about this, this type of public sociology being invisibilised in particular ways, because your work involves working with policy, but also working closely with often invisibilised migrants. And drawing on your very broad experiences, I was wondering how you would define public sociology? What does it mean for you?
Cecilia Menjívar 10:30
I'd be thinking about that, because there are definitions of public sociology that don't necessarily apply to the work I do, or how I see my work. For instance, Michael Burawoy has promoted – he's not the first one, of course, or the only one to come up with the concept of public sociology – there were many people talking about public sociology, and doing public sociology, what we understand as such, before him – but he gave it more of a platform, I think, at least in the US. I think, what I understand and how I do it is more of a publicly engaged sociology – meaning that I seek to take my sociology work, to intervene or to contribute, or to inform and educate constituencies beyond academia. And so that's very broad. And by this, I mean, engaging with community organisations that may benefit from using my work to promote their, their work. It means working with with lawyers, and people who work on the ground for immigrant rights in a way that my work can substantiate the work they do, to advance the work they do. It also means to write open pieces or be public. But that's one slice of the work I do beyond academia. And so that's how I understand it – more of a publicly engaged sociology, then then public sociology alone.
Michaela Benson 12:12
That's really helpful, that caveat, I mean, I often think about that lecture by Michael Burawoy, which is very US specific in lots of ways, when I go back and read it. Gary, I realise that I didn't ask you what public sociology actually means to you, so I was wondering if we could do that right now. And I think we've heard quite a lot about what public sociology is, but we could also talk about what it's not, couldn't we?
Gary Younge 12:38
Well, years ago, I interviewed Susan Sontag and I called her a public intellectual, and she said "I wonder what a private intellectual would be" – which I thought was a really useful notion of what, what is private sociology? if there's a public sociolog, what would that be xxactly? And that kind of – to some extent – would imagine that kind of all sociology has some kind of engagement with the public sphere. But what I think is that kind of – as someone who's coming from journalism – that is often mistaken for profile, that if you write op-eds, that public sociology is about kind of being out there in a way that kind of, lots of people can hear you. Which, then I think you, you know – to take the more absurd examples – you'd have to say, well, then, why isn't Kim Kardashian a public sociologist then? Like lots and lots of people hear her – she has a very high profile. And so it has to be some, well... first of all, I think there seems to me that there are a range of ways of doing it. And I think that Seanie can outline that in a sense – or at least a few ways of doing it – and that some of those ways, they will be public, but they won't be high profile. It might be that you're working on a curriculum for the anti–racist education in your local council, you know. It might be that you are helping someone – and I think all of us because UCLA is a public university – we're publicly funded – so then to have a conversation with a filmmaker about a film that they are doing and to kind of inform them, give some sense of who they might talk to or what book they might read. There are a range of ways of doing it and not all of them are seen and all too often. I think, people could mistake public sociology – if you take my case – for me just moving from being employed by the Guardian to being employed by the University of Manchester – and doing exactly the same thing, and that wouldn't in my mind – while some of the work I did could be characterised as public sociology – it wouldn't be the same thing. And the very thing that Cecilia mentioned there where, she does sort of painstaking work on issues of gender violence, and so on. That isn't – when she's doing it, she's not being high profile, she's, she's working on this thing like most academics do – but then she gets to apply it in the public sphere. And so I think one of the things it's not, is being a high profile sociologist – it might be, or it might not – but that in itself doesn't qualify. Being in the public domain doesn't qualify for being a public sociologist, I believe.
Michaela Benson 15:57
I think that's a really important reminder, Gary, of, of the difference between being visible in a space and doing the work –that they're not necessarily the same thing. And so Celia, I wondered if we could ground this with some examples – because I know that you've got quite a few examples from your own work, where you've been doing this. So the proudest moments aren't necessarily the most high profile, I think, so perhaps we could hear from you about some of the things that you're particularly proud of.
Cecilia Menjívar 16:29
So going to my, to some of the proudest moments of how I take my work, I think it would be working with community organisations – immigrant rights organisations – who have invited me to provide sociological research, to substantiate the arguments they make for, to obtain – for instance – regular legal status. The Temporary Protected Status Alliance invited me to produce a profile of who, who are the immigrants on temporary protected status – because they want, they wanted to use that information to lobby Congress and Senate and senators for a more permanent legal status – not to move, to be moved out of, of, of the temporaryness that they have lived in. And so I couldn't find the information so I conducted a major survey in five cities in the United States to produce the information that they, that they needed. That database led to sociological publications, and to a report that they then use in their campaigns. They actually wanted me to use the data to produce mainstream professional sociology, because they, they wanted to ensure that, that had legitimacy in the academic world – and to be able, so for them to be able to use that work in their campaigns. So that was one of my proudest moments, but I have a few others that are quiet. None of this has got attention to me personally – these have been quiet moments where I have used my work, where I have produced sociological research to enhance and to support the work of people who are influencing policy, actually,
Michaela Benson 18:31
I'm really minded there listening to Cecilia about this kind of feedback loop in research practice where your research and the public work feed into each other. And that's something that I've also experienced – and Chantelle along with me, when we were working together on Brexit – how that kind of collection of knowledge from working with with, you know, working with people who are affected by Brexit could feed into what we then went on to research and what we then went on to communicate. And I just wanted to bring in one further example from you, Celia, I understand that you were once inspired by a question about gender-based violence put to you by a judge. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Cecilia Menjívar 19:13
Yes. Beginning in 2014, there was an increase in women from Central America seeking protection – asylum protection – in the United States, and would arrive at the southern border. So I had already done work on gender-based violence in Central America. I wrote a book on violence in the lives of women in Guatemala. So I received several requests for my expertise to support these asylum applications. And in one of those cases, I testified in court – I don't I don't normally do that – but this lawyer is a friend of mine, and he needed my my testimony in court. And during that testimony, a judge asked me directly If I thought if, if in my expert opinion, I thought the government of El Salvador was able and or willing to protect women from violence. And so at that moment – based on my research, and not my personal opinion – I explained that I thought that the government was not willing –or perhaps able – but that I needed to do more research to be able to respond to that question. So that inspired my expansion of this line of research, and with a political scientist colleague, we wrote a series of of articles – sociological articles – on the broader context of violence for women – and how justice systems fail women in El Salvador, Honduras, and in Guatemala. And then as a result, they – I think they are still being used as evidence in court to support those cases of women seeking asylum, based on gender-based violence.
Michaela Benson 21:08
Thank you for explaining further, actually a bit more about that feedback loop. I just want to move on now to think a little bit about audiences and spaces for public sociology that we've already kind of started to discuss. And I want to come to you Chantelle – because you already in your previous responses described what it's like working in the UK, for Black sociologists, or Black social scientists, or Black scholars more generally – given that space and the constraints that there are, why do you think that podcasting is valuable as a genre for a publicly engaged sociology?
Chantelle Lewis 21:47
I think that podcasts – as well as, like public sociology – exist as part of a long trajectory in chronology of people that have been marginalised by – quote, unquote – traditional ways of producing knowledge and scholarship to, yeah, assert their value and what they can contribute to understandings of society. So in our work at "Suriving Society" we very much position it as part of the tradition of Black people producing books, pamphlets – things that were being produced to help us understand ourselves and our position in society – for us and by us – but also, so other people could recognise the we had a voice and what our experiences were of society. So I think that podcasting is just another iteration of something which has existed for a long time – if we're thinking about, yeah, Black scholarship, and the Black radical tradition – particularly here in Britain, like we've got such a long history of taking up space in ways that has been positioned as marginal, but it's very much what I would argue, authoritative, authentic, political, in some cases, like, humorous.
Michaela Benson 23:15
I think that leads me on really nicely into my question for Gary – which is actually to do with that comparison between the UK and the US – to your mind, what spaces exist for public sociologists, and more broadly, perhaps public intellectuals, and each?
Gary Younge 23:34
Well, both had that very sort of Anglo Saxon suspicion of anything that's called an intellectual – you know, unlike France, or Russia, or other places in Europe, where the notion of an Intelligentsia or an intellectual class is something that should be embraced. So Britain and America both have that in common – they hate clever dicks, or they hate anybody who they can cast as a clever dick, a pointy head, which they did before – the, that that preceded and actually kind of aided the attack on experts that came that has come in, in recent times, I think. I think that the kind of the, the metabolism – and the kind of economic metabolism, really,– of the two countries intellectual spaces are very different. So they produce very different things. So in America – where I think the majority of universities are private – and where an academic of a, of a certain level might expect as much as $5000 or $8,000 to go and speak somewhere. And so where there is significantly, potentially more money sloshing around, where the kind of economic model for writing a book at a certain level – is you get your advance, but then you do your talks – is very different to Britain – where there is probably, there is still more public sustenance, I mean, the, you know – they're doing their best to get rid of it, but it's still exists – and less money if you see what I mean. So and in Britain we have – and this speaks to other things that, you know, we know to be true in America that – first of all, we don't have the tenure system, you get a job, we don't get a job –so you don't have that kind of pressure. But you also, we don't have quite the celebrity system that American academia has either. And then there are particular kinds of challenges and opportunities when it comes to things like I think – certainly race and ethnicity, I don't know about gender – but that in America, there are African-American Studies departments – lots of them – there is a critical mass of Black people, there are historically Black colleges in universities –so there is more of a space where work around race can be incubated and can be explored, even if it's under pressure, even if we look at what's going on in Florida and elsewhere. Whereas in Britain, we are still arguing for that space. And we're still kind of, there is still a need to make the case for that space. And honestly, when I joined academia, from journalism, you know, I knew about my friends who were academics would be like "make sure you ask for this in your contract and make sure you you know..." and I'd say "look, I will become cynical about this profession in my own time and in my own way, just as I did in the last one, don't worry, I will get there. And I'm not starry eyed" That said, I honestly didn't realise that being a Black professor would be a bit like being a white rhino – I didn't realise how rare it is, and how sort of deeply problematic – and I think I was kind of somewhat deluded by the fact that Black academics – in the world that I occupy – punch way above their weight compared to our members in the countries: Stuart Hall, Hall, Gilroy, Hazel Carby – that kind of, they're the ones that I can just name off the top of my head or at the top of – not just their game, but the game – to realise that, wow, those are the handful that got through. And nobody can say – oh, we tried a few and it didn't really work out. We tried a few and they were globally understood to be brilliant. And then we didn't try, and then we didn't try again for another 20 years. It's crazy. So that has taken some adjusting to actually. And it's still kind of – racism is not baffling to me. It's all too familiar –but this particular form of it, I found quite, erm, I'm still trying to work it out.
Michaela Benson 28:33
Yeah, I was talking to somebody earlier today about the kind of fleeting success – that we shouldn't always assume that just because it was achieved and that it sustains, we have to work at sustaining. So yeah. Cecilia, I wanted to come to you to ask the same question about public sociology, but from the perspective of the fact that you were born in El Salvador. And I'm just wondering, is there such a thing as public sociology in Latin America?
Cecilia Menjívar 29:00
Not really, it's just sociology – it's what sociologists do. There is a very long history of public engagement on the part of sociologists throughout the continent and in other parts of the world as well. I'm just talking about Latin America because that's where I come from and the region I know best. Sociologists have been public intellectuals. They have been influencing policy. They have run for political office. Just one example: Fernando Henrique Cardoso – the former president of Brazil – before that, was a professor of sociology and a leading theorist of Sociology of Development; and then he became president of Brazil. Marcela Lagarde in Mexico, for instance, she coined the term "feminicide" in contrast to femicide and signalling the role of state in violence against women – and she became part of the of the Congress. And just these are just a couple of examples. But this has happened throughout. During the dictatorships in Latin America, for instance, sociologist were very engaged and as a result many sociology departments were shut down and taken over by, by the militaries throughout the continent. And that was because of sociologist engagement in working for a more just world. And so the term public – the qualifier public – doesn't really apply when people understand their mission to be that so and there is... and sociologist contribute in different ways, this is public – what you might call policy sociology – but they also are very prominently in, in different public arenas, writing op-eds, but they don't, they don't derive the celebrity status, they don't derive – for instance, the money that the Gary was talking about – that happens in academia, and in, in US academia. And in US academia, there are only a handful, there... it's a very tiny percentage of sociologists who, who have reached those celebrity levels where they can derive 1000's of dollars for a talk – for instance – or who write for the New York Times, or, or different major outlets – they are on a struggle of their own. Most sociologists who take their work out to educate the public don't necessarily reach those levels of, of celebrity status. And also in America, US sociology, there is a long tradition of sociologists engaging with public, in engaging in policy – Jane Addams, for instance, 100 years ago – was working in public housing in Chicago. There's a long tradition of sociologists also engaging – which got interrupted by, when the sociologists of the Chicago School decided that the sociologists should not be engaged in influencing public opinions or public policy, because that will taint the scientific enterprise of sociology. And so that's when things started to get to be divided.
Michaela Benson 32:40
That's a really interesting reflection on the points at which things diverge. And Chantelle, I wanted to come to you.
Chantelle Lewis 32:46
Yeah, just on the matter of public sociology – and I think that this is where my own reflections and or scholarship, which is very much informed by lots of other practitioners – needs to be kind of stretched. I do believe that there is merit and value in working on a sociology that is embedded in changing people's mind. And I very much take my inspiration here from people like, Gary. I think it was, I think it was a conversation that I had with Gary on "Surviving Society" which really made me feel more comfortable and assert the fact that we do need to take more people with us. And even if your public sociology isn't on the ground – and I'm not trying to say that there's a hierarchy here – but I think that theres – actually no, there is a hierarchy – I think that we're working towards being engaged in community is up there for me. But I wouldn't want to say that it is binary. And what I mean by that is, producing scholarship or producing podcasts or producing sociology in an accessible way to wider audiences – in an effort to help them, help people to understand or change their mind on matters – is something which I think we should be defending as intellectuals and public sociologists. And actually, at times, that means engaging with the merit of some celebrity versions of academia. And I think that it is very, it's a tricky and challenging terrain – because we're in a highly marketised and neoliberal sector, which rewards and creates hostilities and tensions between our colleagues on these matters – but if the, if the vision is to take people with us, to change people's minds and to imagine a world where, to imagine – to freedom dream – then part of our broadcast clinicians, we all play different roles in this. And stretching the idea of public sociology, I think, does mean a certain intellectual fluidity – as Bell Hooks said – being forthright in what we believe, with facts with knowledge and research, and recognising that part of that might mean someone who's – quote unquote – "liberal minded" becoming a little bit more radical from simply listening to an episode of a podcast, that is important.
Michaela Benson 35:32
I think we're gonna, we're gonna move on now to think about the kind of, the practice of public sociology and it'd be really great if here we could have some brief examples from you to really ground that. I think several of you have already mentioned that we're in a slightly ant-intellectual, anti-expert period of history. I think that that's fair to say. And that's hardly optimal for something that we call public sociology. But I think that there are still things that sociologists can do to be heard. And likewise, I think that there are things that journalists can do to give their work a sociological flavour. So of course, I'm gonna come to you, Gary, and to ask you about how journalists might be more sociological, and what's to be gained there and what works against what we might see as progress.
Gary Younge 36:27
I guess I would argue – now that I'm a convert – that pretty much all journalism, to be meaningful must in some way, be sociological, right, and must in some way, engage with society. And, and so we get to kind of how journalists can be better at that. There are a few things, I think the first is listening more. The second would be not accepting – or at least probing – the dominant narrative. So I'll give a couple examples of that: one would be when I arrived in Zimbabwe, as democracy was collapsing in 2000, we got off the plane. And this really, this is really about how how stupid Britain is. It's not about how clever I am, at all. We got off the plane. And there were a bunch of journalists who were on this plane, it was, people were going to Zimbabwe. And we got off the plane, they check their phones, a White farmer had been attacked somewhere. And they said "Oh, looks theres like... " and they all went off in one direction. And I just thought, yeah, I don't think that's the story. So I went to the hotel, and made a couple of calls to people that I knew and went in a different direction, which was to one of the many Black people who had actually been murdered that day – which was something that just wasn't being covered by the British press, that they thought the British press was... it was all about. And that involves just, you know, looking under the hood, actually, and just thinking – well, is this what we should be doing? – and there's a, there's a saying, when you go to journalism school, you're taught a bunch of sayings, like "news is what goes in between the adverts" or stuff like that. And one is 'if a dog bites a man, that's not news, when a man bites a dog, that's news". But actually, if you think of, say, Black Lives Matter, where there hasn't actually been an increase in the number of Black people being shot dead by the police. There's just an awareness that this thing that's been going on for a long time should be news. It, so it's not news in a conventional sense – it's not something new that's happening. And that is a kind of moment where you have to say, well, who owns these dogs? And why do these people keep getting bitten? And what can we do to control these dogs? In other words, why often the news is just is, is there for you? The news is on your doorstep, it's in the quotidian. And the challenge of journalists is to kind of actually think, well, just because this is not happening to me, and people I know, doesn't mean it's not news, or why is that happening? Which doesn't necessarily have to lead to an analytical piece or a comment piece – it could just be going and asking the questions to the people in those communities. One other example would be knife crime – that we did a series in The Guardian about knife crime and the first thing that we realised became clear was a "knife crime" – the term – is a construct that is basically used for Black boys in London. Even though most kids who are killed by knives, don't live in London and, and most of the people involved aren't Black. But also what journalism was doing was covering the death and the sentencing. They never asked, well, what was going on in that neighbourhood before? Was there a youth club that had been shut down? How is it that both of the kids had been excluded? What does that tell us? They didn't kind of – there was a range of things that could come from that – and instead, it became a kind of a question of ambulance chasing. So in a range of ways, journalism would need to be more curious. And the problem that journalism has with that is journalists. That the cohort of people who become columnist – for example – in Britain, they are more likely to have gone to private school and Oxford and Cambridge, then people in the House of Lords, or senior judges. So you're talking about a very elite group of people, who then write about a political system, which is very elitist. And we are all caught in their kind of little internal web – which doesn't posit kind of food banks, or Universal Credit, or domestic violence as being urgent until they're forced to. So these are the ways in which I think journalism could be different, and would be more sociologically relevant if it were different.
Michaela Benson 41:39
Yeah, I think that there's another side to this as well, there isn't there, Gary, which is, you know – we've given the journalists a bit of flack there – but what about sociologists wanting to become or needing to become more journalistic? Or perhaps a better way to put it is – what can be done in respect to sociologists engaging a wider public?
Gary Younge 41:59
Yeah, and I, and here I would be slightly more reticent – insofar as you know, you're asking me to offer a critique on a discipline, I've only been in three years – ut it does seem to me that I quite often think when reading sociological work, or, you know, papers, or listen to sort of various contributions – where are people in this? Not 'the people' – not some abstract manifestation of people, but where are where are people in this? What does this, what does this mean? Who did you talk to? How can I have a sense of how this plays out? – which they're obviously not going to do in the same way that a journalist does. But nonetheless, in put in very crude terms, the answer to why should I care? is often not engaged. It seems. It seems like it should be kind of, you know, almost like it should be sui generis. And I do think that there is – and this is a challenge, because I am still, I've still not really written an academic paper, which is a certain form of a... which is a certain way of writing and it has a certain register – and and I think that's, you know, that's it's own thing, and it's quite important. And there is a wariness that I have sensed among academics to be too accessible, that to be too accessible... I've heard people say, you know " I worried that people would read it and think it was journalism". And what I hear when I say that is – what you worried that more people might read it, then should have done? Like, the issue is, was it good? Did it make a difference? Did it have an impact? And so on. But accessibility is understood to be almost like a potential flaw. And I think that's a very problematic mindset.
Michaela Benson 44:16
Definitely. I mean, I was laughing to myself there because I've heard that on more than one occasion – although I do have to say there's also something, I think, deeply embedded in that about people's sense of their legitimacy as academics – which we may or may not come on to shortly. Just briefly, Cecilia, because you've had this experience of writing op-eds. And I think for many academics, writing for a new audience that feels truly public is quite nerve wracking, because it can bring a new kind of visibility and nor... and with it, the kind of norms of a new genre. And of course, it can also bring undue attention to individuals – which which is the slightly negative side of that. To your mind – and as I said, just bring briefly – what helps with overcoming some of that anxiety, I suppose?
Cecilia Menjívar 45:06
In my case – and I suppose I should be more concerned about bringing attention to myself – but I have not really thought much much about that what the biggest challenge for a sociologist to write for a public audience – in my view – is the other side of the coin of what Gary just said. To translate the work into understandable text – because we have been so programmed to write in a particular way, as perhaps to make our work so distinct from normal speech – that it, it's, it's a challenge to, to write with a broader audience in mind. Because we don't know who's going to read this. And the, and the pressure – through, throughout their careers – we have felt to speak to our colleagues in that language, in the vocabulary that we – as members of a profession of an academic discipline – understand. It takes an effort to translate into, to write in the way we could all understand,
Michaela Benson 46:27
I'm going to come to you now Chantelle, because I think that one challenge is the fear or risk of being judged according to the medium that you choose to communicate. So I'm thinking for example of perhaps the fear of using podcasts or Twitter threads or Tik Tok, and how that might translate into looking less legitimate – to some degree – should we just cut each other some slack here?
Chantelle Lewis 46:54
Well, for me personally, when I'm going about producing public scholarship, or trying to contribute to knowledge production, I don't operate from a place of fear. That that's not because I have complete confidence in it, in what I'm doing or saying, it's because I'm very much led by passion, by care, by the people that I want to speak to and represent. So I think first and foremost, like we have to remove this emphasis on fear and think about what we are actually doing. Because I think that the fear comes into notions of the metricised academia or academic work, or public scholarship. And that being that our fear is embedded in the idea that our work might not be read or looked at. And that isn't what we're doing the work for. Well this is for me, personally. So I think coming back to what I do the work for and why it's important, is the best way that I can answer that question. And for me – and it's easier said than done – and I think, trying to cut out the noise – you said about cutting each other some slack – well I'm looking to speak to, understand and be part of the hearts and minds of people that I care the most about. If people have issues with my scholarship or how I'm putting that work out there – if it's engaged with in a way that is embedded in critical friendship, that is recognising the structures that are at play, in how I'm coming to produce this work – then I would I would very much welcome as much critical friendship as possible as I try to sharpen my intellectual endeavours, definitely, like that's really important to me. But the problem is – as Gary mentioned earlier – when it comes to public scholarship, when it comes to communicating the work that we're doing – particularly as Black scholars – there is a systemic issue with the lack of value, applied to and assigned to Black scholarship. And that very much translate in the opportunity for us to have critical dialogues about how to take our work and understand our work amongst different disciplines or in different conversations. So I guess the inequity makes this conversation hard to have – because we are constantly fighting for scrap, it feels like, as Black scholars in UK academia – but I think that there's a lot of people that are basically pushing the door open now. And I think that the situation we're in now when it comes to the lack of value of Black scholarship and how that then translates to public sociology, I think that the time is ticking, and we're not going anywhere, and there's more of us coming through. There's a growing Black middle class that are asserting their voices in lots of different ways. And one of those ways is through education. People are going to have to fix up because we're not going anywhere.
Michaela Benson 50:20
Thank you very much, Chantelle. Before we wrap up, I want to circle back to the start of our conversation, where we talked about what public sociology is, and is not. You all gave quite different definitions. And we've just been discussing the challenges and potential gains of being public. Given this, I'm wondering whether and how we can teach public sociology. So Cecilia, you've been praised quite publicly as a mentor. And I think there's something important in that – in not keeping knowledge to yourself about how to do this publicly engaged work. And by lending confidence to the next generation. Do you have any reflections in brief on that?
Cecilia Menjívar 51:04
Yes, I think the apprehension sometimes – on the part of students or junior colleagues, sometimes – is mostly because of the pressure to produce academic work, and doing something that is seen as different, distinct from the work you do in academia. And how can you do two things that demand quite a bit of time? And I think the, my answer is to see it as one in the same, where you do your sociological work, to think of questions that are of broader interest that you can research. And so that facilitates taking your work beyond academia, it makes it easier, it's... it flows naturally from your work in academia.
Michaela Benson 51:58
Gary, I'm coming over to you now. Because what you've described as developing a sociological perspective, without official training – I think your undergraduate degree was in languages. I think that this kind of developing that sociological perspective comes across really clearly in a New Statesman piece from earlier this year – where you describe the racism your family faced during your childhood, and how that shaped your critical eye. Given that, I'm wondering whether you think public sociology can be taught, or whether it's something that you just arrive at through experience?
Gary Younge 52:35
I think it can be taught – I don't think it's innate. I think that kind of the challenge in it is really one of forcing the, the academy into the public space. Saying – okay, this is what we know. How would we apply that? What does that mean? How can we make sense of that in a world that we live – which to be honest – I kind of think if you're not doing that in sociology, then where are you doing it really? But yeah, I think it can be taught and in a sense –while nobody taught me sociology, nobody, apart from one year at journalism school, nobody taught me journalism either. And the journalism that they told me was actually not to be a sociologist, that was journalism that you were taught was kind of like – just go and get the story – and it was ambulance chasing kind of stuff. So but then, I did learn from other ways, you know, I did learn in other ways – I learned through my reading, I learned through reading, people like Stuart Hall, like Sheila Rowbotham – a range of writers: bell hooks, June Jordan – a lot of African American women as it happens – all of whom, in different ways, introduced me to the notion that you... of what would have been called "high" and "low", but they're not "high" and "low" – of like, here are some ideas, here's the world. And you know, what, these ideas don't really matter unless they engage with the world. And so it's not like I didn't learn it from somewhere. Do you know what I mean I did, I did. I just didn't learn it formally. And I think that the benefit of, you know, public sociology as a discipline – if you like – would be to get people there a lot quicker and to say, look, look at these works – some of them are journalistic, some of them are not, some of them are historical. Some of them are not, you know – E.H Carr's "What is history?" or let's read this and talk about what's public? What's sociology? What what does that division even mean? Is it relevant? You know, I, I, I got there deliberately, by mistake – if you like – and I think primarily, and this – there is an element of the academy that kind of finds this problematic, but I don't – I got there primarily through my politics. That's how I got there, it was kind of being interested in ideas and being interested in the world and finding a book about, you know "Women, resistance and revolution" by Sheila Rowbotham, when I was kind of 17 – I think, I wonder what this is about? And then kind of getting another book and, you know, and it affecting you in the same way.
Michaela Benson 55:31
I think that's really helpful, Gary, that you've brought in there, politics. And I think that's been the kind of subtext of quite a lot of the things that we've been saying today. And, you know, facetiously perhaps, and we might argue that some of our public figures – notably, our politicians here in the UK, at the moment – could benefit from a training in sociology. Anyway, Chantelle, you've already spoken about the importance of nurturing and promoting a wide range of voices – particularly those voices who struggle to find a space within the official space of sociology or within academia – and I just wondered if I could ask you for a kind of a rallying call here, around the question of why do we need public sociology now?
Chantelle Lewis 56:19
Look, I think that most people come to sociology – particularly in the professional sense – because they have a sense of injustice, or a fire in their belly, or something that they feel particularly passionate about that relates to society, and structures of society. Now, if you happen to go through sociology, or become a sociologist, in the traditional sense – as in through university that say – I think that there are a lot of factors, which end up kind of diluting or limiting your capacity to access that original fire in your belly. And that is completely understandable. We're in a very, very highly neoliberal, capitalist, exploitative working spaces and environments. That all being said, I think that it's never been more important – politically – to stand up to be counted. So doing that work on yourself – and how you understand yourself in society, and how that relates to your work – think is the first step. Understanding why you do your work is the second step. And then the third step, I think, is very much going public and making your work accessible to as many people as possible. Basically, I think that we're all in kind of broad coalitions within sociology, and I think that being public with our work is important now, and asserting research, evidence and facts is important. And however you choose to do that, I think is great, and is important. But I think making that choice is something that more of us need to do now. And I also think – just kind of separately, but it is related – I think that, within sociology, we definitely need to do more work, more "ego" work, and more work on vulnerability and recognising that we might get things wrong occasionally and, like, that's okay. I think that the Right are so organised now – both intellectually, digitally, politically and in government – that the things that we have are solidarity, hope, and honesty. And I think that those, bringing those things within our practice is going to really set us apart from the things, from the work or from the people that seek to divide us. So, yeah, the rallying call is that; yeah, stand up to be counted in. Now's the time, it's now or never.
Michaela Benson 58:52
And with that, I'd like to thank you for being part of today's discussion. Thanks to my guests, Chantelle Lewis, Cecilia Menjivar, and Gary Younge, and to our producer, Alice Bloch.
Chantelle Lewis 59:06
Cecilia Menjívar 59:06
Bye bye, thank you so much
Gary Younge 59:07
Bye. Thank you.
Michaela Benson 59:09
There's more on public sociology over at thesociologicalreview.org. And you can also find some of our own offerings including this podcast, but also the Stigma Conversations with Imogen Tyler, Spatial Delight from Agata Lisiak – and initiatives like the Connected Sociologies Curriculum led by Gurminder Bhambra as well as of course – The Sociological Review Magazine. All of these come from us. Uncommon Sense is back here very soon. Thanks for listening.