One of Dr Michaela Benson’s priorities as Managing Editor of The Sociological Review is to identify and support new ways to make sociology matter meaningfully beyond the boundaries of the journal article or academic monograph. In this panel discussion, held at the European Sociological Association Conference in Manchester in 2019 and co-sponsored by The Sociological Review and Discover Society, Michaela chaired a session with Professor Gurminder K. Bhambra and Dr. Luke de Noronha reflecting some ways in which the audiences for sociological thinking can be expanded outside of the academy.
In the discussion, Gurminder describes how the open access magazine Discover Society provides a space for dissemination that’s collective and meaningfully sociological; the aim here is to showcase measured and critical sociology and to intervene in debates thoughtfully. Moving away from the notion of the ‘heroic’ individual public sociologist, Discover Society amplifies work within the social science disciplines, situating it together deliberately for this purpose. Social media allows for Discover Society to achieve global engagement, utilising scheduling to include multiple time zones, and enabling a wide reach into informed publics.
Gurminder provides the example of sociological intervention with respect to the Prevent scheme, currently up for independent review. In pulling together people who are researching that policy and broader agenda – particularly from critical perspectives – Discover Society enables academics to feed into the review collectively, with the collaborative process amplifying overall impact. Gurminder suggests that while Discover Society’s work may not change a minister’s mind, its public presence, and the engagement of non-academic groups, make research part of a wider conversation. Putting research into public dialogue in this way makes it part of public knowledge, and with political issues like Prevent, that means people can no longer say they don’t know anything about it, or that a critical position has not been articulated and evidenced.
From the perspective of Luke de Noronha, the lengthy process toward journal publication meant that “public engagement” was always a primary mode of disseminating his work; ‘alternative’ forms of dissemination came first, before traditional academic routes. As an integrated part of his research processes, he’s noticed that this sharing – through blog posts, journalism, short pieces, and social media – sometimes succeeds in connecting to public issues in ways a journal article does not always. Whilst retaining all the rigor of academic process and an academic voice, this work was more accessible to a wider public and – as a public readership for his research grew – they also engaged with his subsequent longer form journal articles when they came too. Luke suggests he wasn’t trying to draw people to his academic work via public engagement; but that his public engagement drew an audience in to his articles.
Luke’s Deportation Discs project saw one of his participant’s sharing with his sister – by means of the podcast – the process of his criminalisation case and deportation in depth for the first time. Talking about experiences associated with deportation are often very challenging, and if the experience of sharing this is turned into a research output that increases communication barriers for the participants, those key to research can end up excluded from its aftermath. Building more contexts for our research to exist in not only offers broader audiences for it, but also means the specific audiences the research engages with have greater possibilities for taking ownership of that work.
Both Luke and Gurminder make the point that writing for a broader public is a skill that takes time; these aren’t rushed out ‘hot takes’. Discover Society’s pieces limit the use of references and aim to make the complexity more easily understood and digested. Achieving a clearly articulated, evidenced, and publicly-resonant piece in short form is a skill. It’s this simultaneously complex and accessible style that Gurminder believes has led to an engaged readership of Discover Society by teachers around the world. Gurminder’s expansion of the ways sociology matters in a classroom is not simply about getting it outside academia, but shifting the parameters of the sociological canon within academic spaces and university classrooms too. The Global Social Theory site is one way she does this, in collaboration with Lucy Mayblin, Lisa Tilley, and Angela Last, promoting thinkers, topics, and concepts that draw on scholarship from around the world. It’s an open, collaborative website to help people overhaul their curricula and provide a broader range of resources for use in teaching. Gurminder notes that this work is not necessarily easy when you are situated within the academy, but that you must keep going.
Luke also picks up on the ambivalence of an academic setting for what might be seen as radical research, stating that in many ways, the academy is an unnatural place to talk about deportation and that his work doesn’t sit comfortably in the realm of the journal alone. His research isn’t about refining something theoretically and finding prestige in an articulation; it belongs to a world where people are thinking and living inside the issues it interrogates. There’s been active engagement in his work from activists, anti-racists, young people, and educators, and he makes the point that an audience like this travels the work further than we can measure: to protests, to policy makers, and into conversations that a journal article may never have been able to touch. This impact is not REF-able, but if Sociology is a craft of slowness, rigor, reflection, reading, peer-review and carefully crafted thought, then a slower, immeasurable impact, crafted through collective interactions, multiple conversations and a reach we cannot necessarily see, is part of the discipline too. The world is moving fast, Luke notes, but academics don’t have to. Engaging meaningfully with the public may be slow work, with slow results, but for research to really live, it’s needful and rewarding work.