To invite sociologists to engage with the media at this particular moment in history hardly appears propitious. The proliferation of populist nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms around the world is emboldening politicians and celebrities—the line between the two being increasingly blurred in our infotainment era—to openly profess hostility towards or ignorance of expertise of all kinds. To this extent, sociologists risk facing either political animus or popular indifference, for we reveal certain inconvenient truths that puncture, undermine, or squarely contradict the cherished dogma of naturalized, profanely or theologically sacred, and seemingly self-evident common sense about the social world.
Adding to the untimely character of this call for media engagement is the belief amongst certain members of the sociological community that media organizations are reducible to instruments of corporate or state power, or yet again, that sociologists who work with news outlets are craven, shallow, and publicity-seeking dilettantes uncommitted to serious scholarly work. Furthermore, the last few years have witnessed the multiplication of “how-to” guides for academics interested in public outreach via social media platforms, inadvertently fostering the perception that conventional media is sliding into the waste bin of cultural and technological obsolescence.
While some of these arguments may be convincing to varying extents, wholeheartedly accepting their conclusions can only produce disengagement from the media and deprive sociologists of means of mass communication. The reach of mass media remains unrivalled—and this, at the very time that sociological perspectives on crucial social, political, cultural, and economic debates need to be heard more broadly. Moreover, engaging with the media makes for better public and professional sociologists. It simultaneously enables us to encounter a wider range of ideas, opinions, and experiences than would be available to us otherwise and compels us to reflect upon, frame, and present our work to audiences unaccustomed to academic discourse, rituals, and norms.
Why, then, turn to Canada? From a global perspective, the Canadian experience is a valuable case study because the duality of its two dominant, linguistically-based public spheres encompasses and mirrors the two most common ways in which media organizations view sociologists around the world and, conversely, the two strategies through which sociologists participate in public debates via news outlets: as professional specialists, or as public intellectuals.
In English-speaking Canada, as in the rest of Anglo-American world where professional sociology is a more prevalent mode of disciplinary practice, news outlets primarily solicit sociologists as specialists on a precise topic receiving coverage (say, the settlement of Syrian refugees or social media-fuelled bullying in high schools). At the same time, consistent with American and British tendencies, Anglo-Canadian sociology has a relatively subordinate public standing vis-à-vis some of its social scientific counterparts—notably, economics, psychology, and political science, whose practitioners traditionally have enjoyed a greater foothold on prestigious, nationally broadcasted television and radio panels as well as in newspapers of record.
In French-speaking Québec, much like in Latin America and continental Europe where sociology benefits from a relatively high degree of socio-cultural esteem and intellectual prestige, the discipline occupies a public role that rivals, and often surpasses, its professional one. This is so because sociologists have contributed in significant ways to the articulation of the social and cultural foundations of francophone Québécois collective identity and nationhood since the anti-clerical and modernizing “Révolution tranquille” of the 1960s. As a result, sociologists in Québec tend to be viewed as public intellectuals and generalists whom the media approaches to opine on broad social and political questions; a journalist or host frequently asks “what do you, as a sociologist, think” of a given topic?
Although the above observations are derived from the Canadian context, the dual character of sociology’s positioning—either as a specialized profession or a public intellectual pursuit—is generalizable to many other settings. Accordingly, because their risks and rewards differ, each of these modes of practice benefits from learning from the other while calling for a distinct set of strategies of media engagement.
In the Anglo-American world, given that the legitimacy of sociology is less well established and principally grounded in professional specialization, I want to put forth three proposals of publicization of the discipline:
Understand your positioning: Study the ideological and professional terrain of your national media fields to grasp the role that you will be asked to play. Why are producers or journalists soliciting you, to what ends is your expertise being requested, and how will your statements be framed in an article or during an appearance?
Embrace a varied diet: Apply media sociology’s analytical principle of representative sampling to the interviews that you grant by speaking with less prestigious or consecrated news sources such as community radio stations, smaller newspapers, and so forth. You will thereby reach an audience that may not be as familiar with, and may be intrigued by, a sociological vantage-point on a particular topic.
Opinions are cheap, but (sociological) facts are hard earned: In the age of social media, everyone has an opinion and a platform to broadcast it. Your differentia specifica as a professional specialist, then, stems from the ability to draw upon your research findings and cite facts to counter popular misconceptions, as well as locate a particular event within its broader socio-historical and comparative context.
For places such as Latin America, continental Europe, and francophone Québec, where sociologists regularly perform the role of public intellectuals and media engagement veers toward professional specialization, I offer two proposals:
Shape the encounter: Since journalists or producers normally will conduct a pre-interview with you and value your advice highly, take the opportunity to mold the angle that the story will take. Suggest alternative lines of inquiry, recommend another person to be interviewed, or follow up by sending reports, data, or even (hark!) a refereed journal article or book on the subject being covered.
Keep your eyes on the prize: Given that you will be constituted as a public intellectual, it will be tempting to speculate by making sweeping pronouncements about the state of the world or establishing reductive causal ties. Instead, steer the interview back to matters that touch upon your research interests and areas of expertise. Do so in a concise manner that focuses on your key points of analysis, one that is accessible yet neither diluted nor “dumbed down”.
A final point applies across all settings: timing is everything. Tight deadlines and fleeting newsworthiness are sacrosanct for the media. You need to find a just medium between accommodating their last-minute requests and your own schedule. Reporters, producers, and editors cannot and will not wait for you to find the time to grant them an interview or publish your op-ed piece once their story is filed or has faded from public consciousness.
Rather than turning sociologists into bloviating windbags or tiresome pundits, these proposals make a case for renewed collaboration with the media, for it behooves us to cultivate sociology’s twin purpose as a public vocation and a professional discipline that serves as an alternative to the kind of public relations spin, entrepreneurial platitudes, or cynical opportunism that passes as wisdom in too many public spaces in these troubled times.
Fuyuki Kurasawa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at York University and is York Research Chair in Global Digital Citizenship.
“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.