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In the past decade, sociologists were mentioned just 57 times in the U.S. Congressional Record, compared to 3,333 times for economists. A similar pattern holds for mentions in The New York Times, where economists were cited nearly six times more often. Recognizing this disparity, sociologists have become more engaged in the public sphere, disseminating their work in the media and engaging in community research and activism. These activities have been successful in increasing public awareness of sociology and in creating a public dialogue around sociological ideas. As evidence of this, the number of NYT articles that cited sociologists increased 128 percent between 2008 (296 times) and 2018 (676 times). There has not, however, been a concurrent increase in policy discourse. As the NYT (“What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?”), Bloomberg (“Calling All Sociologists: America Needs You,” “Hey, Sociologists! Speak Up!”), and others have noted, sociologists speak to issues of national importance but rarely have a seat at the Cabinet Room table.
The sociological voice is limited in policy discourse because sociology has not yet created a “public” of policy makers. In his 2004 ASA Presidential Address, Michael Burawoy argued for a public sociology that privileged reflexive knowledge (that is, “a dialogue about ends”) between sociology and its “publics,” broadly defined. This vision of public, however, excludes policy makers, for whom only instrumental knowledge is valued (or so he claimed). Accordingly, sociologists have largely (although not entirely) ceded policy to other social sciences. Burawoy himself wrote that “when it comes to policy, we cannot compete with economists” (2004:127). Yet such defeatism ignores the value that the sociological perspective can offer policy makers. In today’s political climate, it is not enough for sociologists to simply lead a public discussion about values and the direction of society. We also have a responsibility to promote the best means of solving social problems.
Sociologists are uniquely qualified to provide evidence-based solutions to complex social problems. As a discipline, however, we have undersold our ability to address issues of national importance. This must change if sociology is to play a role in solving today’s most pressing problems. Sociology Policy Briefs is committed to promoting policy sociology by spreading sociological research to policy makers. SPB believes that the best way to promote sociological ideas in policy discourse is by making our research as accessible as possible. Journalists, activists, and policy makers do not always have access to academic research (often behind expensive paywalls), nor the expertise needed to parse it for policy implications. SPB’s policy briefs provide policy recommendations based on rigorous, peer-reviewed sociological research.
In 1967, Senator Walter Mondale introduced a bill that would have created a Council of Social Advisers, a parallel to the Council of Economic Advisers. His bill never passed and, despite calls for similar proposals (e.g., Risman 2009), it is unlikely that it would pass today. Yet sociologists should not simply cede power to economists. Instead, we must renew our commitment to policy sociology. Promoting policy sociology within the discipline and sociological research among policy makers is a way forward. My hope is that SPB will become a resource for sociologists to more directly effect policy change.
Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review 70(1):4–28. [PDF]
Burawoy, Michael, William Gamson, Charlotte Ryan, Stephen Pfohl, Diane Vaughan, Charles Derber, and Juliet Schor. 2004. “Public Sociologies: A Symposium from Boston College.” Social Problems 51(1):103–130. [PDF]
New York Times. 2015. “How Economists Came to Dominate the Conversation.” Retrieved April 7, 2019 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/24/upshot/how-economists-came-to-dominate-the-conversation.html).
Lauder, Hugh, Phillip Brown, and A.H. Halsey. 2004. "Sociology and Political Arithmetic: Some Principles of a New Policy Science" The British Journal of Sociology 55(1):3–22.
Risman, Barbara J. 2009. “Bringing Social Science to the White House.” Contexts 8(3):80.
Family Inequality. 2014. “Quote that sociologist, 124 in the Times edition.” Retrieved March 26, 2019 (https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/quote-that-sociologist-124-in-the-times-edition).
Lista, Peter. 2019. “For Policy Sociology: An Introduction to the Series.” Policy Brief No. 00-2019, Sociology Policy Briefs, May 1. Retrieved Month Day, Year (https://www.policybriefs.org/pdfs).
Peter Lista (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Indiana University. His research focuses on the intersection of culture and organizations, including career trajectories of contemporary artists and collecting strategies of elite art collectors (with Fabio Rojas), mentoring strategies of art school professors, and the relationship between negotiated order and organizational structure in the founding of the U.S. Federal Reserve. You can find him online at peterlista.com and on Twitter (@peterlista and @socpolicybriefs).
I would like to preemptively thank all of the scholars who will contribute their work to this series. I also want to acknowledge the professional sociology that makes public and policy sociology possible. “There can be neither public nor policy sociology, however, without a professional sociology that develops a body of theoretical knowledge and empirical findings, put to the test of peer review” (Burawoy et al. 2004:105).
Copyright 2019 Peter Lista