28 May

The Sociologist, the Public and the Mass Media

Posted By Politybooks

First posted 31st August 2010


Some natural and social scientists seem to love the media, especially television. One of the most often seen is atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins who has fronted several TV series and is regularly seen on news programmes debating Darwinian evolutionary theory and religion. As Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University (1995-2008), Dawkins rose to prominence as a public intellectual advocating evolutionary theory, as well as the sternest public critic of what he sees as divisive religious schools, unquestioning religious faith and fundamentalisms of all kinds. [The website of Dawkins’ Foundation can be seen here.] Biology is more than adequately represented in the media with David Attenborough’s numerous wildlife programmes and a host of other presenters, too. Historians Simon Schama and Michael Wood are TV regulars as are numerous archaeologists, psychologists, criminologists, astronomers, economists and political scientists. But where are all the sociologists? And does it matter that we don’t regularly see sociology represented in the media?

It wouldn’t be an issue if the academic ‘ivory tower’ was still standing and sociology could continue on its merry way blissfully separated from the rest of society. But some sociologists have seen the separation of professional, scientific sociology from a much broader public sociology as a key and contentious issue for the discipline in the future. Michael Burawoy of the University of California has forcibly argued that professional sociology has become distanced from the concerns of ‘ordinary people’ and must re-engage with politics, social movements and shifting class inequalities in an era of neoliberal economic dominance. Not to do so runs the risk of irrelevance, but also gives all those other disciplines a free reign. This is ironic as many older sociologists today were drawn to the subject in the 1970s precisely because it seemed to have so much to say, much of it critical, about the direction society was taking.

Burawoy actually sees four types of sociology: professional and public sociologies, policy sociology and critical sociology. [You can read Burawoy’s mission statementhere.] The first two have attracted most attention. For Burawoy and others, public sociology is opposed to but also dependent on professional or scientific sociology, both of which exist in a relationship of ‘antagonistic interdependence’. Detached, scientific sociology produces research methods, empirical evidence and theories, which are necessary for public sociology’s engagement with non-academic audiences. But unlike professional sociology, the public version opens up a genuine dialogue with those audiences, thus allowing the discipline to be partly shaped by the concerns of non-sociologists. Of course this is a very stark dividing line and in practice much scientific sociology today does try hard to engage with its audiences. And critics are right to point out that there is a risk of sociology being subordinated to political ideologies. Nonetheless, the basic idea that professional sociology does not do enough to engage with wider public concerns and political debate seems to me broadly correct. One aspect of this is the lack of a media presence for sociology.

To understand the problem of the invisible sociologists we have to grasp the general tenor of sociological studies of the media. For many, probably most sociologists, mass media forms are never neutral channels for the transmission of information and knowledge. In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan showed us that the medium doesn’t just carry our messages, but in fact ‘the medium is the message’. Hence, television requires us to watch from our armchairs inculcating passivity and an uncritical acceptance of the status quo. According to Neil Postman (1985) it’s also completely unsuited to serious matters, but is brilliant at ‘entertainment’, so good that TV reduces all news and political debate to an entertainment format, which thus depoliticizes and sanitizes it. Even worse, Marxist critics such as the Glasgow Media Group saw systematic bias in TV news against workers, strikers and less-powerful social groups and an inbuilt positive bias supporting political elites and the establishment. In the 1990s, French social philosopher Jean Baudrillard pushed these critiques to a logical conclusion, arguing that the mass media doesn’t just represent social life and politics but is complicit in creating it. We now live and are trapped within hyperreality (reality + its representations), a complex mix of ‘real-world’ events and media images and reports.

The upshot of all this is that most sociologists have a deep-seated mistrust of the media, particularly television, which makes them loath to engage with it on its own terms, fearing crude misrepresentation or the trivializing of their ideas. But the end result is a notable absence of sociologists in the mass media and a diminishing influence in shaping public consciousness. Whilst other disciplines have become familiar and expected parts of news programmes, political debate shows and documentaries, sociology has become publicly invisible to the wider population. Is this problematic? Some think it is. The lack of a public presence is damaging to the general awareness of sociological theories and evidence in many public debates. It’s no coincidence that the rising adoption of simplistic applications based on evolutionary psychology or individualistic arguments have taken place against this backdrop. If sociologists shun the media they can’t really complain when public and political debates are dominated by non-sociological theories and evidence.

Media invisibility also has a practical impact, for instance, on the course choices of students and therefore the viability of sociology departments and staff groups. If sociology loses out to psychology, criminology and political science then there will simply be fewer sociologists in the long run. Probably the most damaging aspect though is the possibility that the sociological imagination, that hard-won and crucially important ability to connect private troubles and public issues, will wither amongst the wider public, allowing individualistic ‘explanations’ of social phenomena to gain ground once again. The first line of defence must be for sociologists to swallow their professional pride and shelve their legitimate concerns about the media just long enough to enable the discipline to gain a public presence that will keep alive our distinctive sociological perspective in public and political debates.

Chapter 18 covers the sociology of the media and includes an extended discussion of media theories on pp. 788-800. The sociological imagination from C. Wright Mills onwards is discussed on pp. 5-9. The issue of sociology and science can be found on pp. 38-9.