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Volume 9, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2011

Presidential Address:
Realizing the Promise of Sociology: Going Public and Enriching Community*


Kimberly J. Cook


    In 1937 Ellsworth Faris, President of the American Sociological Society (now ASA) urged sociologists to harness the potentials of our theory, methods, and analysis "to dig and to discover, to understand the causes and conditions for only on intelligent comprehension of facts, principles, causes and conditions" --- and I would add consequences "can intelligent programs of action be based" (Faris, 1938:4).   He believed that through the careful application of sociological methods we will provide something so rare that also has the promise to promote healing that is understanding.  On the eve of World War II, Faris openly worried about "race-conflict" and believed that sociology has the capacity to generate understanding in order to promote "alterations which might be possible to make of conditions that would cause its diminution or its disappearance" (p. 8). Therefore, he suggested, "it is the promise of sociology and its sister social sciences that these similar problems are capable of investigation and that a fortunate discovery will put us on the road to a demonstrable solution" (p. 8).   From this, and other sociological publications, we find a broader goal to our craft beyond measuring and analyzing, to developing courses of action aimed at alleviating the harmful consequences of social conditions endured by millions of disenfranchised people around the world.

    I first read Peter Berger's invitation to the feast of sociological analysis in my Introduction to Sociology class as a first semester student at the University of Maine. Professor Stephen Marks required us to read the Berger classic (1963) and I discovered in its pages the wisdom of understanding how structural and cultural conditions contribute to personal troubles.  I learned, and celebrated, that sociological analysis generates "a logical imperative to unmask the pretension and the propaganda by which men [sic] cloak their actions with each other. This unmasking imperative is one of the characteristics of sociology particularly at home in the temper of the modern era" (p. 38).  I was ready to unmask multiple pretensions that had affected my own life and enthusiastically embraced this imperative.  Brief and formative experiences as a young battered woman, working in a shirt factory, and as a single mother on welfare all shaped my capacity to embrace sociological analysis and the promise it offered to me and others.  By unmasking the pretensions of our cultural messages that battered women "get what they deserve" I slowly began to discard the old notions that I was unworthy of human dignity.  Hearing Professor Marks describe Marxian concepts of alienation and class inequality, as well as feminist sociological analysis of gender, I began to understand some of those formative experiences from this 'debunking motif' (Berger 1963).  In sociology classes I found more than merely understanding my own predicament, I found a prescription for alleviating those conditions of inequality and a course of action for creating social change in our modern world. When reading Dobash and Dobash (1979) classic book Violence Against Wives, I understood, reflected, and analyzed domestic violence through feminist sociological theory.  Feminist theory deepened my understanding beyond the personal to a social phenomenon that many victims face with predictable problems associated with it such as: shame, isolation, economic dependency, sexist and judgmental reactions from others when seeking help, and common cultural messages that routinely blame victims for the brutality they endure.  By reading sociological research on the experiences of battered women of color, I understood that victimization is compounded by sexism as well as racism in our modern world and knew that Mills (1959) profound observation that "personal troubles" are in fact "political issues" was powerfully true.  This promise of sociological understanding motivated me towards graduate school and to enter academia.

    Sociologists have debated for decades what role our science should play in shaping social change; some suggest we ought to be "value-free" scientists who report on the findings of our empirical research and let the policy makers and social activists use it as they deem appropriate for their purposes.  Others suggest that, as sociologists, we are in a unique position as experts in social life to conduct research on social problems in order to provide for empowerment of those who experience those social problems, so we see some scholars doing research on homelessness in order to alleviate the social conditions that give rise to homelessness. My goal is not to repeat or rehash those debates, merely to acknowledge it as an on-going conversation in the discipline.  We also have a long tradition within sociology of deciding "Whose Side Are We On?" (Becker 1967).  Becker suggested it is inevitable that, within sociology, as with society, we all "take sides" even when we proclaim to be neutral.  Given the types of research we tend to do in sociology, it's not surprising that we would "fall into deep sympathy with the people we are studying, so that while the rest of society views them as unfit in one or another respect , we believe that they are at least as good as anyone else, more sinned against than sinning" (p. 240). In outlining what Becker describes as "hierarchies of credibility" attentive sociologists understand that personal life experiences are informed by the structural location of the individual within that experience (the patient versus the doctor, for instance) as well by the background knowledge brought to bear in the situation.  We, as sociologists, have the opportunity to use the credibility of high quality research to inform social policy as it relates to our communities of concern and advocate (with rational temperaments) for improving the quality of life in our communities.  When faced with the realities of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, we can follow Howard Zinn's example to stand up for the disenfranchised, adding the weight of our disciplinary wisdom to the cause for social justice (Zinn 2002). After 21 years of teaching sociology, I can't count the times my students have asked "what can I do to fix these social problems?"  I am convinced that students want to be inspired and empowered with good sociological wisdom to "make a difference" in the daily lives in our communities.  By taking the knowledge, skills, and techniques of good sociological research, we can improve our communities and help generate a stronger foundation and enhance everyone's quality of life. 

    Sociologists are currently debating the utility and applicability of "public sociology" and many argue that we can harness its potential for alleviating suffering in our communities for various 'publics' (see generally: Nyden, Hossfeld, and Nyden 2012; Dolgon and Chayko 2010).   We will hear more about the nuances of public sociology at our meeting today and I want to make just a few points to get our conversation started.  First, I want to review briefly our disciplinary conversation on public sociology. Then, I want to share an overview of how we define and employ public sociology here at UNCW. Finally, I want to offer some closing remarks on moving forward with developing public sociology in academic departments. This is not "sociologist as superhero" as we practice it this is more like "sociologist in community action" we ought not to tell members of our community what we think is best for them.  We work with our neighbors (our publics) as they identify needs and desired outcomes in our community; we employ sociological methods to help achieve those goals. Joanne Miller cautions that the "engaged scholar cannot drop into a community, collect data, write an analytical report, and leave. . The engaged scholar continuously needs to be fully aware of the delicate relationship between the researcher and the community leader" (Miller 2011).

Public Sociology as Outlined by the American Sociological Association

    In July 2005, the ASA Task Force on Institutionalizing Public Sociologies released its report after nearly 18 months of work.  I concur with the ASA Task Force that public sociology is a way of doing sociology that translates into meaningful lessons beyond the walls of the academy. For my purposes here, I depend on Burawoy's (2004) schema for identifying public sociology.  The essential wisdom of sociology remains a solid foundation upon which we can build towards improving the quality of life in our communities and in our world.  As I see it, "doing" sociology requires combining excellent teaching in the classroom with applying skills of sociological research methods and dissemination within and beyond the academic audiences.   Without repeating the ASA Task Force report, I want to focus on a few of their recommendations for institutionalizing public sociology.  First, they recommended the following: 

  • Individual departments should consider ways of producing a more inclusive research environment for faculty and students in their department (ASA Task Force 2005:5).
  • The ASA and individual sociology departments should encourage regional networking among public sociologists and sociology departments to recognize and integrate the experience and knowledge of public sociologists into academic curriculum and meet the needs for continuing education of non-academic sociologists. This networking and two-way communication will make academic departments more aware of developing trends and needs among non-academic sociologists and public sociologists (ASA Task Force, 2005: 5).
The Task Force outlines the following steps forward:
  •  Departments ought to articulate how public sociology is to be evaluated for promotion and tenure considerations.
    • ASA guidelines can be helpful
    • Ultimately, each sociology faculty must collectively articulate a framework that makes sense to them, in consultation with administration and other stakeholders.
  • Establish a working-group within the department to study and develop a plan to move forward.
  • Establish a 'public sociology fund' if at all possible.
    • At UNCW we have our trust funds available for such purposes
    • We have annual RFPs from our Dean's office to support "applied learning" activities throughout the college.
    • Professional development funds for faculty should include allowances for public sociology work, not only for the traditional conference travel.
 Public Sociology at UNCW

     In 2005, we began a departmental discussion about transforming our "applied sociology" concentration into a "public sociology" concentration.  This was spurred in part by our very wise decision to hire Dr. Leslie Hossfeld who is a leader within public sociology.  With her on our faculty leading our curricular revision, we transformed our curriculum from Applied Sociology to Public Sociology. (I should make clear that I do not consider myself a public sociologist in the same way that Dr. Hossfeld is; I am merely an academic Sociology Department Chair who advocates for public sociology and supports our curricular developments in that direction.  I do not see this as MY program, nor do I want to be seen as "taking credit" for building it; my role as Department Chair was more of support-role than a lead role.) 

    Our former applied sociology curriculum required: 39 hours, intro, methods, data analysis, theory, and electives. Within the applied sociology concentration students could focus on specific topical areas, such as:  gerontology, health, social class, race/ethnic relations, deviance, and medical sociology.  They needed to cluster their electives within these concentrations, and then were required to do a practicum in an agency aligned with their topical areas. 

    Our new curriculum in public sociology requires the standard core: 39 hours, introduction to sociology, methods, data analysis, theory and electives:

  • Public Sociology seminar a three hour seminar course in which students develop and design a research project and review literature.
  • Public Sociology practicum a six hour internship course in which students work in the community, carry-out their research and write up their findings.
    This is a two semester sequence: we offer SOC 390 in the fall semesters and SOC 496 in the spring semesters.  The classes flow into each other in a year-long research project conducted by the students, with faculty direction, in partnership with community members and for community gain. Students can specialize within a substantive sociological focus of their choosing. For example:
  • Mass Media,   Popular Culture,  Sociology of Culture,  Sociology Through Film
  • Juvenile Delinquency, SOC/CRM 255 Criminology, SOC 335 Deviance
  • Individuals in the Global World, SOC 415 Globalization and Development,  Sociology of Work and Occupations.
  • The possibilities are many.
    In addition to our curriculum revision, we have also established a partnership with the local public housing authority. The Community Campus at Hillcrest is our launch site for the public sociology program. Public Sociology classes meet at Hillcrest, the students work closely with the residents on their projects and the outcomes of class projects remain in the Hillcrest community. 

    Our programs include the following:

Support:  We have supported our program with donors' funds, grants, and additional support from the College and the University.  This support includes 15 computer terminals with internet access, paper goods, office supplies, room dividers, tables, chairs, etc. 

Dissemination: At the end of the spring semester our public sociology students disseminate the findings of their research to the public: namely City Council, Public Housing Residents Council, and our community partners.  In April 2010, the results of their research project generated  policy recommendations including expanding the local public transportation bus routes for people to have more dependable access to quality grocery stores, and also for the vendors at the local farmers' market to accept food stamp debit cards.  These recommendations were endorsed by the City Council and residents have seen these changes in Wilmington.

Graduate Curriculum: In 2007 we welcomed our first cohort of Master's students into our Criminology and Public Sociology degree program.  This is a professional master's degree program and we aim to train our graduate students as public sociologists with skills to enter the labor force either in higher education or beyond higher education.  Students are required to enroll in seminars on research methods, theory, data analysis, Evaluation Methods, public sociology, and criminology as well as substantive electives in their areas of interest.  Our graduate students are required to complete a traditional thesis option OR an internship option. Both require oral defense for completing the program.  We have relied on the research of the ASA produced by Roberta Spalter-Roth identifying the skills MA students need to work outside the academy and have incorporated these into our curriculum. 

Faculty Professional Development: Like all academic programs we are required to teach, do research, and be involved in service as part of our faculty positions.  Furthermore, we are required to maintain academic standards and apply university-wide criteria for promotion and tenure applications.  This reality prompted us to discuss at length what we believe good public sociology should include and thus guide how we conduct necessary peer evaluations within the department.  Our department has approved our vision for "public sociology": 

    Sociology is Public Sociology when it includes the following:

  1. A sociological theoretical framework for outlining the nature of the social problem being addressed. 
  2. A current and comprehensive examination of the sociological literature on the social problem. 
  3. Sociological research methods either developing empirical measures or analyzing empirical evidence (quantitatively or qualitatively, official sources and ethnographic sources, etc) exploring the nature of the social problem. 
  4. Dissemination in conventional scholarly outlets (peer-reviewed journals, university or academic press publishers, etc.) as well as dissemination for broader public use (such as testimony to Congress, or presentation to the City Council,) to advocate for a sociologically-informed solution to the social problem. 
    As scholars who are engaged in public sociology work, we identify the social problems we wish to explore by understanding the existing sociological research on the topic (we do our literature reviews to get a disciplinary handle on the sources, nature, and scope of the problem) and we explore the existing theoretical frameworks that shape our approach to collecting and analyzing data in our public sociology projects. Dissemination of these findings to the publics we study is critical.  We may develop policy recommendations based on the engaged scholarship of the problem, or help community leaders and organizers work toward a project's goals.

    Public Sociology is not inherently politically liberal or conservative. We define our "publics" broadly, and include local, national, and global issues. While no faculty member in this department is required to do public sociology, we support, endorse, and value those who do while also maintaining our very strong support for traditional sociology and the scholarly enterprise therein. In all of our scholarly work, we embrace intellectually rigorous research and high academic standards. This framework informs our peers in the discipline, our personnel evaluations, and the shape of our undergraduate and graduate curricula. Our public sociology classes follow this model and include student involvement in theory, research, and dissemination.

Building a Public Sociology Program

    It's critical for Sociology departments to outline reasonable parameters for supporting public sociology as part of building a credible and successful program.  The department needs to define for itself what 'public sociology' means and how it is to be evaluated for promotion and tenure purposes.  I strongly recommend to do on the basis of existing published research and analysis to apply the best practices in public sociology. There is no need to reinvent the wheel given the ASA's guidelines, though there may be a need to tweak some elements to suit specific circumstances. 

    Public sociology, when undertaken in the way we have done so, is very labor-intensive.  For candidates being reviewed for RPT, there is a need to define what 'counts' and how it counts.  I recommend the following parameters:

  • Public sociologists should publish their community-based research in peer-reviewed outlets whenever possible.
  • Public sociologists should get 'scholarly' credit for programming grants that fund their community-engaged scholarship.
  • Public sociologists should get 'scholarly' and 'teaching' credit when they and their students make research-based presentations in public settings (such as our presentation to City Council).
  • Public sociologists should get teaching credit for the intensive individualized instruction required to conduct community-based research with teams of students.
  • Public sociologists should get service credit, as well, for maintaining strong and productive working relationships with community partners.
  • Public sociologists would be well-advised to secure support from their departmental colleagues in advance of launching a public sociology project in order to prevent unpleasant rejection after the fact
  • Public sociology demands open and regular communication within the department to understand and evaluate the parameters and the rewards for the work to be done The ASA Taskforce on Institutionalizing Public Sociologies has created a set of recommendations for Research Promotion and Tenure that departments may use in reviewing public sociology activities. 
Curriculum and Resources

    Departments that offer a solid sociological foundation of core and elective classes can explore building public sociology from there.  In addition, students appreciate the opportunities they've had to 'do' sociology beyond the classroom.  When students understand the "value added" from these applied learning opportunities, they enthusiastically embrace the work.  If your department wants to pursue a public sociology agenda here is what you might do

  • Decide what your department wants from public sociology opportunities?
    • Conventional internship model where students 'work' in an agency and write a report?
    • Public sociology curriculum where the whole class works on a large research project that helps a segment of the 'public' beyond the classroom?
  • What resources can you devote to public sociology? 
    • Teaching load flexibility if possible?
    • Donors' funds, if available?
    • Programming grants to support local projects?
    • College and University administrative resources for space, infrastructure, and materials?
    • Community partners who would be a good building block to start? Local public housing groups? Boys and Girls clubs? 
    Finally, developing a successful public sociology program is an exciting opportunity to make sociology come to life, to render concrete the abstract concepts we teach.  I believe that most sociology departments have the necessary foundation for building a public sociology program, if they so desire. When the faculty is dedicated to delivering an excellent education to students, then students are eager and interested in embracing applied learning opportunities, the university administration is (hopefully) supportive of regionally engaged scholarship, and the community agencies would likely to gain from it.   This can be, then, a win/win/win situation for all involved so long as it maintains high academic standards and integrity with community partners involved. 

Public Sociology Beyond the Academy

    The academic discipline of sociology has experienced a revitalization of our purpose and our value thanks, in part, to public sociology.  Sociologists can take the original inspiration of that age old question "so what?" and transform the answers into building community work in our local, national, and global world.  Taking the lessons and wisdom of our discipline beyond the classroom walls and out in the community provides a value-added incentive for our students to pursue.  Our students come to our classes from multiple life experiences, some are lives of comfort and expectation, others are lives of struggles and insecurity; all of them deserve the best that sociology has to offer.  We must perpetually reflect on the question, "whose life am I affecting and how?" (Miller 2011).  I am convinced that once students embrace public sociology their training takes on an added dimension that prepares them for life after college. The theories they learn become flesh and blood people whose names they know, whose desires they understand, and whose lives they value.  The empirical evidence they collect and then disseminate in their projects is credible and concrete material that helps them realize the promise of sociology while also creating meaningful social change.  To quote Ellsworth Faris as my final thought, "ours is a profession of the highest dignity. There is every reason to hope by our efforts human welfare may be advanced" (1938:12). 


Becker, Howard S. "Whose side are we on?" 1967. Social Problems 14(3): 239-247. 

Berger, Peter. 1963. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Burawoy, Michael. 2004. "Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities" Social Forces 82(4): 1603-1618.

Dobash, R.E. and R. Dobash. 1979. Violence Against Wives: A Case Against the Patriarchy. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Dolgon, Corey and Mary Chayko. 2010. Pioneers of Public Sociology: 30 Years of Humanity and Society. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Faris, Ellsworth. 1938. "The Promise of Sociology" American Sociological Review 3(1): 1-12.

Miller, Joanne. 2011. "Presidential Address: Social Justice Work: Purpose-Driven Social Science" Social Problems 58(1): 1-20.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nyden, P., L. Hossfeld, and G. Nyden. 2012. Public Sociology: Research, Action, and Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Zinn, Howard. 2002. You can't be neutral on a moving train: a personal history of our times. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.


*2011 Presidential Address for the North Carolina Sociological Association annual meeting.

I am very grateful to Dr. Leslie Hossfeld for reading a draft of this paper prior to delivery. Any errors or weaknesses, however, are my own. I want to thank the colleagues here at UNCW, whose work is inspiring, high quality, and illuminating.  We work hard together and we have a great time doing it. It's very special to work with scholars whom I respect, and whose companionship I enjoy: thanks! To the Dean and Associate Deans in the College of Arts and Sciences, who have supported our program for years in many ways, I am immensely grateful: David Cordle, Kathleen Berkeley, Carol Pilgrim, and David Webster. I am grateful in more ways than I can convey to my parents, Everett and Freda Cook, and to my son, Greg Cook, for their support and good humor as we have made this journey together. It's not "all about me" rather it really is all about them; for they are my heart and my joy.

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