Should every sociologist blog?

I recently heard someone (Nathan Jurgenson) advise first-year sociology graduate students that they should all blog and tweet.

I blog to read the sound of my own sociological voice, to contribute to the community of social scientists thinking about the questions that move me, to provide information and ideas to the public and hear their responses, and to organize my own thoughts on research and writing. This project may have reduced my peer-reviewed scholarly output in the last several years. But it has enriched my sociological thinking, enhanced my intellectual environment, improved my writing, and made my job more fun.

But every sociologist blogging might seem like overkill. Who is going to read all those blogs, and how would we have time for anything else if we all wrote and read blogs all day? The wired cacophony we endure already competes with academic reading and writing, as we struggle to wade through a growing stream of random chit-chat (or, as Andy Borowitz put it, “Twitter would be a great way of telling people what we’re doing if we were doing something instead of being on Twitter”).

And yet we all know there is no better general advice for young intellectuals than to read and write a lot. Setting aside tweeting, which I’m too old to call writing, blogging can be an important part of your process – even before you become another tenured blowhard.

The file

Like many sociologists of my generation, I came to see myself practicing a craft when I read the appendix to C. Wright Mills’s 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, titled, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Applying some of his ideas has made me a more productive and satisfied sociologist, and my blog is a big part of that – playing the role of “the file” in his model.

“By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits,” he wrote, “you learn how to keep your inner world awake.”

Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.

In Mills’s practice, the file was a set of topical folders, the organization of which was itself an intellectual exploration (“the topics, of course, change, sometimes quite frequently”) – these are the blog topic tags. As the file develops, the list of potential projects and research ideas outruns one’s ability to pursue them, providing the impetus to review and prioritize. If that review is part of a “widespread, informal interchange of such reviews … among working social scientists,” the result is collaborative agenda-setting.

Doing it with a blog

Writing a blog – as well as reading and contributing to the blogs of others – seems the most practical and engaging means of achieving the intellectual ideal that Mills described, which requires “surrounding oneself by a circle of people who will listen and talk.” Today’s blog platform is ideal for that.

There is a difference between Mills’s idea of “the file” – which is written and curated in private, punctuated by episodic exchange with select social scientists – and blogging a stream of notes and commentary, broadcast to anyone who will read it. The result is noisier than what he had in mind, but I think it’s an improvement, especially because it encourages one of the other practices he thought so important: developing a jargon-free intellectual voice and readable writing style.*

There are other ways that a blog can achieve, and improve on, the craftspersonship model Mills proposed, some of which are dear to me. For example, making many visual representations of data:

Charts, tables and diagrams of a qualitative sort are not only ways to display work already done; they are very often genuine tools of production. … Most of them flop, in which case you have learned something. When they work, they help you to think more clearly and to write more explicitly.

This process surely is only enhanced when such work-product is shared with the community of readers which the blog permits. For me, the cost of moderating the few less constructive comments is outweighed by the benefit of receiving feedback from the many more constructive.

Objections

There are reasonable objections to the suggestion that all sociologists blog – from the time they begin their careers in graduate school.

Some people are not intellectual extroverts. Not everyone wants to shout their every idea into the Internet tube. That’s fine. But although academia may be kinder to introverts than some other professions, developing a public voice is an important part of being a successful sociologist. Like speaking up in a graduate seminar, the only way to grow more comfortable is to do it. In fact, what’s good advice for seminars works here as well – speak up every time, early in the discussion, to break your ice and get it over with. For blogging, remember there is no need to write everything. You can post selectively your reading lists, discussion questions, minor observations, and annotated links to the writing of others. Save the political declarations, scathing takedowns of your department chair, and obscenity-laced poetry for after you have tenure.

Having few readers will be discouraging. It shouldn’t be. A few friendly readers – such as fellow students or people in the same subfield – might be all you need to motivate your writing habit. No need for a massive following to achieve your goals. Consider getting together with a few others and each posting to a group blog once per week. (Departments or graduate student associations would do well to facilitate this.)

Bad ideas or immature writing today is a job opportunity blown six years from now. If your potential future department Googles you and hates your blog, maybe they won’t hire you. But that risk has to be weighed against the benefit of having richer ideas and more mature writing later as a result of all that practice. Plus, anticipating the possible negative consequences of your writing is an important skill to develop. And you can always delete (if not completely expunge) those posts you later regret.

Personal history addendum

I came to sociology with an identity as a writer. And some of the best training I had was in my writing jobs. I wrote for daily radio news (arrive at work at 5 AM, call the police and fire departments, write up accidents and DWIs, on the air by 5:30); for the Ithaca Times (find a band worth reviewing every weekend, review due Tuesday morning); and for the Michigan Daily (editorial board decided positions, editorials due within a day or two).

Each job required writing whether I felt like it or not, on a quick deadline. So a big part of my blogging advice is because it’s a straightforward way to get yourself writing. If you have others, that’s great, too.

20120324-133840.jpg
Photo by Harvey Ferdschneider, circa 1988.

* That doesn’t mean all scientific writing must be comprehensible to everyone. Mills admired the clear writing of Paul Lazarsfeld, even though it was sometimes highly mathematical: “When I cannot understand his mathematics, I know it is because I am too ignorant; when I disagree with what he writes in non-mathematical language, I know it is because he is mistaken.”

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Should every sociologist blog?

  1. Nice post, I’m definitely in the “everyone should blog” camp. In addition to the points you make, I think it’s one of the best ways to learn how social media works. Blogs also make up a pretty significant share of the content found on web. It’s great when people with expertise add to this rather than just criticizing the quality of existing content.

  2. perhaps the basic question should not be framed asking if sociologists should blog, but instead asking: what justification is there for NOT sharing one’s work publicly? this means *not* starting with looking just at the qualities of the blogosphere or twitterverse, but also existing academia itself.

    research written in academic jargon published in a random pay-walled journal very often goes nowhere, is read by few (if any) and has little larger public impact. thus, the imperative becomes, what will *each and every sociologist* (and other academics, of course) do to make their work more relevant for the society that is supporting their work? academics have a responsibility to answer this question.

    and this question must be framed as larger than one;s own career but asking what sort of knowledges are curtailed by the traditional academic pay-walled-journal model? what ideas and perspectives are limited by established academic gate-keepers? the very notion of opting out of the pay-walled-academic-garden is already unprofessional/dangerous to many established sociologists. while not all blogging/tweeting is transgressive, the fact that more voices can be heard has subversive potential.

    blogging, tweeting, etc are some ways to start claiming one’s responsibility to share work. writing more accessibly and for more diverse publics both within and outside academic journals is another. i expand on this idea here: http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/01/23/how-academics-can-become-relevant/

    simply, the Q is not “should i blog?” but “how should i make my work public?”. from this starting point we can work on the details in a way that suits individual researchers. this starting point acknowledges that however we choose to publish our work is always deeply political.

    last, two nitpicky points:
    1- asking every sociologist to blog does *not* mean “shouting…every idea” to the web, but means posting one’s work to a blog at least once. blogging/tweeting is not all or nothing and should be approached as such. agreeing with your points here, i’d include getting into professional social media slowly. test the waters.

    2- advising grad students to *not* write political posts or obscenity-laced-poetry may be a bit too cautious. yes, we should be aware of the potential consequences of these actions and, yes, some schools may not hire you. however, people motivated to write this stuff may not want to work for schools not comfortable with who they are and what drives them and their work. there will be jobs that will see a public, political and artistic researcher so motivated by their work that they will risk their career for it as the ideal candidate. it is a case-by-case thing, of course, so i’m a little worried that the blanket dismissal of politics or edgy art is too conservative of a reaction. part of demanding academics be more public means widening the definition of “academic” to include more work that is outside of traditional notions of what is professional and safe. this gets back to my point above acknowledging that many established academics already view opting out of the pay-walled-garden as dangerous.

    disclaimers: (1) i’m pretty sure i’m the person referenced but not and now [-pnc] named at the top of this post; (2) i’m just a grad student so any career advice i’m giving is highly suspect

    • Thanks, Nathan. I’ve linked you at the top now.

      As for what’s good advice, that will depend on one’s goals. For example, today’s grad students who want tenure on research-oriented faculties will have a hard time if they boycott pay-walled journals. And people who work in more technical areas may publish indispensable research that is nevertheless untranslatable or uninteresting to most of the public. Of course, you (or anyone) might want to advise against such careers in the first place.

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  4. I have recently started up my own blog. I’m a sociologist (or in Mills’ terminology, a social scientist); professor of American Studies at a state teaching school in California. I’m trying to figure out exactly what the role of my blog is/should be at my stage in my career and for my long term goals as a scholar and teacher. I have recently been awarded tenure, so I’m not overly worried about what work I put out into the public (I had a blog earlier in my career that I used as a kind of sounding board for ideas; so it was uneven in quality and content). The blog is very new, with only one post; but I’m hopeful of the potential for academic/scholarly/pedagogical blogging in the social sciences and the small role that my humble contribution might make.

    During the tenure track, I did not use my old blog as part of my qualifications, but relied instead on my book and teaching for tenure. But going forward as I look to full professor in a few years, I want this new blog to be more prominent in my tenure process and to make an argument for the legitimacy and the importance of public digital presentation of research, scholarship, and pedagogy.

    As I work out the specifics for the direction of the blog, I have come up with three things that I’m tossing around as guiding ideas and values. I would love to hear thoughts on these kinds of foundational

    1) The Practical: I want to post twice a week about something central to my research, scholarly activity, or teaching; not academic formal, but rigorous enough to be well-argued and substantive.

    2) The Content: I really interested in the space where social science and humanities blur, where empirical work (for me, that’s qualitative) engages with the understandings of values and aesthetics, philosophy, history. In a Deweyan (pragmatist) vein (also very Millsian) I want to think about the larger scope of knowledge about human culture and social behavior and the deep interconnections between belief and practice. To this end, I see myself commenting on current social/cultural issues from the perspective of sociology; reviewing books and articles from the discipline; and reviewing and thinking sociologically about works of creative, aesthetic production as well, such as film and literature and pop culture.

    3) The Aspirational: Since graduate school, ever since reading Gramsci, I’ve had this romantic notion that I could be a public intellectual. The reality of low-pay and crushing teaching loads and students unprepared for university work (although eager and willing) has stripped me of a lot of those more rosey dreams of saving the world through my brilliance. But I still harbor the hope that perhaps by putting some of my thinking “out there” for others to consider, I might reach some corners of the world and engage with activists and scholars in the world of ideas that matter.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    @professorcranky (Twitter)

    http://proformsbee.wordpress.com/

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  6. kloknyc

    The ASA tweeted your question and blog this past week, and, I’m happy they did.

    As I enter my second year as a PhD student I’ve mulled around the idea of writing a blog to keep ideas fresh, strenthen my writing skills and hear feedback from anyone who might be interesed.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights on blogging. This piece is incredibly helpful.. I look forward to beginning my blog and generating ‘the file’ of my sociological thoughts.

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  8. Reblogged this on Skeptical Cubefarm and commented:
    I and others in the department of sociology to which I am attached have often asked ourselves the same thing. Clearly (since I’m already doing it), I believe the answer is yes. In a perfect world, I’d love to see many – if not most – sociologists blogging, even if Dr. Cohen disagrees, and for one good reason: as a discipline that is, first and foremost, concerned with increasing our understanding of the societies that we live in, we ought to also concern ourselves with making that information available to our fellow citizens, in a language that is both information-rich, and accessible.

    Just my two cents, anyways.

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