How I engaged my way to excellent research success and you can too

kid on string phone in front of computer screen

Kid photo CC from MB Photography; collage by pnc.

Too often sociologists think of social media, or online communications generally, primarily as a way of broadcasting their ideas and building their audience, instead of as a way of deepening their engagement with different people and perspectives. You see this when academics start a twitter account right when their book is coming out. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s very limited. A crucial part of being a public scholar, public intellectual, or a public sociologist, etc., is reading, listening, and learning through engagement, and digital communication can enhance the metabolism of that process. Especially important is the chance to learn from people you don’t normally interact with. For all the complaints about social media bubbles, some true, social media also offers huge efficiencies for meeting and learning from new people.

As I’m writing an essay about this, I thought of my work on divorce as an example. So here’s that thread, condensed.

A divorce story

In 2008 I was teaching an undergraduate Family Sociology course at the University of North Carolina, and included a section on divorce based on other people’s research. I was also developing a proposal for my own textbook, which at the time framed family structures and events, including divorce, as consequences and causes of inequality. I was reading research about divorce along with many other family issues that were outside of my formal training and experience (the closest I had come to a family demography or family sociology course was a seminar on Gender, Work & Family in grad school).

Then in 2009, I wrote a post on my pretty new blog criticizing something bad the Brad Wilcox had written about divorce. I was trying to be newsy and current, and he was claiming that the recession was lowering divorce rates because hard times pulled people together. We didn’t yet know what would happen in the recession. (In the comments, Louise Roth suggested it would take time for divorces “caused” by the recession to show up, which turned out to be true.)

I kept on that path for a while, criticizing Wilcox again for similar work in 2011. By then — prompted by the combination of my reading, the blog debates, and the news coverage around families and the recession — I was working on a paper on divorce using the American Community Survey. I presented it at a demography meeting in the summer of 2011, then revised and presented it at the Population Association of America the following spring. I blogged about this a couple more times as I worked on it, using data on state variation, and Google searches, each time getting feedback from readers.

A version of the paper was rejected by Demography in the summer of 2011 (which generated useful reviews). Although now discredited as not peer-review-publishable (which no one knew), my commentary on divorce and the recession was nevertheless featured in an NPR story by Shankar Vedantam. Further inspired, I sent a new version of the paper (with new data) to Demographic Research, which also rejected it. I presented on the work a couple of times in 2012, getting feedback each time. By August 2012, with the paper still not “published,” I was quoted describing my “divorce/recession lull-rebound hypothesis” in New York magazine.

The news media pieces were not simply my work appearing in the news, in a one-directional manner, or me commenting on other people’s research, but rather me bringing data and informed commentary to stories the reporters were already working on. Their work influenced my work. And all along that news coverage was generating on- and offline conversations, as I found and shared work by other people working on these topics (like the National Center for Marriage and Family Research, and the Pew Research Center). Looking back over my tweets about divorce, I see that I covered divorce and religion, disabilities, economics, and race/ethnic inequality, and also critiqued media coverage. (Everything also got discussed on Facebook, in a smaller semi-private circle.)

By 2014 I finally got the paper — now with even newer data — published in a paywalled peer-reviewed journal, in Population Research and Policy Review. This involved writing the dreaded phrase, “Thank you very much for the opportunity to revise this paper again.” (Submitted October 2012, revision submitted August 2013, second revision submitted January 2014, final revision April 2014.) The paper, eventually titled, “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011,” did improve over this time as new data provided better leverage on the question, and the reviewers actually made some good suggestions.

Also in 2014 the descriptive analysis was published in my textbook. The results were reported here and there, and expanded into the general area of family-recession studies, including this piece in the Conversation. I also developed a method of projecting lifetime divorce odds (basically 50%), for which I shared the data and code, which was reported on here. Along the way I also did some work on job characteristics and divorce (data and code, working paper). When I posted technical notes, I got interesting responses from people like economist Marina Adshade, whom I’ve never met.

So that’s an engagement story that includes teaching, the blogosphere and social media, news media, peer-reviewed publishing, conference presentations and colloquium talks. I did research, but also argued about politics and inequality, and taught and learned demography. It’s not a story of how I used social media, or the news media, to get the word out about my research, although that happened, too. The work product, not just the “publications,” were all public to varying degrees, and the discussions included all manner of students, sociologists, reporters, and interested blog or Twitter readers, most of whom I didn’t know or wouldn’t have met any other way.

So I can’t draw a line dividing the “engagement” and the “research,” because they weren’t separate processes.

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