Tenure and the Public Sociologist

A growing movement within the discipline raises questions about promotion, peer review, the nature of research and the future of the field.
August 15, 2007

One sign that a new movement is taking hold within a discipline is that people start to ask how to treat adherents of the movement within the tenure process. By that measure, the field known as public sociology is achieving a certain maturity in the field -- enough so that people are considering how to evaluate it and how it fits into the standard review process and the discipline.

In public sociology, scholars use their research outside of academe to reshape an organization, or they work with people outside academe (social service providers, government officials, and others) to define and execute research projects. There is no one precise definition of the field (and some consider it an updated version of applied sociology), but it is generally assumed that it involves a direct link to research and is more than just helping in the community. A scholar of the homeless who works one morning in a soup kitchen is a volunteer, not a public sociologist. A scholar who uses her research to redesign the way a soup kitchen provides services might be a public sociologist.

Proponents of public sociology very much want to see it receive due credit in tenure and promotion decisions, but they acknowledge that there is not a historic framework to do so. “If it’s just a sociologist saying that he or she has done something, it has limited credibility,” said Philip W. Nyden, a professor of sociology who is co-chair of a task force of the American Sociological Association that has been studying these questions for the last two years. Nyden discussed the work of the task force at the association's annual meeting this week

Nyden said that public sociology needs to have rigorous systems of peer review so departments and others take it seriously, and because public sociology -- just like journal articles -- can be good or bad. The task force Nyden leads has prepared draft guidelines for departments (not yet endorsed by the association) that tackle certain of these issues and some of the ideas -- such as having non-academics provide peer review -- could be controversial.

But Nyden said that the push was vital to the health of sociology. He said that part of the reason that fields like criminology and industrial relations -- once more firmly embedded in sociology -- are now widely seen as separate disciplines is that their work did not fit entirely into books and journals (even if there are plenty of both). Nyden also said that in the absence of a formal system for evaluating public sociology, departments could relegate it to the service portion of the teaching-research-service trinity of tenure decisions, and that such a placement would be “the kiss of death.”

Obviously the issue is of prime importance to sociologists -- a survey conducted by Nyden’s task force found that between 20 and 30 percent of sociologists are engaged in public sociology.

But there are some similarities between the discussion in sociology and ideas circulating in other fields, such as the Modern Language Association report suggesting that new approaches to peer review may be needed to better evaluate teaching tools, online projects and the like. Likewise the public sociology movement in some ways is parallel to ideas about tenure and the role of faculty being pushed by some academics on a universitywide basis. A sociologist from Syracuse University said she attended the session in part because of issues raised at her institution by Nancy Cantor, the chancellor, who has talked about "scholarship in action" as a way to connect faculty research to community and societal needs.

The draft policy is most clear about two issues: Public sociology must be research-based and it must be public. If a sociologist works with a private group or business that insists that the work is proprietary or confidential, that work can’t be considered “public” sociology.

Much of the draft focuses on the question of peer review – who should do it and how it should be considered by departments. Gregory D. Squires, a task force member who is sociology chair at George Washington University, said that this was crucial. When a department is considering journal articles, he said, there is a general consensus that an article in American Sociological Review is more significant than one in just about any other journal. “There is a metric” for a department to consider in traditional research publication, said Squires, and a similar, respected metric is needed for public sociology. “Nobody is going to buy this unless it’s credible.”

But with public sociology, he said, departments are on new ground in measuring impact. “What’s the standard?” Squires asked. Is influencing a piece of legislation important? Is changing public debate important? If legislation counts, is one bill enough?

The answer, task force members hope, will be found in peer review. “In academic settings, peer review is the gold standard of evaluation of scholarship,” the draft policy states. While calling for the system to be used with public sociology, the draft says that “the nature of peer review of public sociology may differ.” One difference, the draft says, is that peer review may be “more practical after” a project rather than prior to publication. A second difference proposed is that “peer review may include both academic and non-academic reviewers qualified to judge the quality and impact of the public sociology.”

Peer review by people outside of academe is needed, the draft says, “to assess 1. the effectiveness of collaborative research methods; 2. the impact of sociological research on publics; and/or 3. the overall professional service to the community or organization.” The draft suggests that this peer review would be “advisory” to departments, and is not intended to replace the central faculty role in voting up or down on a tenure candidate.

The task force draft also says that departments need to have appropriate portfolios for reviewing public sociologists -- going beyond the traditional compilation of scholarly writings and teaching evaluations. Among items appropriate for the portfolios, the task force says, are research reports prepared for non-academic groups, research on the effectiveness of policies or programs developed by the tenure candidate for community groups or government agencies, op-eds or testimony before government bodies. Along with such raw materials, the task force says, the portfolio should include “clear evidence of impact” of the tenure candidate’s work. Peer reviewers -- including some from outside academe -- should examine the entire portfolio, the draft says.

Even with such portfolios, Nyden acknowledged that the system outlined could be tricky in some cases. For example, he said that in a discussion with a sociologist about these ideas, he was asked whether the draft policy would help a tenure candidate who offered research-based advice to the Ku Klux Klan on how to attract more members -- and who could demonstrate that his advice had been effective. Nyden said that the task force didn’t envision its work helping such a person, but he said that it was also important to recognize that there is no one ideology that defines good or bad public sociology.

Due to the sensitivity about telling departments how to do their jobs, Nyden said that he did not envision the American Sociological Association adopting the draft as official policy for all departments. The task force’s next project is to compile a list of departments that do use approaches consistent with the draft -- with the hope that sharing those might inspire still other departments.

Christine L. Hines, chair of sociology at Syracuse, said she thought the task force’s work was important because individual departments can only bring about so much change themselves. In her case, Hines said that she thinks her chancellor would support the idea of rewarding public sociologists. But Hines noted that tenure cases typically move from departmental levels to college-wide committees. If there is not some official basis for the way sociology departments evaluate candidates, Hines said, the biologist or English professor may not take them seriously.

Task force members stressed that they were not likely to recommend to junior faculty members that they build their entire research agendas around public sociology. “You have to be sensitive to the traditional criteria,” Squires said. At the same time, he said it was important to send the message that public sociology could be part of the beginning of a career. If scholars get in the habit of only writing journal articles, Squires said, they may never start public sociology work.

Nyden offered this analogy: Up until now, most departments considered public sociology work at best the icing on the cake. But the emphasis was on the cake. If the task force’s work succeed, public sociology will be a real layer of the cake.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top