I feel ambivalent about this: an American sociology course on rap maverick Jay-Z is being offered at Georgetown University. This story has received a lot of press over the past few weeks. I believe this story was first reported on MTV in the USA. Michael Eric Dyson, the course creator, reports that the course has attracted four times the size of an average Georgetown course (with 140 students). I first saw this story on Ology, but it’s also been picked up by The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times and on many other sites. In this post, I consider the applied sociological implications of studying courses on celebrities. I place this in broader context of the ongoing problem that sociology has in preparing graduates for workplaces outside academia.
As a sociologist who is interested in promoting the study and break-down of otherness, I can only applaud Dyson’s premise that rap, hip hop and African American culture deserve greater legitimacy by mainstream culture. He tells MTV:
In a vexing new twist on the established theories of altruism, a neurologist, an engineer and a veterinarian argue that ‘selflessness’ can be ‘pathological’. They’re talking about human behaviour, even though they are not social scientists who are trained to study the social consequences of human behaviour. Natalie Angier’s New York Times article interviews the researchers about their upcoming book, ‘Pathological Altruism’, which will explore the hazardous and self-destructive extremes of ‘helpful behaviour’. The research used to exemplify ‘pathological altruism’ includes:
highly empathetic nurses who ‘burn out’ because they care too much for their patients
anorexic patients in hospitals,
victims of abuse,
so-called ‘animal hoarders’ (people who take care of too many animals they cannot afford to keep).
There are several individual and institutional causes for stress, mental illness and abuse that are not easily explained by altruism-gone-wrong. It seems especially problematic to suggest that a victim of abuse is being altruistic through their experiences of violence. Provocative, yes. Helpful? Probably not. The sociological study of altruism reveals why this is the case.
Duncan Watts recently wrote a wonderful piece on the myth of common sense for Freakonomics.com. What resonated most for me was the challenge that sociology faces in making our public contribution valued. Watts points out that sociologists deal with everyday social experiences that are familiar to many people – such as family, gender, social networks, fame and success, popular culture and so on. Due to the familiarity of these topics, most people think they can explain sociological phenomena using their common sense. Watts argues that common sense is problematic because the people we have around us have similar worldviews and this does not necessarily make informal observations valid. The problem with sociology is that unlike other sciences, such as physics or mathematics, sociologists do not offer up concrete answers or predictions. Duncan writes:
Having read hundreds of textbooks in my day… I absolutely love this footnote from a textbook, which I saw on College Humour today:
This chapter might have been called “Introduction,” but nobody reads the introduction, and we wanted you to read this. We feel safe admitting this here, in the footnote, because nobody reads footnotes either in this book.
The footnote is from a book called Stats: Modeling the World, 2nd edition (2007) by David E. Bock, Paul F. Velleman, and Richard D. De Veaux. Sounds like the type of book I wish I’d read when I was suffering through statistics in first year psych and third year sociology!
I’ve been thinking about the pain that applied social scientists carry around with them.[i] I’ve recently reviewed a colleague’s paper where they[ii] reflected on what it is like to be an applied sociologist. I don’t think I am stealing their thunder to say that I feel like I’ve read this paper various times over the years. Don’t get me wrong – there are parts of this paper that are truly outstanding. This researcher has had an interesting and varied career. They have worked on diverse social issues with lots of different community and government groups. They have achieved very useful things that have had a real impact on social policy in Australia. But when their article deviated away from their experience as an applied researcher and floated into a critique about the failings of academic sociology and the evils of the natural sciences… They lost me.
I’ve read many personal stories and analyses from applied sociologists who feel they are marginalised by academic sociologists and professionals from other fields. I feel this pain – I’ve been forced to respond to some truly belligerent comments over the past few years. Applied sociologists often have to fight to have our ideas heard when we work alongside other disciplines that have greater authority in ‘the real world’. Some applied sociologists work in fields where economists have a stronger hold over the way in which social policies are created. Others work in the provision of healthcare, which is an area dominated by medical doctors, biologists, psychiatrists and other natural scientists. Wherever they work, applied sociologists may sometimes fantasise about how much better the world would be if more people understood what sociology is all about, and they may even get to a point where they wish that natural scientists had less legitimacy. Again, I feel the pain… (And it’s just like Dinosaur Jr promised it would be.) But I’m not sure that defining ourselves as the antithesis of the natural sciences is a useful standpoint; because then we are simply accepting our Otherness as if we’ve internalised xkcd’s Fields of Purity comic (above), amusing as it is.