What is a Public Sociologist and Why Are you Touching our Data?

By: Janae Teal and Meredith Williams

Let’s be real. None of us grew up dreaming of being a public sociologist. Janae wanted to be a doctor, a waitress, or (okay, pulling back the curtain here), a nun. Meredith wanted to be a lawyer because she heard they make LOTS of money which sounded great as a kid. We wanted to be what we had heard about–what we were told were “real” or valid jobs.

We both grew up working class. Our parents worked in auto body shops and tree tops more than offices. We wanted to be something exciting, like we had seen on TV, or read about in books. When Janae started college, she was a microbiology major. Which was perhaps not a great fit, considering she doesn’t tend to like things that are micro. Or biology-y. Meredith was a consumer affairs major, because she wanted to be Ralph Nader.

And then…we found Sociology. Sociology gave us the language to understand our lives, like how expensive it is to be poor, and the school-to-prison pipeline. It helped us to zoom out and see things from further away, and to see life is complex and messy, with so many intersecting factors. So, here we are.

Public Sociology Star Wars

One of the values that unites all of us at ML Whalen Consulting is our shared identity as Public Sociologists. So what is this? What does it mean? Why should you care?

To start, we are all trained as sociologists. This means a few things:

First, we have received extensive (seriously, Jedi level) training in social science research methods, including a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative approaches to collecting and analyzing data. That means we can do anything from writing a survey to gathering oral histories, then we can turn around and make predictions about social trends like we work with crystal balls and tea leaves. Don’t worry, we use our powers for good and not evil (but we’re sociologists, so of course we ask…who even gets to define what is “evil” in the first place…?).

Second, we have read, thought, fought and taught about social stratification for a huge chunk of our lives. We put everything through the lens of equity, thinking about race, class, gender, sexuality, immigration status, language, size, ability, and all the other ways our intersecting identities and social locations impact our lived experiences and opportunities. This doesn’t mean we think we know everything–it means we know we don’t, and we are ready to listen and learn. This does mean that we are TERRIBLE people with whom to watch TV. We will call out all the racist and sexist tropes. Hell, we make drinking games out of them (“Heterosexual love saves the day! Drink!”), as we rant about representation. But luckily, you don’t have to watch TV with us!

This doesn’t mean we think we know everything–it means we know we don’t, and we are ready to listen and learn.

Third, we have been trained to look at the big picture, and the connections. When we talk about inequality, we are talking about structures, institutions and norms. When we talk about solutions, we don’t talk about band-aids—we talk about real, systemic, sustainable changes. Society is complex, and social change can be messy.

For us: challenge accepted. This is why we get up in the morning!

On top of our mad skills, we all have a public orientation to our sociological practice. This means taking the tools of the “ivory tower” (academia/higher education) and using them for the public. For us as sociologists, that means:

  • We recognize the historical power dynamics between researcher and those being researched, and we actively work to make sure we are not reproducing those power dynamics.
    SPACE
  • We use the research tools and theories to work with communities, as collaborators and partners. We know the limitations of our own lived experiences and knowledge, and would rather create knowledge together.
    SPACE
  • We understand that people are already experts on their lives and communities—they don’t need us for that. We are just contributing our research and data expertise, with an eye on the big picture.

Another thing we have in common is—let’s face it—we are nerds. We love data. Where some see nonsensical numbers, we see stories. Where some see scary formulas, we see empowerment. For us, data is not the dark side—it’s the force with which we give voice to the voiceless. We use data to give organizations opportunities to heal, solve, and create in their communities.

We use the research tools and theories to work with communities, as collaborators and partners. We know the limitations of our own lived experiences and knowledge, and would rather create knowledge together.

Let us use our powers for the good of your community. Reach out if you want to collaborate, or if we can help you tell your organization’s and community’s stories.

1280px-Lightsaber_blue.svgPhoto Credit: _.Yann Cœuru ._