Extended Aims and Scope

The Vision for Civic Sociology

by Eric Lybeck and the Editorial Board

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Civic Sociology aims to reconstruct the disciplinary knowledge of sociology by re-focusing research in three particular directions oriented to:

  1. Problem-solving and professional practice
  2. Local and regional issues
  3. Normative and ethical reflection

These three emphases are not mutually exclusive relative to on-going sociological research, but would encourage a better understanding of local and regional particularities which in turn encourages  more effective and ethical interventions into systemic social problems. The results would not only make sociological research more relevant, but would also produce new integrative, synthetic and reflexive forms of social knowledge, guiding sociological research and scholarship in new directions.

‘Public sociology’, which shares similarities, is not identical to civic sociology. Whereas public sociology distinguishes itself from ‘professional, ‘policy’ and ‘critical’ sociology, civic sociology seeks to integrate all four of these forms of research and practice as in Table 1 below.

Table 1: The Division of Sociological Labor

 Table adapted from Burawoy, Michael (2005). “For Public Sociology”.  American Sociological Review.  70 (1)

Table adapted from Burawoy, Michael (2005). “For Public Sociology”. American Sociological Review. 70 (1)

The three emphases noted above would encourage scholarship oriented toward a better understanding of local and regional particularities to encourage more effective and ethical interventions into systemic social problems. The results would not only make sociological research more relevant, but would also produce new integrative, synthetic and reflexive forms of social knowledge, guiding sociological research and scholarship in new directions. Our goal is to reinvigorate sociology as a profession -- one that is not exclusively academic, but rather, works in local communities to solve problems. In so doing, we intend to highlight the complex ways in which global dynamics shape local events and vice versa.

This amounts to a return to earlier versions of sociological practices, some of which were explicitly called ‘civic sociology’. This includes the work of Patrick Geddes and the Branfords within the Edinburgh civics school, the settlement house movement pioneered by Jane Addams and the Chicago School, and the Atlanta sociological laboratory developed by W.E.B. DuBois. Their civic work provides models for present and future efforts to better integrate sociological knowledge in society.

 Jane Addams (1860 - 1935)               W.E.B. DuBois (1868 - 1963)               Patrick Geddes (1854 - 1932)

Jane Addams (1860 - 1935)               W.E.B. DuBois (1868 - 1963)               Patrick Geddes (1854 - 1932)

Our goal is to make sociological research more relevant and effective within professional, policy and public forms of engagement, by solving rather than just explaining or describing social problems. The focus on local and regional issues grounds these challenges within the particularities of places and history, highlighting connections between the local, national and global. As a form of professional practice, civic sociology would reintegrate our evidence bases with current social and political issues while encouraging better integration of knowledge within communities, organizations and policy. Such work would also involve greater interrogation of the normative and ethical assumptions of sociological practice rather than taking such matters for granted.

Civic Sociology does not pretend to be inventing these forms of scholarship. We acknowledge that much of this work is already being done around the world.  Unfortunately, such work is often ignored by leading sociology journals simply because it is ‘applied’ or ‘impact-oriented’ social science. Our intention is to provide a space for these interventions to be published, assessed and integrated with related work ongoing in other local and regional contexts outside of North America and Western Europe. Civic sociology is thus both local and global in scope, in accordance with Geddes’ maxim: ‘Think global, act local!’ – to which we would add: ‘Act local to think global!’

Meanwhile, by carving out more space for normative and ethical discussions – drawing on such fields as the sociology of knowledge, religion and critical theory – the journal can help to develop new forms of sociological intervention desperately needed within presently polarized social and political contexts. Indeed, our motivation to establish this journal stems from recognition that sociological research and practice must be reset in the wake of 2016’s political events.

Why now?

Sociologists are presently rushing to explain recent upheavals in politics, culture and society despite the fact that few seemed to have seen these crises coming. Behind the journal’s aims is recognition that sociological research and practice prior to 2016 neglected certain local and regional particularities. For instance, the discipline suffers from a lack of knowledge about the American Rust Belt and the way social and economic conditions in this region impact national politics. Similarly, misunderstandings of the US South contribute to failures to develop effective anti-poverty policies sensitive to particular geographic, historical and cultural contexts. Insofar as sociologists themselves rarely live in or identify with these regions, this neglect also appears to reflect forms of normative oversimplifications within the discipline.

‘Public sociologists’ have promoted activist forms of engagement to stimulate progressive social change, but may inadvertently limit engagement outside of progressive urban spaces and university towns. Other sociological research has retreated into scholarship which is either positivistic, presenting itself as ‘non-political’, or contributes vigorously ‘critical’ writing in esoteric language that may limit the capacity for sociologists to actually solve social problems.

Civic sociology takes the broad middle path between the oft-criticized positivist mainstream and radical critique.  At the same time, it remains in dialogue with both of these positions. Although we would be recovering historic traditions of civic work, such as that of Addams or DuBois, our approach can also be interpreted as a generational shift away from the forms of scholarship associated with the radical 1960s, which had, in its day, rejected the Cold War functionalism that preceded it. Though supported by both well-established and early career sociologists, civic sociology is unabashedly committed to doing sociology in new ways.

We thus consider civic sociology to be reflective and encouraging of a new generation of social scientists, committed to addressing the polarizations of the contemporary world, whether these be divisions between old and young, rich and poor, town and country, and so on. We wish to reconsider these problems from the ground-up, establishing and reconstructing our legitimacy in an age sceptical of experts. We do not wish to smash the idols of previous generations, but rather to carve out a space to develop new ways of pursuing sociology and solving social problems in the 21st century.

Intellectual background

In the wake of the political upheavals in America, UK and elsewhere in 2016, several sociologists have argued that sociology needs to reconstruct itself to avoid various forms of systemic disciplinary neglect. For example, Michael McQuarrie has argued that political sociologists have exhibited a ‘Trump problem’ and continue to misrecognize the regional dynamics at work in the US election and Brexit; Philip Gorski has suggested sociologists of religion fail to recognize the variety of religious nationalism in the US and has called for a renewed ‘civic sociology’ in the era of Trump. Andrew Abbott has suggested that the discipline needs a normative sub-field akin to political theory or jurisprudence to overcome the oversimplifications he observed as editor of the American Journal of Sociology from 2000 to 2016. Eric Lybeck has drawn on Abbott’s work in the sociology of professions to highlight the lack of professional jurisdiction claimed by sociology, contributing to a fragmented body of disciplinary scholarship which is less relevant even during times when sociological understanding is most needed. This interest in the expertise and utility of sociological knowledge connects with Monica Prasad’s recent efforts to reorient historical sociology toward ‘problem-solving’, asking: ‘can historical sociology save the world?’

Similar shifts have been taking place for some time within social theory communities such as the on-going conversation within the International Social Theory Consortium (ISTC) since 2015. Recognizing the era of ‘deconstruction’ has run its course, increasing interest is being directed toward ‘reconstruction’ and theories of the future and its prospects. Rather than settling for a postmodern condition in which meaning, history and our sense of place are left in constant flux, sociologists can contribute to reconstruction of new means of orientation in our increasingly complex world. At the 2017 meeting of the ISTC, the civic sociology idea was introduced and received a welcome reception. Indeed, the idea has been well-received in many contexts, reflecting a latent desire amongst both sociologists and non-sociologists for the kinds of knowledge we are advocating herein.

One example, is within the UK context where ‘Impact’ is increasingly important in academic assessments. Civic sociology attends to this concern by proposing means of better integrating academic knowledge within local and regional communities. Early work in this direction suggests university administrators are especially keen for this integrative knowledge of society (and are willing to fund impact-related activities) as are local communities and municipal governments struggling to better understand our contemporary world. As an open-access journal, Civic Sociology further contributes to the expectation in the UK and elsewhere to remove barriers in order to make research accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

While the three focuses noted above emerged as the result of conversations with editors and contributors, what binds the range of collaborators together is a shared recognition that sociology needs to, in a sense, reset itself in the wake of 2016. This is important for academic reasons and also to ensure sociology remains relevant to a range of public, policy and professional audiences.

Competition and Context

The journal would be a ‘general sociology’ journal, which positions itself in the company of such well-known journals as The Sociological Review, The American Journal of Sociology, and Sociology. These are top-tier, central journals and it is not our expectation that Civic Sociology would immediately compete with these – although, in time, this is not beyond the realm of possibilities. However, Civic Sociology differs from these journals in its publication of research notes, essays, and literature reviews - important pieces of scholarship that are often ignored by highly competitive journals.

Of course, as a traditional journal, we would also encourage traditional research articles, especially those which emphasize one or more of the three focuses: regional, normative and problem-solving. This positions the journal in the same networks covered by publications such as City and Community; Theory, Culture & Society; Sociological Inquiry, Public Culture and Rural Sociology. However, the proposed journal would diverge from these examples, as it would combine these focuses in dialogue with one another and in relation to general, rather than specialist sociological interest.

As an open-access journal, Civic Sociology is also positioned well in relation to other OA outlets such as Sociological Science, Frontiers in Sociology and Socius. Although, our journal would be generalist, there is nonetheless a clear mission, logic and agenda guiding submissions, curation and indexing. We believe this greater sense of coherence will mitigate some of the hesitation within academic sociology to publish in ‘catch-all’ journals that lack editorial coherence or a strong mission-orientation.

Lastly, there have been many journals and magazines published with an eye toward public engagement or more accessible forms of sociological research. These include Contexts, Discover Society and The Sociological Review blog, as well as less formal outlets often affiliated with a traditional journal or university department such as the LSE Impact blog. The proposed journal would be neither informal or dumbed-down. The research would be peer-reviewed and consequently ‘citable’ in articles or policy reports.  We encourage submissions written without a specialist audience in mind, in the hopes that authors will produce work that is immediately ready for public consumption.  This is important not only for reaching non-sociologists, but also for improving communication across sociological subfields. This applies to both traditional articles and the other formats (research notes, essays, etc.) which the journal will provide space for.

Field of Contributors

Emerging from discussions within sociology in the wake of recent electoral confusions – at conferences, in blogs and, soon, in articles - the need for a new kind of sociological research and practice is being keenly felt. While not every sociologist is poised to adapt immediately – no one wants to be the first to jump! – scholars at both the top of the profession as well as innovative early career researchers are identifying similar paths that they believe the discipline should go in.

All of us involved in the project have immediately found that a range of our colleagues are very interested and excited to participate in the journal and in the broader range of public engagement implied in the problem-solving and normative orientations. Others find the re-commitment to local particularities and the filling of gaps in our evidence-base essential correctives to trends within the discipline prior to 2016, not least the limited capacity of the discipline to respond to events unfolding more rapidly than academic habit allows. The overwhelming response to the idea has been positive; sociologists everywhere recognize that this is an important step the discipline should take.

We therefore wish to involve as many as are interested and able to participate in writing, reviewing and editing. We also wish to retain a high-quality of contributions, through a strong editorial board and contributing editorial staff. We have essentially begun with the ‘top’ and expanded out from there. The ideas presented have been adapted according to conversations with leading figures in the discipline including Philip Gorski, Andrew Abbott, Michael McQuarrie and others to ensure our vision is recognizable, yet original and exciting.

Contributing editors are early career researchers, lecturers, postdocs and assistant professors who have already demonstrated innovative work in their subfields, while retaining a broader view of the discipline as a whole and its future. As these editors progress in their careers they will bring collaborators and networks into contact with the work of Civic Sociology making the journal a recognizable space to present and develop ground-breaking insights into new territories; new solutions to a range of social problems.

As the research published in Civic Sociology proves useful to a range of professionals and policymakers, the journal will gain prominence and significance.  It is our hope that it will develop a reputation as a publication where a range of experts can be informed by scholarship and, in turn, inform a new generation of sociological researchers.  

Format of the Journal

We envisage four sections within the journal reflected in the online navigation. These are as follows:

  1. Problems: Public, Professional & Policy
  2. Locations: Place, Time & Comparison
  3. Reflections: Ethics & Knowledge
  4. Interventions: Past & Present

Within these will be a range of theoretical, empirical and practice-oriented papers, although one can envisage more practice pieces in section IV; more theoretical pieces in section III and more empirical material in sections I and II. Ideally across all the section there would be an even balance of all three types of papers.

Administration

The largest part of day-to-day administration of the journal would be managed by the contributing editors who would identify appropriate scholars for peer-review. The editor would delegate these tasks according to specialism. Semi-regular council meetings would ensure the journal remains focused and balanced relative to the aims and objectives. Within these meetings decisions will be made regarding the possibility of arranging ‘issues’ of particularly coherent and related published pieces. Research notes, essays and literature reviews would be ideally published as soon as possible after acceptance.

The editor will ensure that the workload associated with being a contributing editor would not be taxing upon the most precious of resources: time. The provisional list of contributing editors will therefore grow according to ‘demand’ so that editors can engage with work and scholars who are most relevant to their own work without feeling overwhelmed or inundated by increasing numbers of submissions. Together we will develop an efficient system of ‘desk-rejection’ to ensure our time is spent developing the scholarship most relevant to the civic sociology project.

The editorial board’s role would be largely symbolic and moral, though we would ask that these leading figures in the discipline encourage their colleagues and students, past and present to publish in the journal. If possible, we can envisage an annual editorial board meeting to discuss future development of the journal including adjustments in scope or organization. Otherwise, the editorial board would be considerably less involved than the contributing editors who would manage the journal.

Audiences

Civic Sociology is pitched at academic sociologists as well as interested professionals and academics in other disciplines. The peer-review process will be as rigorous as any top-tier sociological journal; our editorial board gathers leading figures across a range of sociological subfields. The writing, however, should be accessible to non-specialist audiences, particularly those working within professional and policy fields. This would eliminate unnecessary jargon and encourage participation of contributors from related disciplines and fields of expertise.

Because of our interest in problem-solving, local contexts and normative reflection, we expect the journal to fill much needed gaps within both academic publishing and professional pursuits. The journal therefore welcomes contributions in the traditional ‘article’ format, but also ‘research notes’ describing initial explorations into new data, methods or regions; essays engaging with normative issues or puzzles; and reviews of literature to establish the ‘state of the field’ in a given topic area. These forms of writing and research are necessary middle stages within long-term projects that are often neglected in the pursuit of the ‘big article’ or the ‘big book’. While these early research outputs could inform timely interventions in local communities, they might not amount to ground-breaking methodological or theoretical contributions. As such, they are not often shared with practitioners or other researchers. Yet, without such ‘basic research’, often important questions and regions are rarely fully understood.

The resulting writing style should break down the tendency within sociological rhetoric to speak across two registers: one academic and one dumbed-down for public audiences. The assumption here is that the audience would be a general learned public – professionals, government officials, academics in other disciplines, and, indeed, students – who are not oblivious to sociological matters.  They may be seeking out the journal for rigorously researched articles or thoughtful essays on contemporary social problems -- resources that could lead to new proposals for ethical, practical solutions.

Audiences within Sociology

The primary discipline is sociology and the journal is ‘general’ insofar as scholars in any sub-field could contribute. This could include everything from the sociology of the family to the political economy of the world system.

With the three focuses in mind, however, there are several sub-disciplines which are of more immediate interest. These include those fields dealing with normative and ethical issues, for example, the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of religion and critical theory. Outside of sociology, dialogue with philosophy, political theory and theology would be encouraged. Also relevant for identifying and addressing problems are political sociology and the sociology of professions. The latter could be further broken down in terms of the sociology of law, criminology, education, social work and so on, each of which have specialist problem-areas, knowledge and practices. At the same time, many of these traditions – often pursued by sociologists working outside of sociology departments – share underlying theories and methods such as those of organizational sociology, systems theory, actor-network-theory, and so on. Civic Sociology would be a space in which these specialisms could collaborate with and learn from one another without isolating research into sub-specialist silos.

In time, we hope civic sociology could provide a relatively consistent approach to studying regions and addressing social problems in holistic and integrated ways which nonetheless recognize local particularities of time and place to a greater degree. To encourage this, the subfields of historical sociology, urban and rural sociology would be involved prominently in the civic sociology approach. This also provides scope for interdisciplinary engagement with the related fields of geography, history and anthropology.  

While the broad scope of general sociology leaves further room to expand and integrate other subfields organically, those noted above represent reasonable and targeted starting points for demonstrating the value of civic sociology. The last field worth mentioning is the history of sociology, including especially the studies exploring the history of civic sociological work such as that of Geddes, Addams, DuBois and others.

International Audiences

Although one of Civic Sociology’s focuses is on the ‘local and regional’, this does not imply provincialism.  On the contrary, the civic approach would encourage more international scholarship than is presently pursued within sociological subfields overly oriented to academic research questions developed in top-tier US sociology departments. Not only does this prestige hierarchy discourage development of an autonomous, systematic sociology of, say, the Levant or Austria or the metro-area of Santiago, Chile; it also hides the broad, regional knowledge of sociologists working within the United States itself.  In line with their institutions’ founding missions, researchers at so called ‘mid-tier’ universities often focus on problems facing the residents of their region. Their work is also more likely to occur outside of the major US cities that have long been of interest to sociologists. Our view is that if more sociologists paid more attention to such work, recent upheavals in politics and culture might not have come as such a shock. Our goal is, thus, to ensure we are aware of such local particularities for their own sake, and to better understand the ways in which the local shapes the national and global systems sociologists have more familiarity with.

Further, rich studies of locally significant social problems invite useful comparative work.  At present, the discipline tends towards more abstract or transnational explorations of ‘identity’, ‘citizenship’ or ‘neoliberalism’, which become detached from their historical and geographical contexts. Such abstractions become difficult to translate into practical solutions, thereby diminishing sociologists’ role in society. Alternatively, much comparative research overemphasizes the national level of analysis, whereas comparisons of municipalities or neighbourhoods can offer rich and valuable insights into social problems, in addition to possible points of intervention at levels below that of national policy.

With our international agenda in mind, wherein many regional sociologies would be pursued in concert with others around the world, the editorial board begins as a collaboration between English-speaking editors in the UK, USA and Europe. This strategy reflects our awareness of the importance of penetrating the American community of scholars, in particular. The journal board would then be extended to incorporate similar scholarship from the developing world, ideally by sociologists working within these regions. The journal would actively encourage the emergence of these local iterations of civic sociology from the start.

Teaching Potential

In addition to traditional articles, which will be both innovative and plainly written, the essays and literature reviews could prove especially useful for students wishing for a survey of a particular topic area or region. For example, a study reviewing the role of economists as professionals could prove useful to economic sociologists, economists themselves and critical sociologists seeking to get the facts and an overview of a topic. Teachers might also consider preparing such documents for their classes and presenting these for publication in the journal – e.g. an overview of the major issues in the sociology of teacher training. In this way, the research and teaching would inform one another. And, further, the integration of practice could include strategies for active and participatory learning which produce both research and curricular development. Last but not least, the journal’s open access format will be particularly beneficial to regional universities with fewer resources.