Misadventures in ‘Public’ Sociology

In 2018, I heard about a thing called “conservatorship,” checked google scholar and discovered there was virtually nothing scholarly written on it for decades, and launched into a slow-moving, part-time research project on it. Fast forward three years, and Britney Spears’ conservatorship (no, it’s not the same kind) is trending on twitter and a few legislators have decided expanding conservatorship is the solution to California’s mental health crisis. Suddenly I have a comparatively high level of expertise on a topic where I have done comparatively not-that-extensive research.

Public sociology is alluring. The one piece on mental health I’ve published through normal academic channels was peer-reviewed and re-written into gobbledy-gook—I’d be embarrassed even to send it to my parents. But in the last half-year, a report I wrote on conservatorship has made the rounds among stakeholders around the state, and I’ve had a chance to present my work to over three-hundred clinicians, advocates, and politicians. It’s been cool.

It’s also been a steep learning curve, and also an uncomfortable one. I’ve realized my work seems to lend support to reforms with which I, on a personal level, am pretty uncomfortable. I’ve been informed that I was, in fact, wrong, and, upon further examination, determined that I was, in fact, wrong. There’s a lot about this I wish I had learned in graduate school—which is different from saying that opportunity to learn about doing this advocacy wasn’t there, I just didn’t take it—and figured I’d write some reflections on what I’ve learned for anyone wandering into a similar opportunity.

1. Lots of academic concepts translate poorly. The report I wrote was initially titled “Absent Authority.” It’s the kind of catchy alliterative concept I assume is necessary to get published in ASR (note: I have not succeeded at this), and would have allowed me to make a crucial Max Weber reference in my lit review. It’s also a very bad term to use in a debate about involuntary treatment. I was trying to point out that while conservatorship gives the state a huge amount of authority over a vulnerable person, no one has authority over the state itself—i.e., no one is actually in charge of the conservatorship process. But in a world where first impressions matter and subsequent pages don’t get read, precise is probably more important than catchy (I now talk about “Absent Accountability”).

The mistranslations have gone on. Just yesterday, someone upbraided me for talking about “Street Level Bureaucrats.” After years studying social policy, I forget that “bureaucrat” was pejorative at all. It’s a difficult balance, because other professionals have told me that references to “ambulance welfare,” “burden shuffling,” or “people processing” (thanks Josh Seim) put words to their experiences in a way lay terms can’t. There’s probably no perfect solution, except to be careful and accept that some people will get mad at you (see below).

2. Going public can reduce access. Jennifer Reich, who studies parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, points out that, at least with some populations, the internet has equalized power relations between researcher and researched. The expectation that academics have web pages and social media profiles means that people can google us and ask pointed questions before consenting to research. This may very well be a good thing. It certainly makes informed consent, well, more informed.

But if public sociology entails taking a side, it may mean that people on the other side may no longer want to offer up their time and expertise (it seems it can go the other way, as some people have contacted me to set me straight). I’ve realized quickly how much academics depend on magnanimity—not the incentives we could offer or a sense of obligation—in accessing qualitative data. Certainly, if I were advising students, I’d be really cautious about encouraging them to publish preliminary reports or ‘notes from the field’ before data gathering is actually finished.

3. Academic publications can get away imprecisions that public-facing work can’t. My academic work rarely gets reviewed by people who substantively know much about what I research. Most reviews of my (attempted) publications about France are clearly from people who know very little about the country. In virtually every set of reviews, someone has complained that my work does not conform to their simplified Bernie-Sanders-style understanding of universal healthcare (France isn’t single payer, and mental health care in France operates on a totally different logic from the rest of the healthcare system, for the record). Most discussions of qualitative data, in my experience, end up being about ‘framing’ and ‘theoretical contributions’ precisely because most people have so little to say about the factual details of what we’re studying.

And so it has been surprising to face an audience that really does know, quite precisely, how criteria for access to care are set or hospitalizations reimbursed. It’s made me realize that academics can get away with saying things that a journalist, expected to name sources or overseen by a fact-checker, might not. It’s thus also forced me, also, to ask about the added value of academic research in contexts where lots of people have been working on the topic I’ve been studying for three years for decades. This is, again, a particular challenge for qualitative researchers, since ethnography and interviews have a less clear distinction from what people on the ground are already doing (observing things and talking to people) than statistical wizardry does.

4. Our niche is to say things others can’t…. My report critiques the heavy reliance on private entities to provide public safety-net services in California. It started as a hunch born out of my built-in assumptions as a sociologist, but wound up being supported by my data. But in a world where private hospitals are enormously powerful entities (on which, as of now, government depends), it’s not an issue many people are willing to raise. I’ve gotten some harsh blowback.

One of odd ironies I’ve found in trying to do publicly-oriented work is that academics are both well-positioned to say difficult things and not well-trained to do so. My initial write-up of my conservatorship research came to what I think is a true but uncomfortable conclusion, which is that there are probably individuals who would benefit in some way from (initially) forced care who are not getting it because of some combination of civil-liberties protections and, above all, resource limitations. It’s a powerful, problematic, and relevant claim to make.

Over time, though, I find myself falling back on two easy tropes. One is the endless request for more data and more research. The other is the nearly meaningless rearticulation of Berkowitz’s first law of sociology, which is that in any discussion of social policy sociologists will eventually finish by just lamenting that we are not Sweden and do not have a European-style welfare state. It is extraordinary to have the resources and intellectual freedom that we have and to use it to say something that is both so true and so boring.

5 …but then people get mad at you. Ridiculously, for me the hardest part of doing public sociology is that if you do it right, people get mad at you. Not mad in the your-theoretical-framework-is-bad kind of peer reviewer over-reaction, but genuinely mad in a you-are-supporting-things-that-I-think-are-harmful sense. It’s a reaction that makes me realize how low-stakes many academic debates actually are, and why retreating back into them is so perennially appealing.

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