Remembering Joan Acker

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I first came to know Joan when I arrived at the University of Oregon, ostensibly to replace her, over twenty years ago. At the time, I knew full well that that was an impossible task. She was a grande dame of Marxist-feminist sociology, a researcher of work and organizations who came out of the Old Left. I was a member of younger generation of feminists who was influenced by the New Left, and by the “cultural turn” in sociology. My generation was more skeptical about the category of “woman” –which we believed was a socially constructed identity. “What’s all this fuss about identity?” Joan used to ask me, when we spoke about my work. She was always more of a materialist, and also more of a radical feminist—even a separatist, at times.

Once, when I suggested that she read the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, she responded: “I only read work by women.” She suggested, in an interview with Jennifer Pierce for Contexts, that she thought we should outlaw football: it was dangerous, and it propped up a masculinity that was far too aggressive—and anachronistic. Joan always spoke her mind. She got that from her mother, she said—and from her experience as a woman in academia when there were far fewer of us around, when one had to fight much harder to be heard. As she once wrote, much of her work was dedicated to “getting the man out of her head”—devising ways of thinking and being that placed women at the center, and moved toward a more egalitarian world.

Some will certainly recall Joan’s passion for social justice, her intellectual achievements, and they should. Tristan Bridges and James Messerschmidt have recently posted a wonderful summary of some of her contributions. But I will remember Joan most for her wit, her refusal to suffer fools, and her sense of fun. There were stories about her that circulated in the sociology department: that when she taught in Europe, she had a romantic liaison with a hunky younger man, who came to visit her in Eugene, and whom she installed at her office, at least for a short while. Well into her 70s, if there was a good party, Joan was often the last person to leave the dance floor.



Joan and I shared a birthday, and we sometimes celebrated together when I lived in Eugene. Even though she was 35 years my senior, she always seemed ageless to me—until the last few years of her life. The last time I saw her was at the assisted living center. She had lost a lot of her vision, dementia was setting in, and she was, at that point, mostly bedridden. I wasn’t entirely sure she knew who I was any longer. I asked her about the facilities, and whether she was getting good care. She told me that there were a number of other older women there whom she liked very much. In fact, she planned to undertake a new research project in which she would interview them. But first, she said, she would need to do a literature review on women and aging. A sociologist to the very end!

I will miss Joan’s friendship, her irreverence, her tireless dedication to her craft and to making a better world. But most of all, I will miss her laugh.

CONTEXTS and the Lost Art of Translation


Contexts, as many of you know, is a hybrid journal/magazine published by the American Sociological Association for the last dozen years. Every few years a new team of editors is selected. Three years ago Jodi O’Brien and I became the editors. Our latest—and last– issue is hot off the presses.

As our website says:

“Contexts is a quarterly magazine that makes cutting-edge social research accessible to general readers. We’re the public face of sociology.”

That’s a bit of an overstatement. We’re not the only public face of sociology. There are others as well. But Contexts is the ASA-endorsed and resourced public sociological magazine.

It resembles other sociological journals insofar as its peer reviewed, and draws its authors mainly from among sociologists. But there are a number of things that make it unique: First, it departs from the standard article format. Articles are shorter and more narrative in style, and eschew specialist language. Second, it conveys its story through the use of images—graphics photos– as well as text, and also through the use of sound–podcasts.

Contexts raises some larger questions about the politics of scholarly communication in our discipline and beyond. It suffers from a bit of an identity crisis which illuminates how the pressures of professionalization clash, at times, with the urge to popularize.


Some would like Contexts to be a glossy mass circulation magazine, the discipline’s answer to Popular Psychology, or Atlantic Monthly—a magazine of ideas with an audience that transcends professional sociologists. But a project like that takes enormous investments of time and money that ASA hasn’t really been willing or able to commit to. Perhaps that’s because ASA members haven’t pushed the discipline to do that.

Consequently, Contexts operates, I would say, more like an AJS or ASR lite. It provides an opportunity for sociologist to translate their work to other professional sociologists and students of sociology. And this, I think, is the principal source of some sociologists’ ambivalence toward Contexts and its goals.

When we speak of public scholarship, public sociology, or even “popular sociology,” I think we should differentiate between two linked but somewhat separate processes: translation and dissemination.

Most conventional understandings of public scholarship focus on the process of dissemination—getting our work out to broader publics—which often means getting media attention.That is, we do our research in tried and tested ways, and then we send it out into the world, hoping that it will catch the eyes of journalists, policymakers, and others.

Sometimes university media affairs office, or a publicist at a publishing house, or sometimes even a paid publicist pitches in. Some types of sociological work lend itself well to dissemination, and pickup by media outlets. Dissemination is important—it gets our research out there—though not always in ways that we intend.

But there’s another dimension of public scholarship, that I would term translation. This is what academics are not as good at. In effect, I’ve come to see Contexts as a training ground for the work of translation.


Translation requires one to conceptualize one’s work somewhat differently—to make it engaging to nonspecialist audiences. It requires rethinking the audience in your head—transforming it from a finite group of other experts, such as your dissertation committee, or experts in your field, into a group of people you may not know at all, who may not share any of your expertise.

In a recent book, about writing, the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker says that the cause of most bad writing, he says, is not laziness or sloppiness. It is what he calls the “curse of knowledge”: the writer’s inability to put herself in the reader’s shoes or to imagine that the reader might not know all that the writer knows—the jargon, the shorthand, the assumptions, the received wisdom.

It takes a deliberate effort to break out of this. In writing her book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins invited a number of her African American women undergraduates to serve as readers of selected chapters. They were bright, primarily working class women. She asked them what thoughts and emotions the ideas in the book raised for them, and as she revised her manuscript, she incorporated their ideas. (See “Truth Telling and Intellectual Activism”)


Translating means changing the audience in our head. It can also entail finding the narrative, the story, in your research that can transform a complex argument into one that draws non-experts in. This requires showing and telling, painting a portrait of a group, a scene, or a trend that unfolds over time, offering thick description while analyzing what is occurring beneath the surface of events.

As academics we are all about creating and disseminating knowledge, and that is what we are rewarded for. But there is, I believe, is a time and place for taking ourselves out of our place of privileged insight, to think about how we might share that knowledge with others.

We shouldn’t do this out of the goodness of our hearts, or because we want to gratify our egos and our desire for attention—but of course those considerations always play roles. We should do it because it makes our work better. By bringing others in conversation with our work before and after publication, we also have the ability to test our ideas out and make them stronger.

Graduate students who are reading this may be thinking: this is all fine and good, but I need a job, and in order to get a job in an increasingly competitive market, I need to be pumping out journal articles and playing by the rules. Junior faculty members may thinking: well that’s all fine and good but I need to keep my job–and prepare for my next promotion. Senior faculty members may be saying to themselves: well, that’s fine and good, but things are working okay for me, so why ruin a good thing?


I’m not suggesting that translation should be all that we do. There’s a time and place for high-level conversations with our scholarly peers of course. But in the rush to professionalization, we’ve forgotten how to speak to other audiences, and we no longer collectively value it.

The reward structure of the profession must change in order for us to make translation more than simply a hobby we do on the side of our “real” work, or something we feel that must cover up in order to be seen as “professional.” It is changing, very slowly.

I’m encouraged by a number of small-scale efforts to encourage other kinds of scholarly communication— initiatives like Discover Society, Sociological Images, Society Pages, and Public Books. I’m intrigued by those who are using new modes of sociological writing and representation such as performance –Les Back and Nirmal Puwar in the UK, and Patricia Clough and Jackie Orr in the US. And I value the kinds the critical discussions about the politics of scholarly communication that are cropping up in the blogosphere, at sites like

What these and other initiatives suggest is that many younger scholars in particular are looking for different ways of communicating their research. As a first step on this path, I suggest that rather than deride the label “popular sociology,” we should proudly embrace it.

The Unhappy Divorce of Journalism and the Social Sciences

Just about the worst thing you can say about a piece of sociological writing is that it’s “journalistic.” The term is often used as a criticism, interchangeable at times with “descriptive”, “thin,” or just plain superficial.

There’s good reason many us have little confidence in journalism: the closer a story comes to our own experience, the easier it is to see its flaws. Take, for example, the article about the proliferation of “hooking up” on college campuses that appeared in The New York Times a few years ago.

Image from NYT "Sex on Campus"

(Source: New York Times, “Sex on Campus”)

The story claimed that hooking up—sex outside of relationships—is commonplace on college campuses, and is being pursued as actively by women as men. On the basis of interviews with a small number of women at elite schools like the University of Pennsylvania, the article claimed that busy women students didn’t have time for full-blown relationships, so they opted for more superficial sexual liaisons.

It was quickly denounced by sociologists, who charged that the reporter based on claims on flimsy evidence. It was even more roundly criticized on the Internet by college students who felt that the article’s generalizations were unfair or inaccurate. Many of their classmates were indeed pursuing long-term relationships, some argued. A veritable cottage industry of commentary cropped up alongside the article, showing the press’ power to incite and engage. (See, for example

Journalism Dictionary Image

(Image Source)

“Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” journalists frequently joke. And in fact, for journalists, who must hook the reader in and keep their attention in order to hold onto their jobs, storytelling is an end in itself. Since their audiences are reading for the sheer pleasure of good writing, they write, at least partly, to entertain, and to encourage readers to keep reading.

This is how George Saunders, the award-winning author of nonfiction and short stories, puts it:

“I’m essentially trying to impersonate a first-time reader who has to pick up the story and at every point has to decide whether to continue reading.” If an “intelligent person picks it up, they’ll keep going. It’s an intimate thing between equals. I’m not above you talking down. We’re on the same level. You’re just as smart, just as worldly, just as curious as I am.”

Academic books, in contrast, tend to be written for a finite group of other experts, conveying an argument which is typically based on  an extended research project. Writing a first book, which often emerges out of a dissertation, you may envision your audiences as particular professors on a tenure committee. Later on, you’re probably addressing experts in your field. While the writing should be persuasive, academics don’t particularly care if they’re holding the reader’s attention or not; they assume that what they say is inherently interesting, and that their potential readers are sufficiently intrigued by the topic to read on —even if the writing is less than scintillating.

Faced with these differences of purpose and audience, some would suggest that we leave storytelling to the journalists, and sociologizing to the sociologists. Let journalists speak to the people, while let sociologists keep working in the trenches, doing the hard work of data collection and analysis. As a graduate student of mine recently told me, “Sociology is supposed to be serious and scientific, not entertaining and story-like.”

Sociology and journalism, he was taught, are as different as cows and horses.

Horse and Cow

(Image Source)

Early in their graduate school careers, students learn that professionalization means performing the role of sociologist, and differentiating oneself from those who value good writing for their own sake, and who write to entertain—writers of fiction and nonfiction. Rather than writing pleasurable prose, they are supposed to be advancing sociological knowledge.

But in fact, sociology and journalism have long existed in relation to one another. For one thing, sociologists know what they know partly through the media. And of course social scientists rely, at times, upon the media to disseminate our ideas to broader publics.

Likewise, journalists regularly mine sociological work for insights on everything from young adults’ changing pathways to adulthood, to the question of whether equality diminishes sexual desire, and sociologists are used to being consulted as experts for that telling quote on a variety of subjects. The best journalists do even more: browsing the web and journals for story ideas. They regularly raid our work, popularizing it for others to consume—at times without citing us.

Sociologists and journalists also have in common the fact that they’re both in the business of producing representations of social reality— stories– accounts of connected events that unfolds through time, which have characters that interact with another in different settings. Journalists and sociologists have different strategies of storytelling, to be sure. When journalists tell stories about social phenomena, such as hooking up on college campuses and other social trends, they tend to tell them through the lives of individuals—they show the reader what is going on, painting portraits of scenes and characters. Sociologists, in contrast, tell—they make arguments, drawing on data— numbers if we are quantitative sociologist, or vignettes and thick description if we are ethnographers.

But while we sociologists have been busy honing our rigorous methodological skills and ways of telling, we’ve ceded the field of translation, which requires showing, to smart journalists. By failing to discuss our work in compelling ways, we limit its impact, placing a wall, in effect, between our work and potential audiences.

Rather than deride “popular sociology” which addresses larger publics, in book-length works of general interest as well as shorter articles and essays –it’s time to reclaim it as something to aspire to. Popular sociology offers the general reader a sociological take on something he or she may be curious about. It embodies a hybrid style of writing, bridging journalism and sociology by showing and telling, painting a portrait of a group, a scene, or a trend that unfolds over time, offering thick description while analyzing what is occurring beneath the surface of events.

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