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Nicki Lisa Cole and Kjerstin Gruys Are Thinking and Working Outside the Academic Box

By Sarah Cappeliez, University of Toronto

Kjerstin Gruys (Photography by The Goodness)

Kjerstin Gruys (Photography by The Goodness)

Kjerstin Gruys is a Thinking Matters fellow at Stanford University and a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Her research evolved from a personal interest in body image and beauty, and examines the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality.

Nicki Lisa Cole is probably best known to Consumed’s readers as the founding editor-in-chief of our section’s newsletter, but this is only one of her many hats. In addition to blogging, writing and researching for a number of publications, Nicki is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Science, Technology and Society in Graz, Austria. She is working on a book about the popularity and hidden costs of Apple products.

I recently corresponded with both about what it means to practice public sociology as researchers who study consumption. Kjerstin’s path shows how engagement with public sociology can evolve from a personal journey or struggle into a strong research program, and eventually, into a more critical and publicly engaged form of sociology. For Nicki, the decision to move toward public sociology appeared early and consciously, and for her constitutes involvement with a broad spectrum of sociologically and socially motivated questions and issues.

Their thoughtful responses to questions I posed show us how sociology can reach beyond the academy when it is made relevant and accessible to broad and diverse audiences, as well as when it is impactful, open and change-inducing. What follows is a conversation that transpired over e-mail.

Sarah: How does your work engage the public?

Kjerstin: In addition to my “purely” academic writing, I also maintain a blog, Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall, where I merge my scholarly interests with more mainstream interests. Sometimes a great research project idea emerges, or becomes more refined from this type of writing. For example, I recently co-wrote a blog essay on gender bias in student evaluations, which is helping me understand and frame a new research project around a growing literature on student evaluations of professors.

Nicki: While completing my Ph.D., I felt pulled strongly toward writing about social problems and their possible solutions for a general reading audience, because I felt frustrated that so much of what we do as sociologists never reaches the public realm. So, I started a blog that I considered a public sociology magazine, 21st Century Nomad. This allowed me to develop a new writing voice and style, a following, and platform on which to grow other freelance work.

Now, I am the Sociology Expert for About.com, where I have complete editorial control and reach an audience of over 100,000 per month. As a working writer, I share my research and perspective via paid freelance writing for news outlets like Truthout and CounterPunch. The book I am writing about the popularity and hidden costs of Apple products will be published with a trade press for wide distribution. I also maintain active professional Facebook and Twitter accounts where I share my writing, and a mixture of serious and sassy observations on social life. Anyone interested can find all of my writing freely available on my website and on Academia.edu.

Sarah: What are some ways that you have been able to expand your scholarly work so that it bridges academic pursuits and activist or public sociology ones?

Kjerstin: The easiest answer to this question is that I wrote a trade book in 2013, called Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year, which is, essentially, a sociologically-informed memoir of a year I spent avoiding mirrors. Although this was mostly a personal journey, the book is framed around sociological, historical and psychological research and theories. [Editorial note: Kjerstin is also involved with the organization About-Face, which educates and supports young women and girls to deal with media messages that affect the body and self-esteem.]

Nicki: Well, I abandoned the traditional notion of scholarly work and the standard academic career path, and reconceived what it means to be a sociologist (for me). Now, I use my sociological training and expertise to conduct intellectually informed research, but I present it in forms that are consumable by the general reading public. I consider this a form of activism, because my work is designed to engage the public in thinking critically about their consumer relationship to social problems, and to encourage them to move away from identifying as consumers. Instead, I hope to encourage readers to identify as politically engaged citizens who have a responsibility to hold governments and corporations accountable. As part of my research, I network with and interview activists focused on issues central to my topic, and I include their perspectives in my writing. I have joined research and advocacy groups related to my areas of expertise, including Good Electronics and Electronics Watch, and am networked with China Labor Watch and Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior.

Sarah: Any words of wisdom or recommendations to those wanting to expand their work to include more activism or public sociology, or to make their work more relevant to the public?

Kjerstin: The MOST important thing we can do, as academics, to make our work more relevant to the public is to hold our academic writing to a standard that prioritizes accessibility over “sounding smart by using bigger words.” I think many scholars – both authors and readers – would love this, but we need to get journal editors on board too.

Nicki: I believe that sociological work is only as effective as the size of audience it reaches, or the population it impacts. So long as it is confined to academic journals and the limited population served by higher education, it fails in what I believe is its moral imperative to play a meaningful role in addressing social problems, informing social change, and empowering the public to make it. This work can take a variety of forms and happen in a wide array of spaces. It can manifest in government and policy settings; in community engagement and service; as on-the-street activism; teaching; writing; and reaching a wide audience through media that is publicly accessible. (Paywalls are anti-democratic and counter-revolutionary!) Certainly there are many other ways. What’s important is to keep in mind the bigger picture of social problems and social change.

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