I ran into an interesting side job for a sociologist: host of History Detectives on PBS. This involves investigating artifacts like an 1864 military discharge letter signed by President Abraham Lincoln:
The first few hours of filming took place in the Grand Army of the Republic Museum, where Versagi talked about how the artifact was found, and then re-enacted the find by pulling a scrap of paper out of a prop box. Taping continued at a park where Versagi would meet “History Detectives” host Tukufu Zuberi, professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania, to show him the piece of paper. The “reveal” took place in a Springfield resident’s home, where Versagi listened as the PBS host told her the story of the artifact based on their research.
How exactly does a sociologist get this kind of job over historians? Here is how the History Detectives website describes Zuberi’s contributions:
America has a long history of social upheaval and cultural mood swings. These shifts leave clear signs of their passing. The trick is knowing how to read the signs, and interpret their meaning.
Tukufu is an authority on the subject. Under his scrutiny, even subtle signs can yield vital evidence about the events at a mystery’s core.
He also provides the team with a context for their work, relating descriptive accounts of living conditions in that particular place, at that particular time.
Being aware of the social issues, pressures, and problems of the day can sometimes help the team determine the triggers of a past event, and the motives of the people involved.
I also wonder if there isn’t a lot of room for a sociologist to talk about how mysteries develop and are understood by the public. For example, what is the social significance of an Abraham Lincoln artifact and why is Lincoln still so popular today (see an earlier post about another sociologists who tackles this)? Not everything becomes an artifact and there is a lot of work that goes into creating and supporting cultural narratives.
If you want to see a list of episodes Zuberi hosts, they are listed on his CV.