Venkatesh on writing for a mass audience vs. a more scholarly audience

A review of Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy notes that Venkatesh finds himself between writing for the public versus academics. And the reviewer doesn’t like hearing about this tension:

There’s one more thing that’s irritating: Early on, Venkatesh tells readers that some sociologists at his Ivy-League institution look down on writing a book for the masses. And he describes being caught between wanting to be taken seriously as an academic and telling stories and reaching a larger audience. But that internal torture sounds hollow, and it seems pretty clear that Venkatesh, well-known already, likes the spotlight of mass appeal. So why not just drop the pretense and write?

While the average reader might not be interested in this tension, I feel I have heard versions of this conversation numerous times. But, which way the conversation goes tends to depend heavily on the context. At the more official sessions and events of the ASA, you get more of a push for the scholarly audience. The big names are present, there is a lot of conversation about theories and the latest research, and there are awards for he best scholarly work. At more regional meetings, you hear a mix. When teaching undergraduate liberal arts students, they often ask why academics tend to write in journals that relatively few people read. From their point of view, why become a sociologist if not many people pay attention to your findings and ideas?

Perhaps the reviewer is right: Venkatesh and others could just pick a side and go with it. Yet, there are clear consequences for such decisions. There are certainly sociologists who have gone the more mass market approach and done okay, even if their status within the academic discipline doesn’t rise accordingly or they are viewed by some as lightweights.

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